‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.


We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.

“The bishop bearing witness to the Cross” – Cardinal Woelki’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Bätzing

On Sunday, Bishop Georg Bätzing was ordained and installed as the 13th bishop of Limburg. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, gave the homily, which I share in my English translation below. The cardinal also served as consecrator of the new bishop, together with Bishop Manfred Grothe, who lead the diocese as Apostolic Administrator during the two and a half years between bishops, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the new bishop’s native Diocese of Trier.

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

An ordination – be it to deacon, to priest or, as today, to bishop – is always a public act; an effective action which changes both the person being ordained – although he is an remains the same person – and his environment. This is true even when an ordination must be performed in secret for political reasons. And so public interest, especially at an episcopal ordination, is a most natural thing. Today too, many eyes are focussed on Limburg; perhaps even more eyes than usual at an episcopal ordination. In recent years, the focus of the media on Limburg and its bishop has been too strong, if the question of how things would proceed now was not one well beyond the Catholic press.

The man who will be ordained as the thirteenth Bishop of Limburg today, is being sent to “bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted” (cf. Is. 61:1). He knows the wounds that need healing; he knows that the faithful in this diocese must be brought together and united again, and he knows the challenges which face not just the Church in Limburg, but everywhere, when she wants to proclaim, credibly,  Christ as the salvation of all people, also in the future. His motto, then, advances what has already been important to him in his various pastoral duties in Trier: he was and is concerned with unity in diversity – Congrega in unum. It is no coincidence that today’s ordination concludes the traditional week dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Diocese of Limburg.

The feast of the Cross and the Week of the Cross have a long tradition here, which is applicable in this situation. At the introduction of the feast in 1959 by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf its goal was to establish an identity in a young diocese. He chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as diocesan feast, with an eye on the relic of the Holy Cross kept in the reliquary of the cathedral treasury of Limburg. But not from this artistic and outstanding treasure of Byzantine art, before which one can linger in amazement and admiration like before an exhibit in a museum, does the Church in Limburg derive her identity. No, it is from that which is hidden within: the precious Cross of the Lord, by which we are saved. Only that grants the Church of Limburg, yes, the entire Church, her identity. The Apostle Paul knew this, and following him, everyone who is appointed to the episcopal ministry therefore knows this.

Our new bishop also knows. Because this is the heart of his calling and mission as bishop: to proclaim Christ, as the Crucified One in fact. He is not to proclaim Him with clever and eloquent words, so that the Cross “might not be emptied of his meaning” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17).

On the Cross hangs the unity of the Church, because from the crucified Body of Jesus the Church emerged. In her all the baptised are woven together. All the diversity of the Spirit, which animates and moves the Church, has its origin there. Understanding the mystery of Christ depends on the Cross. No salvation without the Cross! Without the Cross no Gospel, no Christianity! Only in the Cross do we recognise who God and who man is, what God and what man is capable of. We say that God is love. These horribly absurd, often abused and yet so eagerly awaited words gain their sober and exhilerating depth and truth against all kitsch and all shallow romanticism only in the light of the Crucified One.

Saint John the Evangelist reminds us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only son (cf. John 3:16). This was not an “either-or” devotion. It was not a game of God with Himself without us humans, no large-scale deception, no comedy. Christ died and so He become equal to us all, we who received everything that we have from God and who always violently want to “be like God”, on our own strength, as we can read in the first pages of the Bible, in the history of the fall. And then he, the Son of God, did not want to cling to His divinity with violence, like a robber, but He emptied Himself, became man, creature, became the second Adam, who did not want to be like God on his own strength, but wanted to be obedient until the death on the Cross. Only in this humiliation, in this selfless devotion to God’s love for us, He is raised: the Crucified One lives! The humiliated one reigns!

This is then the case: The God who we imagined as unapproachable, as fearsome, is dead, definitively dead! It was not us who killed him, as Nietzsche claimed, but this Jesus of Nazareth, He has killed him. But the true God lives, the God who came down to us, unimaginably close in Jesus Christ. This God lives, who we recognised on the cross as God-with-us, and whom we continue to recognise only through the cross of Christ, recognise in that complete sense in which recognition means acknowledging, loving, being there for others.

