Goodbyes and welcomes – Bishop de Korte’s big day

It has been a busy day for Bishop Gerard de Korte, the culmination of what he himself calls a “confusing and hectic” week, but a day on which he also made a positive impression in his new diocese. The official announcement of his appointment came in a press conference where he, flanked by his new auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts and his predecessor Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, emphasised several times that the focus of his first year will be to get to know his new diocese and its people. And since he only learned of his appointment on Monday, he will not have spent his days formulating his policies before seeing where he was to be a bishop. Following the answering of questions from some 25 reporters assembled in the bishop’s house adjacent to the Basilica of St. John, Bishop de Korte met with the mayor of his new home city and then got a tour of the buttresses and rooftops of the basilica.

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In a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, Bishop de Korte describes his feelings and hopes for the coming time:

“Dear priests, deacons and pastoral workers
Dear ladies and gentlemen,

Last Monday our Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, came to Groningen to inform me that Pope Francis had appointed me as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

You will understand that the past days have been confusing and hectic for me. After seven and a half years I have to let go of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is very dear to me. Confident in Christ, you know my episcopal motto, and hoping for a friendly welcome in the new diocese, I accept this new assignment.

My appointment will also raise questions among you. What will happen now? Who will be the new bishop? At this time a few things are clear.

Until Saturday 14 May, the day of my installation in Den Bosch, the Pope has appointed me as Apostolic Administrator and I will continue to have final responsibility for the management of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

A major responsibility will by for the cathedral chapter in the coming time. The canons must choose a diocesan administrator for the period from 14 May until the installation of the new bishop. They also have the duty to create a terna, a list of three suitable candidate bishops.

For now I ask you to pray for me, that I may have the strength to continue working on the proclamation of the Gospel and the harmonious building of the Christian community. And to pray that the canons may make good decisions in wisdom.

I pray for a good future of our diocese and for a good successor who will want to work for a cordial and clear faith community.

With kind greetings and united with you in Christ,

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The Dutch Bishops’ Conference congratulated Bishop de Korte on his appointment. Conference president, Cardinal Eijk, said:

“We know Msgr. De Korte as a colleague who greatly committed himself for his diocese and provided with conviction an important Catholic voice in the social debate as holder of the portfolio for Church and Society on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. We pray for and with him that he may be a blessing for the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and sincerely congratulate this diocese with this appointment.”

Bishop de Korte spoke with the cardinal, who is in Rome for meetings of the Pontifical Academy for Life, over the phone and said that the latter congratulated him most kindly. But of course, the rumours that the bishop and the cardinal can’t stand each other remain…

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Wim van de Donk (King’s Commisioner in Noord-Brabant), Bishop Gerard de Korte, Ton Rombouts (mayor of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) and Bishop Antoon Hurkmans.

 Judging from the reactions on social media, people in ‘s-Hertogenbosch are over the moon with their new bishop, and in Groningen-Leeuwarden they are sad to see him go. Of course, there are other opinions of well. Father Cor Mennen, parish priest and member of the cathedral chapter of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and well-known for his orthodox standpoints, said that he is not cheering just yet. And, speaking as a Catholic in Groningen-Leeuwarden, I would say sadness is not the emotion I associate with the bishop’s leaving (but I am also not glad about it, either). I find myself looking forward instead of back: it is an exciting time as we await who the new bishop will be, and it interesting to see what the future will bring for Bishop de Korte and the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.

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Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.

In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:

bisschop Hurkmans“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.

Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.

Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.

Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”

Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.

“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”

duzijn jellema ordinationBishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.

In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.

Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s  greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.

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Bishop de Korte at an interfaith meeting against hate and racism in 2014.

 In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.

de korte eijkIn the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.

Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.

In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.

More to come.

Photo credit: [1] ANP RAMON MANGOLD, [2] Roy Lazet, [3] Leeuwarder Courant, [4], ANP, [5] edited by author

One day until number 10 – New bishop of ‘s -Hertogenbosch to be announced tomorrow

359px-Wapen_van_bisdom_Den_Bosch_svgThe rumours now strong enough that several media outlets have also announced it, we can welcome the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch at 11am tomorrow. The official announcement from the Vatican will follow at noon.

