The first feast of St. Mary Magdalene – what it does and does not mean

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Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni, c. 1635

It’s odd. Pope Francis recently promoted today’s celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a feast, the same category as the celebrations of most of the Apostles, and almost all I read can be summarised as “Mary Magdalene is now finally an Apostle, so we will soon have women priests”. This is ignorant thinking, not hindered by a sense of history or an awareness of who St. Mary Magdalene is, and limiting her only to how she relates to her male contemporaries – oddly enough, something that proponents of the ordination of women would want to avoid.

The elevation of St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is not a change in her person, but in her importance for us. She does not suddenly become someone else, but her existing identity and example is underlined more, equated with the examples offered by most other Apostles (except for Sts. Peter and Paul, whose days, being solemnities, are of an even higher rank), or important event in the Lord’s life.

On today’s feast, we would do a great injustice to St. Mary Magdalene and her special role in the life of the Church by making her nothing more than a female version of a male Apostle. As if she has nothing to say or offer by herself.

In today’s Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Robert Sarah expounds on two attitudes of St. Mary Magdalene, “which can help all Christians, men and women, to deepen our commitment as followers of Christ: adoration and mission.” Worth a read to get to know today’s saint, not as a female copy of a man, but as an important example, the Apostle to the Apostles, in her own right.

In closing, the elevation of today’s feast says nothing about the ordination of women or other impossibilities. Rather, it has much to say about what St. Mary Magdalene has to offer: unrelenting commitment to the Lord, even when He seems to be absent, and a burning desire to follow His word and share His Good News with the rest of the world (and, in doing so, sometimes giving others a needed kick in the rear to get them going).

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

End of a chapter – Dachau’s last priest prisoner dies

At the age of 102 Father Hermann Scheipers passed away last night. He was the last surviving priest of Dachau concentration camp.

Seligsprechung des sorbischen Kaplans Alojs Andritzki

Fr. Hermann Scheipers in 2011, photographed in Dresden on the occasion of the beatification of Alojs Andritzki, who was killed in Dachau in 1943. Fr. Scheipers and Blessed Alojs were both in the camp’s sickbay with typhoid fever for some time.

Domradio has an obituary, written by Andreas Otto, which I share in English below:

As prisoner ‘number 24255’ Hermann Scheipers survived hell in Dachau concentration camp. Nevertheless, the priest and enemy of the Nazis survived, to die now at the age of 102.

Hermann Scheipers had a mission. He had to tell young people of that time: how he, as a young priest in 1940, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Dachau concentration camp, how he survived the war and how he was once again oppressed, this time by the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic. How he survived that time, too, he continuously impressed upon his listeners. On Thursday night Scheipers died in Ochtrup, aged 102. He was the last surviving German clergyman to have been imprisoned in Dachau.

In the Nazi eye

Scheipers hails from Ochtrup in Münsterland. As there were too many priests there in the 1930s, he decided to go to Bautzen in the middle German diaspora. There Scheipers, born on 24 July 1913, was ordained to the priesthood, and began working in the rural parish of Hubertusburg. Apparentry with some success. His self-assured Catholic work among the youth drew the attention of the Nazis. Because he was sympathetic with Polish forced labourers, celebrated Mass with them and heard their confessions, he was arrested on October of 1940 and brought to Dachau concentration camp five months later. His file, which he came across by chance,  states the true reason for his arrest: “Scheipers is a fanatical proponent of the Catholic Church and thus likely to cause unrest among the population.”

‘Number 24255’

The priest is – especially denigrating – taken to Dachau together with criminals. During the transport one of them wonders, “Well, did you sing out of tune from the pulpit?” Scheipers survived hell as prisoner ‘number 24255’. “You are without honour, without help and without rights. Here, you can either work or perish,” the camp commander welcomes the new inmates. Like many of the priests in Dachau, Scheipers slaves away as a field worker, receiving mostly watery soup to eat. Persons who aren’t fast enough are whipped, hung by the arms or drenched with icy water. Many die. “The only thing one could do was escape or pray,” Scheipers recalled.

Escaping the gas chamber

In 1942 an attack of weakness brings him close to his own murder. His twin sister Anna travels to Berlin, to the Reich security offices and bluffs to the head of the priest department: Everywhere in Münsterland people are saying that her brother is to be gassed. And if it comes to that, the Catholics there will not accept it… This civil courage has effect: he escapes the gas chamber.

Amid all the danger, Scheipers is aware of God’s help, even at that time. “I noticed this closeness frequently.” He can not forget how a fellow priest gave him his ration of bread before he was transported towards his death. “Everytime when I celebrate Mass and break the bread, I think of that.” In April of 1945, Scheipers finally manages to escape from a death march towards Bad Tölz.

15 Spies in the DDR

After the war he returns to his former place of work. As a priest in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen he resists those in power in the unjust GDR state. When Scheipers sees his Stasi file after the fall of communism, he has a big scare. 15 Spies were set on his case.  The papers show that a trial against him for distributing subversive propaganda was to be convened. “I was in Dachau for the exact same reasons,” Scheipers commented.

After his retirement Scheipers lives in Münsterland again, from where he travels again and again, despite the discomforts of age, to speak about his experience as a contemporary witness.

Of this his multiple-edition book ‘Gratwanderungen – Priester unter zwei Diktaturen’ [Balancing act – Priest under two dictatorships] – also speaks. This too is a  witness of his unshakeable faith, which he sees expressed in a word from Romano Guardini: “Security in what comes last gives serenity in what comes before.”