And so, after all, understanding this world and our lives also depends on the cross. Its image assures us that we are ultimately embraced by the mercy of God. That, dear sisters and brothers, is our identity as Christians and therefore also our identity as Church. That is what a bishop is to proclaim, even more, to live. Before everything, he is to be a witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decivise salvific act of God. From this everything else flows: our commitment to and engagement  with Church and society, our commitment to peace and social justice, to human dignity and rights, to the poor and homeless, to the suffering, the sick, the dying, to life, also of the unborn. Everything flows from the mystery of the cross, and so the bishop promises just before his ordination to care for all, to be responsible and seek out the lost to the very end. “Tend to my sheep,” (John 21:16) does not mean, “Tend to my sheep where it is easy, where no dangers lurk.” It means to protect every human being as God Himself does – also there where it becomes abysmal and dark; where people lose themselves, where they put trust in false truths or confuse having with being. God knows how vulnerable we people are, and how much care and mercy each of us needs to live in such a way that it pleases God: not loving ourselves, but God and our neighbour. The cross is the reality of this love which desires to exclude no one, but which also recognises the “no” of those which it addresses. The openness of the most recent Council to a universal understanding of divine salvation allows us to see those who believe differently, only half or not at all as potential sisters and brothers. Such an understanding of and relationship with all people also permeates our Holy Father, when he wants to cure the sickness in ecclesial and social coexistence with the medicine of mercy (cf. Jan Heiner Tück).

As universal sacrament of salvation the Church only has one single Lord: Jesus Christ. God Himself anointed Him (Is. 61:1). That is why we always must ask ourselves what He wants from us and where He wants to lead His Church. The future of the Church is critically dependant on how the different charisms that God has given us can be developed. At the time that Bishop Kempf established the feast of the Cross it was, in addition to establishing an identity, about bringing together unity and diversity, centre and periphery in the young diocese.

This program can not be better summarised than in the new bishop’s motto: “Congrega in unum“. Also today, it is the mission of a bishop to discover charisms, recognise talents, guide developments, allow unity in diversity: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom. 12:4-5). Where he succeeds in this service, oaks of justice can grow (Is. 61:3) and plantings can develop through which the Lord can show His justice (61:3) – in the heart of history, in the here and now, in the heart of this diocese. Where this service is successful people are encouraged and empowered to imitate and let God guide their lives – also when He may lead them, for a short while, “where they do not want to go” (John 21:18). We humans may be sure – in all hazards to which we are exposed or expose in faith – that we are protected by God; He has entrusted the bishop with the most valuable task that He has to give: “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:17).  Nothing more – but that absolutely.


Photo credit: Bistum Limburg

“Room for the Risen One” -Looking back at the installation of bishop Timmerevers

On 27 August, Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers was installed as bishop of Dresden-Meißen. Here on the blog it went sort of unmarked because of the summer season, but here is the translation of the homily Bishop Timmervers gave on that day.

There are a few interesting comments to be found, not so much about the future direction he wishes to take in managing the diocese, but of a more theological nature. Comments about the centrality of the person of Jesus and our constant need to seek Him out, but also about what it means that we followed a resurrected Jesus, the need for vocations and recognising Jesus in the faces of the poor and needy.

160509-timmerevers-250“Dear sisters and brothers here in the cathedral and in the courtyard!
Dear fellow celebrants via the screens!


The first encounters with faithful from our diocese took place during the Katholikentag in Leipzig. Various people often addressed me with the words, “Are you not our new bishop?” “Yes, I am!” We usually exchanged a few words and then I was often told, “We look forward to you very much!” – sometimes followed by the addition, “Hopefully you will stay a bit longer!” “That is what I’m expecting”, I answered.

