“Seeing with the eyes of the Lord” – Christmas message from the bishops of Utrecht

In their Christmas message, the archbishop and auxiliary bishops of Utrecht look back at the Holy Year of Mercy, urging us not to let the fruits of that Year go to waste. We should always try to look at others with Jesus’ eyes, as the logo if the Holy Year shows us.

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“At Christmas we celebrate that our God became visibly and tangibly among us in the Child of Bethlehem, our Lord Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has said about him, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1). The Holy Father wrote these words when he announced the Holy Year of Mercy on 11 April 2015. This Holy Year began with the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and subsequently with the opening of Holy Doors in all the world’s dioceses. In our Archdiocese of Utrecht, these were in Utrecht, Hengelo and Groenlo. The Holy Year is now ended, or perhaps we could say, whisked by. But we should be watchful that what the Holy Year of Mercy has brougth us, will not simply disappear. For this year has brought the Church – also in the Archdiocese of Utrecht – much that is good and encouraging.

mgr_%20hoogenboomAs bishops of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we are very grateful to the Pope for the past Holy Year of Mercy. Much has been received and shared in our parishes and establishments, in faith, hope and love. Much work has been done to make the Holy Year a reality in the liturgy, catechesis and charity. Both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy have been frequently highlighted and put into practice. People – young and old(er) – have received the sacrament of God’s mercy – the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, or Confession – and that is a source of great grace and joy.

One has confessed for the first time in his or her life, the other sometimes after many years. That confession could have taken place in the parish, during the World Youth Days in Krakow or during a pilgrimage, such as the one to Rome. As bishops we have emphasised to our priests, deacons and pastoral workers the importance of a good preparation for the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation for children, before they make their First Holy Communion.

woortsWe are very grateful to our priests, deacons, religions, pastoral workers, coworkers, catechsists and all our volunteers for all the good and blessed work they have done for the success of the Holy Year of Mercy!

A high point in this Holy Year was without a doubt the pilgrimage that we made with some 2,000 people from all dioceses of the Dutch Church province to Rome, the ´eternal city´. Among them were some 200 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Utrecht. That pilgrimage has deepened and enriched our faith and being Church. Especially noteworthy was the Eucharist celebrated on the ‘Dutch day’ (15 November) in St. Peter´s, followed by the welcome of Pope Francis and his address to the Dutch faithful. The Pope was happy and impressed by such a large and enthusiastic group of pilgrims from the Netherlands. He was moved when a Catholic refugee from Syria presented him with a booklet detailing what has been done in and by the Dutch dioceses and parishes for the reception of refugees.

As mentioned, the Holy Year is over. The Holy Doors are closed. But the door of God’s merciful love is not – that remains always open for us and all people! And from this love we Christians are and remain called to make God’s mercy tangible and visible, especially to those who are ignorant, helpless or poor. Our Lord Jesus keeps asking us to look, to see with His eyes.

logoIn the Eucharistic celebration on the Dutch day, Cardinal Eijk said, for that reason, that the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy, the logo that was especially designed in Rome for this Hole Year, should remain etched in our minds. After all, it is a striking logo that highlights so clearly that mercy is a key word for the Christian faith. This logo depicts Jesus carrying a man on his back. It is based on the parable told by Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke (15:1-10). This parable speaks of the shepherd with a hundred sheep of which one gets lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to search for that one lost sheep.

We could wonder: who would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for that one lost sheep?! Isn’t that shepherd taking a lot of risks?! Shouldn’t he be leaving to sheep to its fate? The parable was told by Jesus in this way on purpose to show how far God will go to search for people who have strayed from His paths and save them. For that reason God became man in Christ and made Himself the sacrifice, through His suffering and the cross, that was needed to expiate our guilt and return us to God.

When we look at the logo closely the following becomes clear: Jesus has two eyes, and the person He carries on His back as well. But no matter how often we count those eyes, there are always three. The designer did this in purpose to make us think. It indicates that Jesus and the suffering person that He is carrying on His back and saves, share one eye together, so to speak. The logo expresses the following:

In the first place the logo invites us to look at our neighbours with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, that is: with His merciful and forgiving love. We shouldn;t certainly be concerned about moral shortcomings, but then especially about our own. When it comes to others who cause us harm, let us then consider them with Jesus’ eyes. Try, as it were, to share one eye with Him. This is the message of the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy: as the Lord looks at us with loving and merciful eyes, so look at your neighbours and be prepared to forgive them when they have done you wrong, and offer them new chances when they show remorse.

This is frequently the advice of a spiritual counsellor or confessor to someone who struggles with the people around him, especially because they find it difficult to forgive them their unpleasant traits and habits : “try to look at him or her with the eyes of Jesus”.

This is helpful. When we commit ourselves conscously to this and pray to the Lord to let us look at our neighbours with His eyes, He will not remain silent and comes to us with His grace.