 Retiring Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, who announced his stepping back for health reasons in September, will either retire immediately, or stay on as administrator of the diocese he led for almost 18 years. If he retires immediately, it is conceivable that Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts will be appointed as administrator, although the cathedral chapter may also appoint another priest from their number. Bishop Mutsaerts, however, already took over a significant number of the duties of Bishop Hurkmans when the latter was taking it slower because of his health.

Bishop Mutsaerts is also the most likely candidate to become the new ordinary, judging from various polls and expert opinions. Other names mentioned are those of Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary of Utrecht; Msgr. Ron van Hout, vicar general of ‘s Hertogenbosch; Bishop Jan Liesen of neighbouring Breda (and former auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch); and even Bishop Gerard de Korte of Groningen-Leeuwarden (although this, in my opinion, is more reflective of his general popularity than anything else). Or it may be someone else completely, of course.

Whoever the new ordinary may be, he will be the first Dutch appointment for Pope Francis (not counting his appointment of Dutch Archbishop Bert van Megen as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan and Eritrea) and also the first that Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, Nuncio to the Netherlands since March of last year, worked on. This first Franciscan appointment in the Netherlands will be interesting in light of the continuity (or lack thereof) with the appointments made under Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope emeritus is responsible for the vast majority of Dutch bishops being appointed. One of the exceptions was Bishop Hurkmans himself.

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Location of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

The Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is the largest Dutch diocese in number of Catholics: 1.1 million in 2014, which is roughly half of the diocese’s entire population. It can trace its history back to 1559, when it was created out of territory belonging to the Diocese of Liège. In 1629 it vanished again, to be re-established as an Apostolic Vicariate in 1648. In the following centuries it lost territory to Breda and gained it from the Diocese of Antwerp and the smaller Apostolic Vicariates of Grave-Nijmegen and Ravenstein-Megen. In 1853, as the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in the Netherlands, ‘s-Hertogenbosch became a diocese again. The new bishop will be the tenth ordinary since then.

 

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

Jozef De Kesel returns to Brussels, but now as archbishop

In the end, Pope Francis decided to stick to the silent agreement: after a Walloon archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels comes a Flemish one. Succeeding Archbishop André-Joseph, who offered his resignation upon his 75th birthday in May, is Msgr. Jozef De Kesel, until today the Bishop of Bruges, where he succeeded the disgraced Roger Vangheluwe in 2010. Before coming to Bruges, Archbishop-elect De Kesel was auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels from 2002 to 2010.

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The new of Bishop De Kesel’s appointment broke widely in Belgian media yesterday afternoon, but it is only official now, upon the announcement in Mechelen-Brussels and later in Rome.

Bishop Jozef De Kesel is 68, which places him among the older active bishops of Belgium. A long ministry like that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels will not be forthcoming then. As the 24th archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels (before 1961 simply Mechelen), Archbishop De Kesel will lead the archdiocese with its three auxiliary bishops, Jean-Luc Hudsyn, Léon Lemmens (who has been tipped to succeed De Kesel in Bruges) and Jean Kockerols.

Iraq

Bishop De Kesel was most recently in the news because he journeyed to northern Iraq on a mission of solidarity with Tournai’s Bishop Guy Harpigny and Bishop Lemmens, an experience that greatly moved him. He likened it to visiting sick relatives, which is what you do to express your sympathy and concern. Back home in Bruges, Bishop De Kesel began calling on parishes to make housing available for refugees.

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^Archbishop-elect De Kesel and Bishop Harpigny in Iraq

Dealing with abuse

Bishop de Kesel has also had to deal with priests who have been guilty of abuse, like more than a few of his colleagues. Through his diocese, Bishop De Kesel has been very open about those dealings, though. In 2014 he appointed a priest who had been found guilty of abuse by a court of law, although any punishment was waived. This priest later chose not to accept the appointment. In recent weeks, Bishop De Kesel had to suspend a priest after he returned to Brazil against previous agreements. He also contacted Brazilian Archbishop Murillo Krieger to warn him against this priest.