Dear sisters and brothers! Since a few weeks my identity card includes the line ‘Schloßstrasse 24, 01067 Dresden’. I want to grow new roots here in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen and make my home among you. The words I frequently heard – “We are happy with you!” – I gladly answer them now, “I am also happy you!”


A person entering the cathedral is soon taken with the altar statue, created for this church by Anton Raphael Mengs in 1752. Christ, the crucified and risen one, is being taken up into heaven. It is an Ascension image.

In the reading we have just heard a part of the Letter from the Apostle Paul to the Colossians (3:1-4). They are the verses which we always hear on the feast of the Ascension of Christ: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”

It seems a remarkable coincidence to me, that I chose my episcopal motto from these verses 15 years ago, and that it is now held up to use in the form of this great image. “Seek, where Christ is!”. “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” What is above is Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, become man for us, crucified, died and buried, but then risen from the dead, He returns home to the Father. Through the Spirit, which He has poured out over the entire world, and which He continues to pour out, He is among us. This is the Jesus Christ with whom we are concerned, with whom Christians are concerned, He is the heart of our faith and life. This also seems a wonderful coincidence to me: Bishop Joachim chose the motto “Jesus in the centre”; Archbishop Heiner the motto “Rejoice always, the Lord is near!”. And I chose as motto: “Seek, where Christ is!” It is all about Him!


Perhaps some would wonder, “Why should I seek Christ, what does that mean to me?” What it means to me, I have heard already in the first line of today’s reading: “You were raised with Christ!” One who is united to Christ through Baptism, has received a new life with Him, a life which does not end with death. Even more: the person baptised holds life within him, which today, now, gives us the strength and courage to face the challenges of life. Who seeks Jesus, finds direction for his life. Who seeks Jesus, finds clarity amid the many meanings presented by this world. Who seeks Jesus, finds with him the power of love, which conquers all division! Who seeks Jesus, finds a peace with Him, which the world can not give and no man can create! To quote Pope Benedict: “By relying on Jesus, you lose nothing, but gain everything!” You gain quality of life! How many of us, gathered here together, can say: It is worth seeking Jesus and entrusting yourself to Him!


Where do we find this Jesus Christ?

The statue of the Ascension in the cathedral provides an initial answer. The Church is the place of the risen, and indeed this, our Church, today, which constantly needs renewal and vitalisation through the Gospel. This Church, which has suffered under division since the Reformation, this Church, which every now and then can give a credible witness of love and mercy, this Church is the place of the Risen Lord! And in this Church the Lord is present in His Word, which is proclaimed and lived; He is present under the signs of bread and wine; He is present in the ministries of our Church. He is present when we come together in His name.

The faithful in the communities of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen have, over the past years, been working with a process of exploration. What matters is to find ways in which as many people as possible in Saxony and eastern Thuringia can come to know and encounter Christ. I want to familiarise myself very soon with this process and I want – as soon as possible – to visit and get to know the responsible communities.  I agree with the basic conviction of this process: the Church is the space of the Risen, the parish as the home of the Risen, the community coming together, is a place of the Risen! And then, dear sisters and brothers, the responsible communities established in this process of exploration will also be places of the Risen.

Amid all the questions and searching, with their arguments, clarifications and decisions, which must be made for a new structure for the pastoral care, and in trying to be a living and inviting Church, we all share the responsibility together to give the Risen One space among us. How can this be experienced?

The abbot of a great religious order told me that, when he would visit the various monasteries of the community, he would ask two question and speak with the monks about them. The first question: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One?” And the second question: “Do you have vocations?”

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to ask yourself these questions: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One, and do you have vocations?” In thinking about what the future will brign for our communities, what matter is that we create room among us for the Risen One! Who approaches Him in thought, question, search and in word and deed, will experience His peace.

The second question, “Do you have vocations?”, is internally connected to the first one! The Risen One calls people to be priests, religious. the Church needs these vocations! The Risen One calls the baptised and confirmed to come together with their gifts and abilities and work together on building up the Church! In the peace of the Rison One we can be Church together and have an effect on the world!