There is a second layer to the logo, a second message. Jesus sharing one eye with that person in need shows that He looks in mercy at our need, our difficulties, our pain and our sorrow, with our eyes, as it were. He can do so with our eyes because He Himself became man and freely submitted Himself to the conditions of our lives, which – to put it mildly – are not always advantageous. He experienced this Himself too. Jesus makes our need, pain and sorrow His own and looks at it with our eyes. This means that Jesus makes our life His own and He can do so more than anyone.

Jesus making our lives His own, is something He also says in Matthew 25:

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

And there is more: in this context the logo also invites us to look at our neighbours in need with Jesus’ eyes of mercy, and the sense of compassion, and really make their lives our own.

I happily wish you, your loved ones and all people of good will a blessed Christmas and God’s blessing for the new year 2017! A new year to look at each other and others, to see with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, of whom we celebrate at Christmas that He came among us through His incarnation.

With His eyes he continues to look at us, for us with His endlessly merciful love.

Utrecht, Christmas 2016

+Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht

Msgr. Th. C. M. Hoogenboom
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

Msgr. H. W. Woorts
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

The question of being human – Bishop Neymeyr’s message for Lent

In his message for Lent, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt tackles a difficult question – “what does it mean to be human?” – and arrives at a twofold answer. In the process he also discusses the humanity of refugees, something we must always endeavour to recognise, especially when confronted with the problems and challenges that come with accepting and sheltering people from different cultures.

The Holy Year of Mercy also gets a look in, as do the works of mercy.
BischofUlrichNeymeyr_BistumErfurt_Portraet_jpg300

“My dear sisters and brothers,

“What is being human?” At the start of Lent I invite you to reflect on this question, as it leads us to the current challenges of this year. “What is being human?” We think of other concepts, such as understanding, kindness, helpfulness. Someone who is human, sees needs and tries to alleviate them. The countless people who have come to us as refugees in recent months, experience such humanity. Many people in Thuringia consider it important not to describe or treat the refugees as a stream, flood or mass, but as people who fled out of necessity. Even when our country has to send people back when there is no danger for life and limb in their homeland, they are people, who should be treated humanely. We can not be indifferent to what happens to them at home. This striving for compassion – also with refugees – unites us with most people in Thuringia. As Christians we are bound to be more than compassionate, namely charitable. Jesus identifies Himself with people in need: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matt. 25,35). In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity!” (N. 15). Charity can also be stirred by the fate of people far away, especially when they come from the distance of the news as refugees to our neighbourhood.

The motto of the Katholikentag, which will take place from 25 to 29 May 2016 in Leipzig, leads us to another dimension of being compassionate. It is “Here is the man!”, in Latin: “Ecce homo!”. They are the famous words with which Pontius Pilate introduces Jesus to the crowd after He was brutally tortured, i.e. scourged (John 19:5). The man Jesus becomes a sacrifice for injustice and self-interest, of fanaticism and political circumstances. Someone who is human, who sees people, also sees the inhuman structures and can not stay out of politics. We lament the fate of our fellow Christians who are exposed to discrimination and persecution in Muslim and communist countries. No faith group is persecuted so much globally as Christians. In a free country we can and must raise our voices against intolerance and repression. We must also ask critically if Germany, shaped as it is by Christianity, is committed enough to the rights of our persecuted fellow Christians. The use of our freedom can not fall victim to political or economical interests. The Katholikentag in Leipzig should be a forum where the political consequences of the Gospel will be struggled with. I gladly invite you to participate. It is worth travelling to Leipzig for, even for one day.

You may perhaps have thought of a very different answer to the question, “What is being human?”, namely, “To err is human”. Another word for being human is ‘imperfect’. The wellknown sentence “To err is human” comes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus. From the Irish author Oscar Wilde comes the sentence: Everyone has a weakness and that only makes him human.” Both quotes remind us of the human characteristic of making mistakes, to not abide by the rules, even violating own principles. The Apostle Paul describes this human behaviour briefly and concisely in his Letter to the Romans: “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). Paul calls this the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). In the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis calls us to entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, with our tendencies and sins. In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis writes, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands” (N. 17). Dear sisters and brothers, I want to encourage you to receive the sacrament of Confession. I know that it is not easy to look at our own humanity and sins. There is also much that we can’t simply change from one day to the next. But when we accept our weaknesses and ignore our sins, nothing will change. When we, however, take a good look at them and express them in Confession, we hold them towards the mercy of the heavenly Father. We find that we have been accepted by God, we experience the liberation of a new beginning – and who knows: the mercy of Jesus transformed the greedy tax collector Zacchaeus, and he freely returned what he took unjustly.

