“We have learnt that God is with you” – New bishop of Passau looks ahead

As Germany’s youngest ordinary came into his own, he outlined the goals and direction of the Church in the Diocese of Passau. Bishop Stefan Oster was consecrated on Saturday by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, metropolitan of the province of which Passau is a part, and Bishop Wilhelm Schraml, the retired bishop of Passau, and Archbishop Alois Kothgasser, retired ordinary of Salzburg in Austria, who Bishop Oster succeeded as professor of dogmatics at Benediktbeuern Abbey. The passage below comes from the new bishop’s closing remarks, at the end of the Mass at Passau’s cathedral of St. Stephen.

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“In these biographical notes, something is visible of what in my opinion is central to the direction of our Church in the future. In the first and foremost place it is about relationship. In the very first place a living, deep and supporting relationship with Christ. Be confident that that really exists, that it is not just a matter of thoughts and words, but that the encounter with the Lord really and concrete fulfills, supports,  transforms and in the deepest sense of the word can save and sanctify a life.

This is the miracle: the encounter of Jesus with us already exists in all of us, most especially in all who are baptised. The Lord is already there in each and everyone one of us. And that is why we, as Church, are already a community of encounter and witness, even before we do something. But the Holy Spirit likes us to work with Him. That is why all of us, who already belong to Christ, are also called to put this encounter into practice, to deepen it and also to help one another to enter more deeply into this encounter and to open up to one another again – and so to bring our Church in Passau and everywhere else to love in His power. We are called to be witnesses to each other of the presence of Jesus in our lives: in word and action. Another assignment for the future is also that we really open one another up to make new spaces for encounter and communication of faith, in which we can honestly and openly ask, seek, worship God and also give witness. We need this space, because in it the sacraments can once again be new nourishment and a new wellspring for us. We need them because, for example, they allow us not to leave the central mystery of the Eucharist as a 45-minute visit to the Church behind us, but actually the source and summit of our Christian life, as the last Council tells us.

I am also convinced that we do not have to let ourselves be divided into camps, standing against one another in the end. Of course there are more conservative and more liberal Christians, but we must be careful not to become a cliché and a caricature for the other. So I want to invite us: let’s maintain the dialogue and share the way. Let’s not demonise each other, because the other is seemingly part of the other camp. Let’s trust each other, and acknowledge that the other is also honestly seeking God – and for exactly that reason considers certain things especially important.

In the liturgy booklet you have seen that my motto is: “The victory of truth is love”. We sometimes find in our Church that some insist perhaps too much on the truth, and then sometimes succumb to the temptation of thinking that honest compassion for the neighbour is secondary, only an option when everything is formally correct. And we also see the opposite, a great multiplicity of affection for the neighbour or even the demand for this gift, but with little concern for the truth, given the great variety of situations in life. Dear sisters and brothers, both lead to marginalisation: truth without love remains abstract and ultimately betrays the one who, as Truth, is at the same time Love personified. And the other way around: Love without truth often does not even deserve the name Love, because it ultimately leads to arbitrariness. The united middle road, truth lived as love and vice versa: Love which testifies of the truth, this middle road leads to victory and has a Christian name: holiness.

Of course, holiness is a very big word, but don’t you think that holiness has, in the first place, to do with your or mine ability? It’s not a sort of competition sport in prayer or spiritual exercises. Holiness grows in the hearts of all people who always open themselves anew to the love of God, who allow themselves to be really touched and transformed by it. Holiness grows in who honestly seek Jesus, love Him and let themselves be loved by Him. Holiness is then God’s will for all of us, not just for bishop or all so-called ‘professional’ Christians. It is rather that the bishop, the priest, the deacon and all men and women who are called to the service of the Church, also have this vocation, as they help others to discover ever deeper that they are also called to holiness, to the deepest belonging to Christ.

Dear sisters and brothers, everywhere where this mystery of holiness shines out anew in one or more people, there the Church begins to grow anew, there people are being touched by a presence,which works more than a mere assembly of people could. There people are attracted and meaningful, encouraging, yes, life-changing encounter with the Lord take place. And then a prophecy is fulfilled, which the Prophet Zechariah spoke in the Old Testament, before the Messianic era (Zech. 8:23): “In those days,” we read there, “In those days, ten men from nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say: We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.” We, the Church of Passau and of course also beyond, we are these Jews. For we live in the time in which the Messiah, the lion of Judah, has already been seen, is already known. We are people who are related to Him, who carry His name. Let us then learn anew to know and love one another, so that the people also come to us and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.””

Kingship, tolerance and renewal – Mass to mark the arrival of the new king

In the run-up to tomorrow’s inauguration of King Willem Alexander there has been much attention paid to Catholic notions of kingship. While Christ is the one King, the Church also teaches much about the duties of earthly kings. Bishop Jos Punt’s homily is an excellent example of the latter. It also contains an interesting glimpse of the religious landscape of the Netherlands and the role of tolerance, as well as a theological explanation of the globus cruciger. Recommended reading (for Dutch readers, the original text).