The Church does not exist only for herself: we have been placed in the world, we live in it and with our lives we witness to the Good News! “Seek where Christ is!” Christ Himself shows us an even greater horizon, where we we look for and can find Him. In the Gospel that we hae just heard (Matt. 25:31-40), Jesus speaks about the final judgement and presents to us what will be asked then. These questions make our lives today very concrete!

Jesus says something unimaginable, He identifies Himself with the suffering and needy of this world. Whoever seeks Him, finds Him in the hungry, the thirst, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. He takes the suffering out of their anonymitym He gives them a face, His face! And so He can say, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”.

Christ broadens our horizon! Being Church and being Christian is not realised by staring at heaven, Christians do not remain within the churches, however beautiful these are! Being Christian means not being satisfied with looking inward in sacristies and parish houses! In seeking Christ we arrive at those who – for whatever reason – are in need! That is where we are all called!

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to go with me. Let us seek where Christ is!

I rejoice in you!


To be an instrument of the Lord – Bishop van den Hende’s catechesis talk at WYD

World Youth Day 2016 is over, but here is a translation of the third catechesis given to the Dutch pilgrims over the course of the week-long event which saw several million young Catholics gathered in Kraków. This catechesis, which in its message mirrored the call by Pope Francis to young Catholics to get off the couch and act, was given by Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende. Like during  previous editions, the bishop’s talk could count on an ovation at the end.

Bishop van den Hende speaks about the popular image of divine mercy and what it means to be an instrument of the Lord.

“Dear young people, I was just given the advice to put mercy into practice by not given you catechesis today. But Jesus’ message of mercy does not come in easy bite-size chunks and is not a matter of just swallowing it. A merciful attitude – in imitation of the Lord – is for us a matter of practice and therefore there is catechesis after all.


1. Image of the merciful Jesus

The topic for this day is: Lord, make me an instrument of your mercy. When I was thinking about this beforehand, and this became even clearer these days, I had to think of the person of Jesus Himself. Especially the image of Jesus, such as here in the church of divine mercy.

Hyla%20blue%20largposter%20copyThe image of the divine mercy was created following the direction of Sister Faustina (1905-1938). In this image Jesus points at His heart, He looks at us and you a read and a white beam. It is an image of Jesus who gave His life out of boundless love for us. In the Gospels we can read in the passages about his passion and death on the cross about a soldier who stabbed his side with a spear, causing blood and water to flow (John 19:34). In the image of the divine mercy Jesus looks at us and He points at His heart. He shows that He wants to give everything for us, even His blood. He saves us. And the water reminds us of Baptism.

The person of Jesus has been on our minds for days. You see Him everywhere. The front of our pilgrims’ booklet even shows the two beams that are part of the image of divine mercy.  And we have also seen the image at the shrine of Sister Faustina here in Krakow. Yesterday when we welcomed the Pope, Pope Francis said that Jesus lives and is among us. That is what is most important about this World Youth Day. The Pope may take the initiative for the WYD, it is Jesus Himself who comes to us and is among us with all the gifts we need (Matt. 28:20b).

Pope Francis calls Jesus the face of God’s mercy (misericordiae vultus). In Jesus, the incarnate son of God, we can experience and hear how great the mercy of God is for us. We can look upon Him every day, whether in this image or a cross in your bedroom at home. Every day, you can take the step towards Him, to approach Him, to put your hope in Him and find your strength in Him. Not just on the day on which you have exams, or when things go bad, but you can come to Him every day anew.

