Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

“Ordered pluriformity” – Pope Francis explains the gifts of hierarchy and charism

Pope Francis received the participants of the plenary session of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in a private audience today. He also addressed them and, unsurprisingly in this Holy Year, his main topic was mercy. But there is more to his words than most would expect.

OSSROM93175_Articolo

^Pope Francis with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation, and, at left, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, Archbishop of Valencia and one of the members of the congregation.

Too often, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is depicted as an opponent to Pope Francis and his attempts to reform the Curia and, especially, emphasise the importance of Christian mercy and mission in modern society. This stems from a perceived opposition between mercy (and, by extension, the practical application of faith and its consequences in society) and doctrine, as if the two are not complementary. We must show mercy, but we also need to know what that mercy is. It is the congregation’s duty to safeguard that, to ensure that what is being said and done in the name of the faith is indeed in agreement with that faith.

In his address, Pope Francis emphasised the complementarity between mercy and doctrine when he said,

“[H]ierarchical and charismatic gifts are called to collaborate in synergy for the good of the Church and of the world. The testimony of this complementarity is all the more urgent today and it represents an eloquent expression of that ordered pluri-formity that connotes all ecclesial fabric, as reflection of the harmonious communion that it lives in the heart of God, One and Triune.”

In other words, the Church and the world need both the gifts exhibited in the hierarchy, or that part of the Church which is called to teach, and those of the various charisms, the fruits of the Spirit which become visible in the faithful everywhere in the world. The Holy Father speaks of an “ordered pluriformity”, a term which in itself summarises this complementarity I referred to above. This complementarity, the Pope continues, is an expression of the essence of the Trinity.

Another important element that Pope Francis mentions, albeit in the context of synodality, is proper understanding. Instead of seeing mercy as “being nice” and doctyrine as “being mean”, we must make a proper endeavour to understand both, on their own and in relation to each other. There is no opposition, no fight between the two. Rather, the struggle must be about knowing, developing and displaying both, to come “to an ever more realized, deepened and dilated communion at the service of the life and mission of the People of God.”

In last message, retiring Bishop Hurkmans hopes for unity

In what is likely to be one of his last – if not the last – messages to the faithful of his diocese, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans looks ahead to the upcoming appointment of his successor. He acknowledges that waiting can be a good thing – it makes us look at ourselves and our place in the Church in the diocese – but it should not take too long. The retiring bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch expresses his hope that the divisions in the diocese can be overcome, and that people will be willing to work with the new bishop, to find a greater unity and so to give a strong witness in society. These hopes are not without reason. In recent years we have seen more than a few clashes between the diocese and more liberal groups of faithful – most recently, a priest was even forcefully removed from his own church by a group who wanted to do things their own way. These divisions are a witness of strife, of anger, of closemindedness, not of faith, hope and love, nor of the joy of the Gospel. Cooperation with the new bishop should not be done “to please or praise him, but to strengthen the Church of the diocese”.

Bishop Hurkmans in the monthly newsletter from the diocese:

4ae8de7b-b9ab-4df9-938a-0a0b20ae4a22“In this newsletter I would like to catch up with you. Many people keep asking me, “How are you now?” Underneath often lies the question: how will things go with our diocese now? I can happily say that my health is a lot better. And, together with many of you, I anxiously await the appointment of the new bishop. That this needs time is to be expected. In most cases the preparations for the appointment of a bishop take about a year. But it would be good if the appointment would happen soon. An interval can be good, but it should not take too long.

What is good about an interval? Everyone marks time. We are being thrown back on ourselves a bit. What is my place in the Church? How do I contribute to the whole of the Church of the diocese? A bishop can mean a lot for his diocese when he is united in his duties with his priests, his deacons, with all who work with him in pastoral care and with the faithful. The future of the diocese depends for a major part on, let me put it like this, how we position ourselves. It would be very good if we accept the new bishop gladly and really think and work with him. Upon his appointment, let us strongly search for unity with him, in order to grow in unity with him. Not to please or praise him, but to strengthen the Church of the diocese. A strong witness to society may be expected of us in our time. This is what the Gospel asks, and so do the many people who need the richness of the faith. A divided witness is never strong. That is why I desire unity. This unity can not be restrictive, but must be built on love. The unity of a family. I pray and hope that the divisions in our diocese can be overcome. That there is an inner unity between those who stand with the people in their daily life and faith, and those who serve to maintain the larger context. After all, we all want to be Catholic and we all orient ourselves on Pope Francis. This is part of our Catholic identity.

In the context of the particular situation in our diocese it is especially beautiful that we have been given a Year of Mercy by our Church. Of course, there are initiatives. There is a Holy Door, there are prayer cards, meals are organised and I hear of parishes taking care of refugees. But it is also important that we give God’s mercy a place in our lives in a personal way. Directed at ourselves in prayer, but also directed at the people directly around us. To experience God’s mercy in prayer allows us to deal with others openly. It tears down prejudiced opinions and ideas which we can have of others.

Lastly, I would like to refer to Lent. We will soon begin our preparations for Easter. Once again, as Christians, we can become who we are. It is a good tradition to restore personal relations during Lent, to restore the relation with God and contribute to restoring good relations in the world. We can not remain indifferent to the people affected by wars, by attacks, to people who have to flee, who are persecuted for their faith, to sick people living in institutions or on the street, to people in prison, to the many lonely people in the world. Especially during Lent, we must try and find the steps to take to restore relations. As Church we have the commandment to be open to the world.”