Dachau housed virtually all of the clerical prisoners of the Nazi regime: 2,720 clergy were imprisoned there, with the vast majority, 95%, being Catholic. As Fr. Scheipers’ story shows,the Nazis needed little excuse to arrest priests. The Church was a serious opponent to the National Socialist rulers who accepted loyalty to the party and Adolf Hitler alone. Many of the Catholic clergy prisoners have since been beatified, among them Blesseds Titus Brandsma, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Karl Leisner and the aforementioned Alojs Andritzki.

Fr. Hermann Scheipers’ death is a bookend to a formative period in recent history, not only of Europe, but certainly also of the Catholic Church and its relationship to state and government.

For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

Once again, west goes to east – Heinrich Timmerevers is the new bishop of Dresden-Meißen

After a 10-month vacancy, and just before it hosts the biggest national Catholic event of the year, the 100th Katholikentag, the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen has a new bishop. He is 63-year-old Heinrich Timmerevers, until today one of the five auxiliary bishops of Münster, where he was regional bishop for the diocese’s northern exclave of Oldenburg and Vechta. The news was announced today at noon in Rome and Vechta, where the bishop currently resides.

Weihbischof_TimmereversHeinrich Timmerevers was born in the small town of Garrel, southwest of Oldenburg, as second of six children in a farmer’s family, and attended school in nearby Cloppenburg, where he graduated in 1972. he studied theology and philosophy in Münster, where he also entered the seminary. For a short time he studied in Freiburg, but returned to Münster for his graduation in 1977. In 1997 and 1978 he attended a spirituality course of the Focolare movement, which he got to know in seminary, in Rome.

Bishop Reinhard Lettmann of Münster ordained Heinrich Timmervers in 1980. Until 1984 he worked as a priest in Visbek, not far from his native Garrel. He then became subregent of the Collegium Borromaeum, Münster’s diocesan seminary and was attached to the cathedral of St. Paul. In 1990 he returned to Visbek. He represented the kfd, the Catholic Women’s Community in the Oldenburg pastoral area.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed Fr. Heinrich Timmerevers as an auxiliary bishop of Münster, with the titular see of Tulana. At the same time, Bishop Lettmann appointed him as episcopal representative in Vechta for the entire northern area of the diocese. Bishop Lettmann, together with then-auxiliary Bishop Werner Thissen (later archbishop of Hamburg, now retired) and retiring auxiliary Bishop Max Georg Freiherr von Twickel (now deceased), consecrated him on 2 September 2001. Bishop Timmerevers chose the German phrase “Suchet, wo Christus ist” as his episcopal motto. In 2002, the new bishop joined the cathedral chapter.

In the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Timmerevers is a member of the commission for vocations and Church ministry and the commission for Adveniat, the German bishops’ charity arm for Latin America. In the past he was a member of the youth commission. Since 2012, Bishop Timmerevers is also a chaplain for the Order of Malta.

220px-Karte_Bistum_Dresden-MeissenBishop Timmerevers will be the ninth bishop of Dresden-Meißen since the diocese restoration in 1921. The diocese is located in eastern Germany along the Czech border, covering most of the state of Saxony and small parts of Thuringia and is part of the Church Province of Berlin, togetehr with the Diocese of Görlitz and the Archdiocese of Berlin. With the appointment of Bishop Timmerevers, all these sees are filled again. In Germany, the dioceses of Aachen and Limburg now remain vacant.

The website of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, which went offline for a few hours following the announcement of the new bishop, features a letter of Bishop Timmerevers to his new flock:

“Dear sisters and brothers,

Today Pope Francis appointed me as new bishop of Dresden-Meißen. In the past week, Dean Klemens Ullmann informed me of the election by the cathedral chapter. It moved and pleased me greatly, but also worried me inside. I took several days until I was able to accept with all my heart this vocation and the renewed calling of Jesus to follow Him.

But I am willing and will leave my Oldenburger homeland, to come to you in the diocese. I am supported by the word addressed to Abraham (Gen. 12:1): “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. I gladly accept this new calling and mission in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen. I look forward to the people living there, to the many encounters and conversations. I also look forward to being Church together with you. I came as a learner to you and want to learn new things.

The Catholic Church in your diocese exists in a situation of diaspora and has kept the faith in difficult times. This impresses me greatly. I look forward to the challenges that await me, and will be happy to have you show me your country.

I rejoice in serving the people in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen from now on, to strengthen the Christians, to build up the Church and make her present in the world. For these tasks I pray for God’s blessing and for your active support.

Yours,

+Heinrich Timmerevers”

In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

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

Mgr. Hurkmans en Mgr. de Korte
Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

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

The problems with Archbishop De Kesel’s wish for women deacons

de keselNot unexpectedly, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Brussels today again repeated his support for female deacons in the Catholic Church. His comments come after a promise to try and work towards giving women more responsibility in the Church. Regarding the latter he is of course fully in line with Pope Francis, who not only wants to increase the role of women, but of laity in general in the Church.

But when it comes to the ordination of women, be it to the diaconate or the priesthood, the matter is quite different. It is clear that it is impossible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, and I will not discuss that here.

On the Facebook page of the press office of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, which has reported on these comments from the new archbishop, I left the following commentary (in Dutch, but in an English translation here):

“It can certainly be discussed. But I do not think it is possible. Why would only ordained persons be able to play an important role in the Church? Pope France emphasises that (non-ordained) lay people should be given and take on more responsibility. Yet we keep seeing people, both men and women, who consider ordination as the greatest good, and even a right.

And then there is the question of the nature of the diaconate: it is the first grade of the priesthood, which is not possible for women. Even just because of this, a female diaconate would be essentially different from that of men. Similar names do not remove the differences. I think it is healthier not to hide the differences, but work within the possibilities for men and women towards a Church in which everyone can take their responsibilities, without considering ordination as a prize or right.”

Photo credit: photo news