Underneath the image of divine mercy, Holy Sister Faustina wrote in Polish: Jesus, I trust in you. In the great church of the shrine of Sister Faustina and the divine mercy, where we were last Tuesday, this sentence was whispered into a microphone several time: Jesus, I trust in you. That could perhaps be your first step, to consciously start each day by going to Jesus: I trust in you, it will be a good day with You, whatever may happen. We encounter the Father’s mercy in Jesus. His heart shows that His love for us is eternal. He is always willing to forgive. Many of you have received the sacrament of penance and reconciliation in these days. It is good to always conclude the confession of your sins with these words: I trust in you. We experience God’s mercy in the things Jesus doesd and says, solemnly put, the acts of the Lord. In the Gospel we read that Jesus heals people, consoles them, forgives people and puts them back on track with renewed courage. Jesus lets His heart speak and you can see and hear how great His mercy for us is. Look at Jesus, listen to Him, go to Him every day and say: Jesus, I trust in you. And perhaps you can take a further step and pray: Jesus, make my heart continously more like yours, that it may be involved with the things your heart is involved with: love, forgiveness, justice, solidarity, new life.

Santa-Faustina-2-760x747Sister Faustina, who only lived to the age of 33, wanted to share the message of God’s mercy. She said: this is so important, I cannot remain silent about this, I will tell this. She only went to school for three years, but she took up the pen and wrote. In the texts, Jesus calls her “His secretary of mercy’. She was an instrument of mercy. In order to make the limitless mercy of the Father known even more – for in he 1930s, like now, there was much crisis, threat of war, violence, discrimination and hate. Especially in a world of sin and evil God’s mercy must be announced. Sister Faustina wanted to do that, she wanted to be an instrument of mercy, a secretary of mercy.

2. To be an instrument of the Lord

When it comes to being an instrument of the Lord, we are part of a good tradition. In the history of our faith there are many who have answered that question with an eager yes. Yes, with your help. Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was asked as a young woman to be the mother of the Lord. At first she doesn’t know what to say: I don’t even have a husband, how can this be? But then she says, I can be an instrument of your plan with the world: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In this way Mary consented to being the mother of Jesus. Another example of Saint Francis (1182-1226). Just now we prayed: make me an instrument of your peace. That prayer is attributed to Saint Francis, who had converted and was praying before a cross at a ruined chapel. He approached Jesus and said: Lord, what can I do for you? How can I be your instrument? And the Lord said, rebuild my house. Francis immediately went shopping, so to speak, collected all sorts of building supplies and repaired the chapel, making it wind and watertight. But then Francis found that it wasn’t about the church building as such, but about the people who were the Church, it was about the Church of Christ as the network of love in which there was indifference and unbelief, and such a gap between rich and poor. The prayer you prayed this morning deepens the question: what should I do? I want to be your instrument, Lord. So, in the great tradition of our faith there are always people who have the courage to be instruments of the Lord. Such as the Blessed Virgin in the Gospel and Brother Francis in the course of his life.

In his encyclical Lumen fidei, the Pope explains that it may sound a little clinical, a person as an instrument. As if you are a screwdriver, while we are people with a name and a heart. It ay sound as if you are just a cog in a great machine, and that it doesn’t really matter what you contribute. But the Pope says: do not let yourself be belittled, do not think that you are just a small part, but think of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31) to which you belong. Not a finger can be missed, not an eye, not a toe, not an artery. The tone should then not be: I am just a part. No, you are (no matter how small) an instrument in the great work of God. You can do even the smallest task as a part of the greater whole of His body, the Church, close to Christ. However small your task is, you take part in the work of the Lord and in that no one can be missed.

 3. To be an instrument of the Lord: to accept or hesitate?

What do you do when the Lord ask you: do you want to be my instrument? Do you hesitate, do you accept? Do you ask for time to think? That is often the same as hesitating. In a shop the  shopkeeper knows very well that, when you say you want to think about it, you are probably going to buy it over the Internet.

When the Lord asks you to be His instrument, you may feel that you are too young, or not strong enough in your faith. But take a look in the Bible, you are not alone in that. Remember the prophet Jeremiah. When God asked him to be a prophet, Jeremiah answered, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” (Jer. 1:6). But the Lord said: It is me who is calling you, and when I call you it means that I will also give you the strength and talent to do it. And Jeremiah said: Lord, send me. Als remember the Apostle Peter, who hesitated at first. He saw the Lord and the abundant catch. But Peter did not say: “How wonderful”. No, he says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). And what about the Apostle Paul? He was at first a persecutor of Jesus and His disciples, and he looked on with arms crossed when Stephen the deacon was stoned (Acts 7:58). When Jesus calls him, Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles”, and considers himself as born abnormally (cf. 1 Cor. 15:8-9).