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

12348027_1519573191703090_3620166911912104879_n

“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “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. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Opening day – Holy Door opens in Groningen

Without doubt the first time in history: a Holy Door in my own cathedral, the church I attend. Bishop Gerard de Korte was one of countless bishops opening Holy Doors in their cathedrals or other churches (all other Dutch bishops opened at least one today). As a ceremony it was unfamiliar and logical: Prayer, a reading from the Papal bull, Misericordiae vultus, and a procession to the Holy Door while singing the hymn for the Holy Year of Mercy. By the time I rounded the corner of the cathedral, the bishop had already opened the door.

The Holy Door, which is usually unused and closed, serving as an emergency exit at best, is located between the main entrance and the door to the parish hall. Within the cathedral it opens onto the right aisle at the pieta. In a fitting coincidence, the stained glass window above it shows the crucifixion, the greatest act of mercy of all.

Having witnessed the ceremony at my own church this morning, and new seeing photos on social media of bishops doing the same at churches across the world gives a wonderful sense of unity: we really do have a Church unlimited by human boundaries. Jesus is everywhere, as is His mercy.

I posted a few photos on my Facebook page, and I’ll share some of these here.

holy door

^About an hour before the opening of the Holy Door, the outside decorations were being installed.

holy door

^Decorated but closed.

holy door

^The faithful gathered beside the cathedral, ready for the short procession to the front.

holy door

^Bishop de Korte begins with prayer.

20151213_111006

^The Holy Door is open, the Holy Year of Mercy has begun in our diocese.

holy door

^First in: The Word of God

After the Ad Limina, Bishop Schwaderlapp on the “erosion of faith”

In his homily for the second Sunday of Advent in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary of that diocese, looked back on the recent Ad Limina visit of the German bishops. The full text of his homily can be found, in the original German, here, and below I present a translation of the relevant section concerning the Ad Limina. It touches upon some of the most frequent criticism against the German episcopate and church, and succeeds, in my opinion, in indicating where the solution lies.

schwaderlapp“Everywhere he went, John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That promise that John proclaimed can only enter into our hearts when we are willing to repent and begin anew. Repentance is painless when we want and demand it from others. It only becomes real when it is about me personally. Where do we need to repent? Where do I need to repent? When about two weeks ago we German bishops were in Rome for the Ad Limina visit, the Holy Father gave us a speech to take with us, one peppered with warnings: Clear words! In it, he speaks about the “erosion of faith” in our country. I once looked up on Wikipedia what erosion means: Improper land use removing especially fertile soil.

Dear sisters and brothers, the Church in Germany is certainly the best financed and best organised in the entire world. But what do we actually do? How can it be that – with all the means at our disposal – we must conclude that knowledge of and belief in the faith are ever more decreasing?

Are we really taking our mission to proclaim the faith seriously? We do it in other areas. For example: in our archdiocese, in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, hundreds of thousands, who are working with young people, are being trained. They must follow a set curriculum. Is there a similarly compulsory curriculum about questions of faith? No! Pope Francis has said, “New structures are continuously being created, but there are not faithful to fill them.” Are we obsessed with structures? In short, a word that is a warning for us as bishops and the Church in Germany.

And the Holy Father continues with what the erosion of faith means to him concretely. He discusses the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Holy Mass – the gift of God’s presence par excellence! Fewer than 10% of Catholics in our archdiocese attend it on Sunday. And when, because of decreasing numbers of priests, Mass times change or even, in some places, a Mass is no longer possible on every Sunday, a whole range of people stays away from Holy Mass. Has the Holy Eucharist become a sort of folklore in our lives, to embellish our Sundays? Our is it the foundation of our lives?

We are talking about new beginnings needed in our Church. Indeed, that is needed. But one thing is clear: When we do not make the first call of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, our own, when we do not make the call of John the Baptist our own, when we do not rediscover Confession as a place of God’s  mercy, there will be no new beginning! We can not make a new beginning by ourselves, but only implore God’s mercy for it.

Let us also ask ourselves: what does my faith look like? How seriously do I take it? How seriously do I take the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance? Do I try to deepen my attitude, my practice, to really experience this great gift of the mercy of God?”

The true spirit of the Holy Year of Mercy

12310548_731823440286073_6495785121618758678_nIn his homily during the Mass for the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy, today, it seemed clear that Pope Francis considers this Jubilee inextricably linked to the Second Vatican Council, which ended fifty years ago. He called  for the Church to once again take up the missionary that the Council called for in reaching out to the people of our time, and not to neglect the spirit which came forth from the Council, which is the spirit of the Samaritan. These are interesting comments, as the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II”, with good reason, continues to send shivers up more than a few spines.

It is good, therefore, to realise that Pope Francis’ is a different one than the one people have claimed to belong to the Council: the spirit which says that the liturgy is mostly about doing things, and which has led to all sorts of liturgical experimentation. That false spirit is a very limited one as it concerns itself only with what we do in our Church buildings, and generally only in the sanctuary for that matter. The spirit that Pope Francis names, the one of the Good Samaritan, has a far wider scope. It goes out into the world, helps people by bringing them to God, even if the road is long and the steps small. “Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel,” the Holy Father said.

Outreach, joy, Gospel. Three words that, in addition to mercy, obviously, should play a major role in this Holy Year. And not just in the big structures of the world Church, among the prelates and priests, but also, for the major part, in us, the faithful who profess faith in Jesus Christ, who want to follow Him in His Church.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. It means, for most of us, a change in our behaviour and habits. It begins, I believe, with finding out what mercy is, by looking at the examples given by Jesus Christ. I intend to look into that over the course of the year, at irregular intervals in this blog.

May the Holy Doors, which, starting today, will open in many churches in the world, be an invitation to us to enter into God’s mercy, not only to receive it for ourselves, but especially to pass it on to others, in and outside the Church.

Photo credit: CNA