“What is being human?” The answers to this question are twofold: imperfect and charitable. Our language indicates an inner connection: When we are and remain aware of our own imperfection, our understanding for and charity towards other people increases. As we rely on the mercy of God, we are prompted to show mercy towards other people. Especially in the land of Saint Elisabeth, the wish of the Holy Father, which he directs at all in his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, should find fertile ground: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead” (N. 15). You may find the works of mercy in Gotteslob, under number 29,3.

In the Elisabeth Year of 2007 the works of mercy were reformulated for us today in Thuringia:

  • You belong.
  • I listen to you.
  • I speak well about you.
  • I am travelling with you a while.
  • I share with you.
  • I visit you.
  • I pray for you.

Dear sisters and brothers, I wish you a blessed Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy and invoke over you all the blessing of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Your bishop, Ulrich Neymeyr”

“Peace, purity and consistency” – Cardinal Eijk’s message for Lent

In his message for Lent, Cardinal Wim Eijk looks ahead at the Gospel readings for this time, “a tried and tested method of focussing more on God in this period”. After discussing what Lent means in this Holy Year of Mercy, he also takes on a topic which Pope Francis also discusses frequently: the reality of the devil in our lives.

To the elemtents of “peace, purity and consistency”, which are important for our spiritual lives in Lent, the cardinal adds a fourth one: mercy.

There’s more, too, in my translation of the text:

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Politicians in the 21st century are a bit like mountaineers: the go from one summit to another. At the end of 2015 the climate summit was held in Paris, for example, seen by many as a “last chance” to save the climate. After days of negotation an agreement appeared, of which we hope that it will be upheld by all parties.

In January of this year there was a summit of another sort: in the Swiss winter sports tonw of Davos the World Economic Forum (WEF) too place, where leading business people and politicians came together. After the industrial revolutions of the steam engine, mass production and information technology, a fourth industrial revolution is nigh, the World Economic Forum says. One of the elements of that fourth industrial revolution is that soon as many people in the world as possible will be connected to machines and each other via the Internet. Sensors which can read signals to activate machines when they are needed, are increasingly being integrated in clothing and jewelery, while a rose-coloured future of robots and self-driving cars by means of the Internet was presented in Davos.

There are undoubtedly many advantages, but a population connected and exchanging data through the Internet does not automatically make true human contactsm which is the sort of contact by which the exchange of data leads to an encounter with the other as a person. Contacts in which we really listen to the other’s story and not immediately weigh every word on our own inner value scales. Contacts in which drinking a cup of coffee together is more than enjoying a beverage together, because the one you are drinking it with has a chance to tell his story. Contacts in which we have compassion and sympathy when the situation requires it. And the situation requires it more often than we sometimes wish…

The world currently has great need of such compassion and sympathy, Pope Francis concluded. Partly for that reason he has called for the Holy Year of Mercy, which we are living in now. What the fourth industrial revolution can never bring, is what Pope Francis hopes to see as the result of this Holy Year; a ‘revolution of tenderness’. For that reason the Church must strongly emphasise her tradition of mercy, the Pope claims.

We are now at the start of Lent. This time of fasting offers a special opportunity to come clean with yourself. And not only with yourself, but also with your neighbours and with God. It is a forty-day ritual of purification – of the body, but especially of the soul. By stepping from what does not really matter, by separating the main and the side issues and so focus more on God, we come closer to our own identity: we are children of God, who is merciful Father for us. In the Bull Misericordiae vultus, in which Pope Francis announced the Holy Year of Mercy, he wrote with reason: “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (Misericordiae vultus, 17).

The Gospel readings in Lent are a tried and tested method of focussing more on God in this period. In Luke 4:1-13 we read, for example, about the temptation of Jesus by the devil, when He spends forty days in the desert. The demonic temptations should not be seen symbolically only, as Pope Francis has emphasised several times. In the 21st century, the figure of the devil remains a reality. “We are all tempted, because our spiritual life, our Christian life, is a battle. Because the devil does not want us to become holy, he does not want us to follow Jesus. The devil’s temptations have three main characteristics, and we have to be aware of them in order to not to fall into his trap. What does the spirit of evil do to snatch us away from Jesus’ path? The temptation begins subtly but then it grows and increasingly grows stronger. Secondly, it infects someone else. It spreads to another and seeks to take root in the community. Fonally, to calm the soul, it seeks to justify itself. It grows, spreads and justifies itself” (Pope Francis, The Devil exists, daily meditation held on 11 April 2014, in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae).

We must take care to always remain vigilant, for demonic temptations often seem appealing. Just like decay masks itself with a sweet scent, so that we realise too late what we are dealing with.

In Luke 9:28-36 Jesus, accompanied by some of His disciples, ascends the mountain to pray. In this way He wants to be closer to God. Jesus frequently goes up a mountain to be with God and when we follow Jesus this also has to be a regular part of our lives.