4. How good do you have to be to be an instrument of the Lord?

There are great examples of people who have said yes, and there are those who at first hesitated, such as Jeremiah, Peter and Paul. But in the end they did accept, for they found their strength in God. When we say to Jesus, “I trust in you,” we take the same step as Peter and Paul. Whether you are small or young, sinful or haven’t discovered many of your talents yet.

How good do you actually have to be in order to become an instrument? In the Gispel there are remarkable examples about this, such as the tax collector Levi, who works for the emperor and collects a major bonus for himself. This does not make one popular, as it is unfair. Jesus passes him and says, “Follow me”. The Pharisees wondered: How can Jesus call someone like that? A sinner, someone so untrustworthy! But Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:27,32; see also: Mark 2:13-17). If that isn’t mercy! Pope Francis also refers to this special calling, but in the Gospel of Matthew (9:9-13). He speaks of the tax collector Matthew, sitting at the customs post. The Lord sees him and says, “Follow me. Pope Francis applied this to himself, and his motto is ‘miserando atque eligendo’. This means as much as ‘being chosen by mercy’. The Lord did not come for the healthy, but for the sick to heal them (Matt. 9:12).

The Lord calling and needing you, that is what ultimately matters. It is the Lord who has a plan with you and who calls you and gives you the means in His mercy. So it’s not you being ready with all your talents and thinking, what’s keeping Him? No, the Lord Jesus sees us and calls us to accept His merciful love and accept Him as the basis of our lives, and in turn to be His instrument of mercy. When the Lord calls you, He also gives you the talent. He enables you to be His instrument of mercy. Jesus looks at you and calls you to accept mercy. Do not say that you are too busy or not suited to being an instrument of the Lord. That is no reason for saying no. At my ordination to the priesthood I also wondered, why me? But at the same time I thought, I am not worthy, I am not holy, but you called me (“non sum dignus neque sanctus tamen tu vocasti me“). When He calls and invites you, that is the basis for saying yes. So when Jesus asks you to be His instrument, have the courage to say yes. At the ordination of a deacon or priest, the ordinand says, “Yes, with the help of God’s grace”. Jesus calls and gives you His grace. He wants you to be His instrument and also gives you the tools to do it. Saying yes is very specific. In the first place it is prayer. Like Mary, like Peter and Paul. Going towards the Lord is the first step: here I am, what can I do for you, I know you have a plan for me, for you have called me since my first hour (cf. Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139; CCC 27).

5. Being an instrument of Christ: very specific

“Be merciful like your Father is merciful” is the theme of the WYD.

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, takes centre stage today. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt. 25:31-46). To all these works of mercy you can think of people who have been an instrument of the Lord. Think for example of Saint Martin (ca. 316-397) who shared his cloak with a poor man on the side of the road. And think of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia (1207-1231) who have bread to the hungry and nursed the sick. Putting the works of mercy from Matthew 25 into practice makes being an instrument of mercy very tangible.

But there is more in Chapter 25 of Matthew. Before speaking about the works of mercy, Jesus tells a parable, namely a parable that we should be vigilant (Matt. 25:1-13). You must use your eyes well to see what is needed, and your heart open for the Lord who comes. Or else you risk sitting ready with your talents, but never taking action. That is abit like the fire station with a closed oor, where nothing ever happens. So be vigilant, what do you see with the eyes of the Lord? In Matthew Chapter 25 Jesus tells another parable, namely that you must use the talrnts God has given you, struggles and all (Matt. 25:14-20). You werent given your talents to bury them in the ground in an attempt to never make mistakes. No, be vigilant, keep your eyes and heart open and use your talents. The you can get started on the works of mercy: comforting people, correcting and advicing people, bear annoyances. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus says this to each of us.