First choice

Earlier this year, it became clear that Bishop De Kesel was the first choice to succeed Cardinal Danneels, but that Pope Benedict XVI overrode this choice, as he has the right to, and appointed Archbishop Léonard.

Criticism and views

Bishop De Kesel, while largely popular among faithful in Belgium and abroad, is not without criticism. In 2010 he said he hoped that women could one day be priests, although in 2012 he underlined that the Church is unable to do so. He also believes celibacy for priests should be optional, but also says that this a decision that the Church as a whole should make. No chance of married priests (barring converts or the like) in Brussels anytime soon, then.

While he is a practical man, not blind to the realities around him, the new archbishop does not think that modernisation of Church and priesthood is the answer to everything. In 2013 he said, “Modernising the Church will not mean that people will return.” He added, “More personnel will also not solve our problems. It goes far deeper. Filling as many positions as possible with lay people, or allowing priests to marry, means staying blind to the real problems.” He has a clear vision of the Church, saying in an interview on the occasion of his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2002: “The Church should not be a dictatorship, but neither should she degenerate into a half-hearted thing that denies its own values and visions.”

De Kesel or Bonny?

Some have suggested that Bishop De Kesel is a compromise choice, and that his time as archbishop is intended to prepare the way for Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to succeed him and make the real changes int he archdiocese. Considering that Bishop Bonny will be 67 when Archbishop De Kesel retires (and will have only seven years left before his own retirement), and Pope Francis 87 (if he has not retired by then), this is exceedingly unlikely. A future Archbishop Bonny will have no more time to affect changes than Archbishop De Kesel has now.

bishop jozef de keselBiography

Jozef De Kesel was born in 1947 in Ghent and raised in Adegem, halfway between Ghent and Bruges. His father was the town’s mayor, and his uncle, Leo-Karel De Kesel, would be an auxiliary bishop of Ghent for almost three decades. In 1965 he entered seminary and he also studied at the Catholic University of Louvain. He studied theology at the Pontifical University Gregoriana in Rome and was ordained in 1972 by his uncle. In 1977 he became a doctor of theology. In the 1970s he worked as a teacher of religion at several schools, and in 1980 he was appointed as prefect and professor at the seminary in Ghent, teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology, a job he held until 1996. He also taught at the Catholic University of Louvain from 1989 to 1992, and since 1983 he was responsible for the formation of pastoral workers in the Diocese of Ghent. In 1992 he was appointed as episcopal vicar in charge of the whole of the theological education and formation of priests, deacons, religious and laity in the diocese. He also became a titular canon of the St. Bavo cathedral in Ghent. In 2002 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and titular bishop of Bulna. His episcopal motto was inspired by St. Augustine: “Vobiscum Christianus“. Bishop De Kesel was appointed as episcopal vicar for Brussels. In 2010, Archbishop Léonard transferred him to the Flemish Brabant/Mechelen pastoral area. Three months later, Bishop De Kesel was appointed as Bishop of Bruges.

In the Belgian Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop-elect De Kesel is responsible for the Interdiocesan Commission for Liturgical Pastoral Care, for the contacts with the religious, the interdiocesan commission for permanent deacons, the commission fro parish assistants, for bio-ethical questions, for the Interdiocesan Council for Culture, the National Commission for Pastoral Care in Tourism, and for the Union of Women Contemplatives.

Installation

Archbishop-elect will be installed in Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold on Saturday 12 December.

More to come…

Photo credit: [1] BELGA, [2] Kerknet

Back home, Bishop Van Looy shares his Synod experience

In a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers in his diocese – in other words, everyone entrusted with the pastoral care of the faithful – Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy joins the ranks of Synod fathers looking back on the past three weeks. Bishop Van Looy does so not only as a diocesan bishop, but also as President of Caritas Europe. This focus already became clear in the first of two interventions he made at the Synod, when he spoke about the plight of migrants and refugees.