Lent can help us to (spiritually) reanimate our prayerful relationship with God. It isn’t always easy, with all the distractions of the modern 24-hour economy, to find that solitude. There is, after all, so much distraction around us. The devil is sometimes called “the great tempter”. He tries to tempt man to do the bad and not the good. But the devil manifests himself in our time just as often as “the great distracter”. Instead of focussing on God, there is always something else that ostensibly requires our attention. The devil makes convenient use of this to distract us from God. The rule of “peace, purity and consistency”, used by young parents for their children, may be of use to us here. For us as children of God, this rule remains valid for our entire lives: find the peace of prayer, always aspire for spiritual purity and pray consistently: good habits are, after all, also hard to unlearn.

In the parable of the fig tree without fruits (Luke 13:6-9), which we read about on the Third Sunday of Lent, the owner threatens to have the fig tree cut down as it hasn’t born fruit in three years. Jesus quotes the vinedresser who answer the owner: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down”. In this vinedresser we can recognise Jesus, “the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae vultus, 1), who is always willing to give man a new chance and for that purpose gives His life on the cross.

We too keep getting every opportunity to be nourished. In a very special way we receive that nourishment on Sunday in the celebration of the Eucharist, when we hear to the Word of the Lord and when, by receiving Holy Communion, we encounter and receive Christ. This inner attitude of mercy expresses itself outwardly in performing the works of mercy. The tree is known by its fruits, according to a saying with Biblical roots.

On the fourth Sunday of Lent we hear one of the best known parables in the Bible. In it, Jesus speaks about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The father receives his child – who was lost because of sin and who wasted his inheritance – with open arms. This parable has become a symbol of the boundlessness of Gods mercy: He keeps watching for His prodigal children. Hoping that they will recognise their sins, return to their senses and so also so Him. Rembrandt depicted the embrace of the Father and His prodigal son strikingly in a famous painting. The Dutch bishops chose this painting as a logo for their publications about the Year of Mercy, such as on the website http://www.heiligjaarvanbarmhartigheid.nl.

Lent is a frutiful time for us faithful, and in the Holy Year of Mercy it gets and extra dimension. Pope Francis added to this by the initiative of “24 hours for the Lord”, which will be held on 4 and 5 March. In his Bull says about it: “So many people, including young people, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace” (Misericordiae vultus, 17).

On the request of Pope Francis, a Holy Door has been opened in one or more churches in every diocese in the world. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht there are three: in Utrecht, Groenlo and Hengelo. People can pilgrimage to these churches and there are special celebrations and activities for the Holy Year there.

Pope Francis decreed that whoever goes through a Holy Door earns a full indulgence. The Eucharist must be celebrated and the sacrament of penance and reconciliation (confession) must be received thereto. This sacrament, often forgotten in the Netherlands, opens the path to the mercy of the Father. But we are also called to perform the works of mercy ourselves. There is much to do, so that can not be an excuse – there are no less than seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Performing these works of mercy should obviously not be limited to the Holy Year. We should be permanently reformed to a better version of ourselves in this Holy Year of Mercy.

In our archdiocese we also answer to the call of Pope Francis to bring the sacrament of confession into the spotlight anew. For that purpose there will be “celebrations of mercy” in our parishes, which include the adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Several priests will be available for confession during these celebrations. The Dutch bishops will, in line with Pope Francis’ request, ask priests, deacons and pastoral workers to introduce children who are receiving their First Communion to the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

God always wants the best for us. I pray that this Lent can be a new beginning, also for those who believe they are far removed from God the Father. For He always waits for us and wants to give us His mercy, so that we can become new people. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before. Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it? Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in wastelands.” (Is. 43:18-19)

I wish you all a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Utrecht, Ash Wednesday 10 February 2016

Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht”

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.

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^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.

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

holy door

^First in: The Word of God

God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:

korte

“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).

Holy Doors in dioceses – a handy list

12852504-The-famous-Holy-Door-at-St-Peter-s-Basilica-in-Vatican-Rome-Italy-Stock-PhotoEDIT: As the Holy Year of Mercy is now over, the link in the text below no longer works. The Holy Doors are closed, but, as Pope Francis said, “the true door of mercy which is the heart of Christ always remains open wide for us.”

As part of the Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin next month, Pope Francis has  called for so-called Holy Doors, not just in Saint Peter’s and the three other Papal Basilicas, but in every cathedral or other important church and shrine in the world.

As he himself explains in the Papal bull Misericordiae vultus (n. 14):

The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.”

In the sidebar at left I have made a link to a page listing the Holy Doors in Northwestern Europe, in the dioceses of the Netherlands, Flanders, Luxembourg, Germany and the Nordic countries. The list is far from complete, as dioceses have only begun to announce the locations of Holy Doors in the past few weeks. But as more dioceses announce it, the list will continue to be expanded.

Photo: The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.