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A recording of the Mass, by Dutch public television, may be viewed here.

In closing, some words by Father Jim Schilder, priest of the basilica of St. Nicholas:

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“Today is the fifth Sunday of Easter. But is also two days before the inauguration of our Crown Prince. That is, you could say, a moment of renewal. A threshold to a new era, without breaking with the past. That is also what we see in this time of Easter. On the one hand it is a time of revolutionary renewal through the resurrection of Christ, and on the other hand a time of a new covenant rooted in the old. It is still about the way that God wants to travel with us, about his continuous invitation to follow Him. We can do this by answering the call of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This goes beyond the two commandments He gave before, and which were already present in the Old Testament: To love God, and your neighbour like yourself. In the Gospel of John He asks us to love each other as He has loved us. His love was characterised by the fact that His entire earthly life was devoted to the other. “I have come to serve.” May the same, we pray, also be true for our new head of state.”

Photo credit: [1] Isabel Nabuurs, [2] Fr. Jim Schilder.

The Culture of Life, according to Bishop Farrell

FarrellDC2Just before the March for Life took off in Washington, Bishop Kevin J. Farrell, of Dallas, spoke about the Culture of Life in his homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is one of those homilies that, I imagine, Americans tend to be pretty good at: uplifting, positive and, most importantly, encouraging.

Although the past forty years have seen positive developments in the fight against abortion in the United States, but setbacks still exist, and in the face of them, Bishop Farrell writes, “we may feel like the “chosen people” of the Old Testament who wandered through the desert for 40 years. The Lord made a covenant with them that they would inherit the Promised Land, but with all the setbacks, the discouragement, the suffering and pain and the passage of time, they began to lose hope. Without faith, we too can begin to lose hope of ever changing the hearts of those who do not believe in the sanctity of human life. There is a real danger that we too can become complacent.”

But there is a strong reason to not give up: “Dear brothers and sisters, Christ has promised us that His Word will prevail. We cannot lose hope. We must continue the struggle in positive, life-affirming ways. We must pray and we must continue to make our voices heard so that our elected leaders know that there are many who stand for life. We must never give up…”

Good stuff, and an example for Bishop Farrell’s brother bishops – and all Catholics – in Europe. For those who want to read the homily in Dutch, you can do so here.

Photo credit: Nancy Phelan Wiechec/CNS photo

A prayer for life

prayerCoinciding with Advent, the Diocese of Breda has published a personal prayer for the protection of life. Drawing on the rich language of the Old Testament, the prayer, which is “a conversation with the One who gave life”, is composed from texts from the Books of Psalms and Isaiah. Deacon Fred van Iersel, who promotes Catholic social teaching on behalf of the diocese, explains:

“The dignity of the human person is the basic principle of the social teaching of the Church. All people are created by God and in His image and likeness. Every person received life from God. Life is therefore never our property. It is a gift to be cherished, and certainly so for new life.”

Psalm 139: 13-18

You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb.
For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders. You knew me through and through, my being held no secrets from you, when I was being formed in secret, textured in the depths of the earth. Your eyes could see my embryo. In your book all my days were inscribed, every one that was fixed is there.
How hard for me to grasp your thoughts, how many, God, there are! If I count them, they are more than the grains of sand; if I come to an end, I am still with you.

Psalm 8: 3-6

I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set firm – what are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and beauty, made him lord of the works of your hands, put all things under his feet.

Isaiah 49:15

Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.

Second readings

I don’t know about the custom in other parishes and churches, but I find that homilies often focus on the first reading and the Gospel reading, but tend to skip over the second one. Not to say that the first reading, usually from the Old Testament, or the Gospel reading are not worth spending many thoughts and words on, but the second reading, often from one of the letter of St. Paul, is also usually a rich treasure of devotion and knowledge of our faith. Take yesterday’s second reading for example, from the Letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14):

“Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. Such is the richness of the grace which he has showered on us in all wisdom and insight.

He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, according to his good pleasure which he determined beforehand in Christ, for him to act upon when the times had run their course: that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth. And it is in him that we have received our heritage, marked out beforehand as we were, under the plan of the One who guides all things as he decides by his own will, chosen to be, for the praise of his glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ before he came.

Now you too, in him, have heard the message of the truth and the gospel of your salvation, and having put your trust in it you have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance, for the freedom of the people whom God has taken for his own, for the praise of his glory.