6. Being an instrument of mercy, together with others who are instruments: as Church being one community of called, in service to the Lord.

You need not be able to do everything as instrument of mercy. The one may be able to listen well, and the other visits the sick without fear of infection. You need not be able to do everything, but choose what you are going to do. You are to be part of the Church, in which many are called and work.

You can be glad for the talents of others. And finally: encourage each other. Hunger and thirst, tears and loneliness remain. But get to work. Get up according to your calling and the talents that go with it. Hold on to each other. Jesus asks you to have confidence. And when you fall, ask to start anew in the light of God’s forgiving love. You are a human being according to God’s heart, with a name and a unique destiny. As an instrument of the Lord you have your own share in the mission of mercy that the Lord has entrusted to His Church.

I hope and pray that you will begin every day with looking towards the Lord, choose what you can do for Him, keep your trust in Him and support each other not to quit, because the mercy of the God is much to important and great for that. Thank you.”

More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

While it is far from the main point of Amoris laetitia or the Synod of Bishops assemblies that preceeded it, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is one that has kept people occupied both during and after the publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation. That is in part due to the fact that Amoris laetitia does not give a clear answer*, although Pope Francis has indicated that he does not aim to change Church teaching with his text. And current Church teaching is that people whose first married is considered valid and who are in a relation with someone else are objectively adulterous and thus can not receive Holy Communion. Of course, the bare words of the law do not – and can not – take the specific situation of every couple into account, and are therefore necessarily general.

Amoris laetitia instead discusses the pastoral approach to people in such situations, and this is the place where the specifics of an individual relationship, marriage, divorce and second marriage can be discussed and interpreted. That still does not mean that the law can be changed there, but it is the place where understanding can be given, different ways in which a person can be a part of the life of the Church (a major focus of the Exhortation) and also where solutions to normalise their situation (called ‘irregular’ in Church legalese) can be found.

I have seen many comments which interpret the legal considerations as some form of punishment for people failing in marriage. This is of course not so. The law deals with factual situations, not with the reasons for the existence of those facts (although these can be taken into account when a court is asked for an opinion or verdict in a specific case).

In the end, and I have said this before, Jesus Himself gave the perfect summary of how to relate to people who, for whatever reason, failed to live up to the ideal. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we read of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. After an episode in which He confronts the scribes and Pharisees with their own hypocricy, the Lord tells the woman that he will not condemn her (mercy, the pastoral approach), but also that she should not sin from then on (the law). The law is clear, but never asks for the condemnation of people.  Jesus forgives our past mistakes, but also asks us not to make the same mistakes again. And in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics it is clear that this means that we should not condemn the people concerned, but welcome them into our Church communities. But at the same time it is clear that they can’t continue in their objectively sinful state (just like the woman in the Gospel can’t continue sleeping around with other men). What exactly can and must change in each specific situation is a matter for the pastoral sphere, where the law provides a framework.

And here Pope Francis’ sadness, expressed during Saturday’s flight back from Lesbos, at how too many people only focus on this specific question, becomes understandable. The context of the mistakes made is not inconsequential; their causes lie elsewhere and affect the entire edifice of marriage and family. It is about more than Communion (which no one has a right to, anyway): it is about broken families, divorce, adultery, economic uncertainty, unwillingness or inability to get married, falling birth rates… Yes, access to the sacraments, or lack thereof, is one of the consequences of these crises, but we should not make the mistake of considering it the only one.

Yes, there is a development of doctrine, as many have said. Not of its roots, which lie in the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church, the bedrock on which the faith grows, but in the application, the choices we make which result in the tree of faith bearing much fruit. We need both, roots and fruit.

*And no, that infamous footnote 351 is no clear answer either, as it mentions sacraments, of which there are seven, and not Holy Communion to the exlucion of the other six.

The obligation of compassion – On Lesbos and St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.

naamloosIt is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.

Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?

St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.

Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.