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^Bishop Van Looy (right) shakes hands with Cardinal Marx at the Synod. Photo credit: CNS

In this letter, Bishop Van Looy focusses on the three steps of listening, accompanying and integration when it comes to exercising mercy.

I must add that his focus on a new beginning, or that the time of condemnation and judging is over, seems to indicate a rupture with the past that simply is not there. The Synod did not go about inventing a new Church, but making the existing one more effective in her pastoral care. Too often I see this false opposition between doctrine (the past) and mercy (the future), or doctrine and reality. Sure, we can well speak of a renewed focus on mercy, of new ways of exercising pastoral care, but not without starting from the foundation that is there. Mercy is not complete without doctrine.

Anyway, on to the letter, which does reflect Bishop Van Looy’s enthusiasm about what was discussed and decided at the Synod.

To the priests, deacons and parish assistants of the Diocese of Ghent

Dear friends,

As you know, I participated in the Synod on The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the World of Today. It has been a remarkable experience of being Church, a true Church council. The attention of media from all over the world confirms that this Synod was of special significance.

Rightly there has been talk of the “tenderness of the Church”: she is mother and the Pope is father.

The atmosphere of friendship and shared responsibility which existed among the 270 cardinals and bishops, the 40 lay people and the 20 representatives of other Christian churches and 10 religious made a true impression. Not only were the continents together, almost all countries in the world frankly made their voices heard. This gave us the opportunity to listen to the great variety of traditions and customs in marriage. The cry of distress to give the millions of people living in refugee camps and shelters, or in precarious situations anywhere in the world a future in which they can live as a family in serenity and human dignity and can assure the education of their children, sounded strongly at the Synod.

The Church has taken an important step forward towards cooperation and shared responsibility. The Church we experienced there is new and provides a well-founded hope for the future. Cardinal Danneels said, “The Church has changed”, and Pope Francis said that “the pyramid is turned upside down”. Synodically speaking, much work remains in the local churches, in the regional structures such as bishops’ conferences and also centrally in Rome. The right attitude is mercy understood and listening, and “listening is more than hearing”. That is always the starting point, followed by “accompanying”, recognising the real situation in which every family finds itself, and lastly working for “integration” in the Church. All baptised are members of the Church, divorced and remarried couples are also welcome, no one is excommunicated.

In the parable the father invited both his sons at the table, the prodigal son and also the oldest son, both sinners if you will. This image clearly expresses what mercy means. The good Samaritan did not ask if the wounded man was a Jew or Greek, married or divorced. These images indicate that man was at the heart of the Synod, in his or her real context, not theory or doctrine.

What is expected of the Church and the bishops? That they are close to the people and speak with them. That they take on “the smell of the sheep” and so find out what God’s Spirit plans for them. Discernment of the Spirit, together with mercy, could be called the keyword of what the Church is to do.

It was rightly said that the time when the Church was out to judge or condemn is over. The Synod shows a new image of the Church. People in difficult situations are invited to “a greater and also more complete participation in the life of the Church. Growing towards that is the goal of the pastoral guidance offered to them” (final document, nr. 86).

The influence of Pope Francis is great in such an assembly. Even though he says nothing in the general assembly, his sympathetic and available presence shows a new image of leadership. His opening homily, the address at the 50th anniversary of the Synod, his speech after the voting and his homily at the final Eucharist showed that he wants to be a humble servant who does however state calmly but clearly that service to the people, in the first place to the poor, comes first. Every authoritarian attitude is alien to him, and he rejects it.

“We walked like the disciples of Emmaus and have recognised the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist, in fraternal communion, in the discussion of pastoral experiences” (final document, nr. 94).

I wanted to share this with you, and entrust this to your care. The past weeks did not only mark those present, they are also an assignment for us all. Together, we continue working on it.