Such an intricate text, which constantly doubles back in on itself, qualifying what came before, setting up what comes next. Saint Paul is surely not always an easy read, but one very much worth reading and reflecting upon.  It’s food for thought, and an inspiration that invites to delve ever deeper into our own relationship with God, to understand it, and Him, and ultimately ourselves as well. Faith, a relationship with God and living life accordingly, is not simplistic or backward. On the contrary, it is challenging and progressive. Just as the Holy Father said at yesterday’s Angelus, “[T]he work of Christ and the Church never regresses, but always progresses”, so our faith life always progresses, propelling us forward towards the ultimate realisation of who we truly  are, “adopted sons, through Jesus Christ”.

Art credit: “St. Paul reading and writing,” attributed to Guercino.

A new altar for Saint Joseph

Yesterday evening I attended an ordination. Although it wasn’t a person being ordained, and it wasn’t actually called an ordination, the Mass had the basic structure of a priestly ordination. The bishop did the honours, we prayed the Litany of All Saints, there was anointing and a first Mass. What ‘got ‘ordained’ then? A new people’s altar.

Together with a new ambo, it was a gift from the parish council to the parish on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the consecration of our cathedral, St. Joseph’s. The new altar replaces a fairly simple but heavy wooden table. This one is smaller and therefore makes the entire sanctuary appear bigger. With its flat stone surface and legs crafted into the symbols of the four evangelists, it matches the rest of the sanctuary well. The only distractions are the two candle holders. Blue appears nowhere else in the sanctuary, and although the candles are nice and big, there should be six of them. A minor complaint about an otherwise nice altar.

The smaller size of the new altar means that the number of concelebrants is practically limited. In yesterday’s Mass, the bishop concelebrated with his vicar general and the cathedral administrator, and other members of the cathedral chapter were attending in choir. It certainly makes the sanctuary look less crowded.

Why such an elaborate ceremony for what is, essentially, a piece of furniture, though? It shouldn’t be a surprise that in a Church, nothing is just a piece of furniture, especially when it’s in the sanctuary. That altar, in fact, is one of the most important elements in a church, perhaps second only to the tabernacle. It is where Christ becomes present for us, where His sacrifice and resurrection are made present again for us, from where we receive Him in communion. Everything we do, have and know in our faith comes from there. That is why a new altar needs to be changed from just a piece of furniture into a sacramental. It needs to be prepare for its holy service.

That is why it is anointed., which may be seen in the photo below: Bishop de Korte is anointing the surface of the altar. That is why we pray for the intercession of all the saints, just as we do when a man is ordained to the priesthood. Our prayers will aid in receiving and benefitting from what we receive from the altar. In the surface of the altar, relics are embedded, as an altar exists in connection with the graves of the martyrs and, eventually, with the altars that Abel, Noah, Abraham and other Old Testament Fathers erected. The consecration of an altar is also a public act, since the use of the altar is public: it will allow the community of faithful to receive the Eucharist, and thus be united in faith.

The altar is no longer just a piece of furniture. It is a tool towards our salvation.

Evening reflection: Good and evil

‘If the wicked, however, renounces all the sins he has committed, respects my laws and is law-abiding and upright, he will most certainly live; he will not die. None of the crimes he committed will be remembered against him from then on; he will most certainly live because of his upright actions. Would I take pleasure in the death of the wicked — declares the Lord Yahweh — and not prefer to see him renounce his wickedness and live?
‘But if the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong by copying all the loathsome practices of the wicked, is he to live? All his upright actions will be forgotten from then on; for the infidelity of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, he will most certainly die.
‘Now, you say, “What the Lord does is unjust.” Now listen, House of Israel: is what I do unjust? Is it not what you do that is unjust? When the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong and dies, he dies because of the wrong which he himself has done. Similarly, when the wicked abandons wickedness to become law-abiding and upright, he saves his own life. Having chosen to renounce all his previous crimes, he will most certainly live: he will not die.’

In the text from Ezekiel (18:21-28), God today speaks to us about doing good and evil. He recognises two different scenarios: a wicked man denouncing all evil he has done, and a good man turning towards the wicked. This text tells us that God looks more to changing behaviour than to the mere acts of a person. While something like, say, murder is undoubtedly evil, God does not say that the murderer is forever lost: no, a change in his behaviour towards the good, in whatever form, will be redemptive. What form this change takes is a question with many answers, which is not covered by this text.

In the same way, no one is eternally good. We all run the risk of doing evil things, consciously or subconsciously. God seems to take a change from good to evil much more seriously than the opposite. A good person may be expected to be aware of the reasons for his good deeds, especially when he does them out of his faith (and in the Old Testament, this may be expected to be a matter of fact). Now that we know God and have expressed our faith at our confirmation and every day anew in prayer and Mass, we have no excuse not to follow His lead. If we decide to go off the path, so to speak, God will judge us accordingly. We break a promise we made. And taking someone up on that is not unjust after all.