With best regards,

+ Luc Van Looy

Further on up the road – the German Synod fathers look back and ahead

They continue to be the subject of much criticism. Some claim their views have been victorious at the Synod, others say they have not. Some say they are manipulating the media, relishing in their rebelliousness… Well, that’s all fine to write lengthy articles, opinion pieces and blogs about, but I continue detesting conspiracy theories, and rather take people at face value and at their word (which does not mean I agree with them on all matters). On that note, here is my translation of the message of the German bishops who participated in the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, at the conclusion of said meeting:

Dt Synodenteilnehmer

^The German participants in the Synod: Aloys and Petra Buch, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Archabbot Jeremias Schröder OSB

“We conclude the Synod of Bishops in Rome with gratitude. For three weeks we have debated and struggled intensively and encouragingly, controversially and honestly with representatives from all over the world, dug into theological questions and addressed the realities of life of the family. Above all, these weeks were a spiritual wealth: in the celebration of the Eucharist, in common prayer and fraternal conversation we have sought ways in which the mission of the family in Church and world can succeed.

At the basis of our deliberations, next to Holy Scripture and Tradition, were the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1). In this spirit we grappled theologically and practically with the needs of the family.

The Synod of Bishops took seriously the situation of families as they are: open, honestly, differentiated globally, but similar in many ways. Across all cultural divides, marriage and family are a constant value of human coexistence. We are therefore grateful to Pope Francis that he followed the synodal way on this topic. It began with the worldwide questionnaire of the Vatican and the Synod of last year. The current conclusion is not the end, but a colon. We must continue on this road for and with the family. No other global institution undertakes such a global contemplation with worldwide participation on the topic of the family.

The Synod has shown the great importance that the Church attaches to marriage and family. There was already a great consensus on this question during the deliberations. The Church encourages people to live marriage and family and the make an effort to continue faithfully on this way and endure difficulties. The Synod emphasised that the normal everyday life of the family is a witness. At the same time we are called to find ways to strengthen and accompany the family. This can happen, for example, by advocating in favour of the family in social policies, especially also for large families or single parents, using state legislation to promote the family and recognising its value for society. This must also and especially happen within the Church, for example through the corresponding training of pastoral workers to accompany families, through better marriage preparation and guidance, especially in the first years of marriage, but also through counselling services and facilities.

It became clear during the Synod that Church guidance is required, especially during times of hardship, for example when raising children is difficult, when family members are ill or disabled, requiring much care and attention, when spouses are fighting, when people are separated and remarry. Here it is important to recognise not only what the Church does, but also to say honestly where we have failed as Church: misconceived efforts to uphold Church teachings have repeatedly led to harsh and merciless attitudes, which caused people pain, especially single mothers and children born outside of marriage, people living together before or in place of marriage, people with homosexual orientation and divorced and remarried people. As bishops we ask these people for forgiveness, as we formulated in our working group.

We are grateful that the Synod has expressed  an appreciation for interfaith marriages and underlined the character of the path of life in marriage and family, while a more positive view of the path before marriage was also discussed. On the topic of divorced and remarried people the necessary distinctions of situations were addressed in the text. It was attempted to avoid generalisations. The Synod is clear that every situation in life must be considered individually. In hindsight we would have wished for more courage to deal with the realities more intensively and recognise them as signs of the times in which God wants to tell us something, but we also recognise that we have learned to go along with other cultures and experiences.

The Synod of Bishops advises the Pope. We will accompany the way forward with our prayers. Pope Francis now has the task to use the wealth of results for the Church. The Holy Father can only take decisions for the entire Church, where he always stand for the unity of the Church and the further synodal path, as he said himself in his historic speech last week.

What was considered in the Synod, we will develop and make concrete at home. As Church we accompany and live with the people, the spouses, the families, especially also with the oppressed, with their joys and hopes, sorrows and fears. Questions which occupy us now are these: How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?

The final text of the Synod of Bishops opens perspectives for action and gives impulses for further theological thought. That will also be incorporated in the message of the German bishops about marriage and family, which we are currently working on. What is important is this: the synodal path of the Church continues. Perhaps it has only just begun. The Church stays on the path and with the people, also in the questions of marriage and family. We, as Church in Germany, want to continue on this road with Pope Francis. Encouraged and strengthened we return to our dioceses.”

Photo credit: KNA