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).

Denouncing Küng

Father Z writes: “I suspect Fr. Kung was getting nervous about not reading his name in the paper for a while, and so he staged another little nutty for the press”. Well, said nutty wasn’t the only one the dissident priest staged. He also contributed an opinion piece to NRC, a piece which is almost to easy to poke holes in.

CAUSE OF ABUSE WAS CELIBACY

SILENCE WAS INSTRUCTION FROM ROME

The Roman Catholic Church should not only be open about abuse by clergy, but also about the  impossibility of celibacy [I think we can guess where this is going.]

by Hans Küng

From the United States, Ireland and now also from Germany come reports about massive sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clergy. The fact that the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, called the abuse cases ‘terrible crimes’ and that the conference as a whole asked for forgiveness from the victims on the 25th of February, are the first steps to come clean about this unforgivable behaviour. But further steps must follow. Besides, Zollitsch’s declaration contained three errors which must be corrected [for a given value of ‘error’].

Firstly, the statement that sexual abuse by clergy has nothing to do with celibacy [Not what the German bishops said, exactly. Here’s the line from the statement in question: “Der Zölibat der Priester ist, wie uns Fachleute bestätigen, nicht Schuld am Verbrechen sexuellen Missbrauchs. Ein zölibatäres Leben kann aber nur versprechen, wer dazu die nötige menschliche und emotionale Reife hat” (source). Off-the-cuff translation: “Priestly celibacy is, as experts assure us, not the cause of the crime of sexual abuse. A celibate life can only succeed in someone who has the necessary human and emotional maturity”. Reality is not as simplistic as Küng would have us believe.]

It can not be denied that abuse also happens in families, schools and churches that do not know celibacy.  But why does it happen so excessively in the Catholic Church with celibate leaders? [It does not. Statistics show that celibacy actually occurs less in Catholic institutions than in families or other Christian denominations. See here for some arguments.] Of course celibacy is not the only cause of misbehaviour. But it is the most important – and it is structurally the most decisive expression the of the strict attitude of the ecclesiastic hierarchy towards sexuality in general [Ah, now we get to the bee in Küng’s bonnet].

A look at the New Testament makes it clear: Jesus and St. Paul lived in exemplary celibacy in service to their priesthood, but allowed every individual total freedom in that area [Any theologian and Church historian worth his mettle would agree: celibacy is not based on the Bible, at least not totally, as will become clear. Küng use of the New Testament to disprove the value of celibacy is therefore pointless].  Seen from a biblical perspective celibacy can only been considered a freely chosen vocation, not as a generally applicable law [True, and every man or woman still makes that choice freely]. Paul expressly argued against people who were of the opinion that it is “a good thing for a man not to touch a woman” by answering: “yet to avoid immorality every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7: 1-2). According to the first letter to Timothy, “the presiding elder must have an impeccable character. Husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). It does not say, “Husband of no wife.” [The Timothy passage addresses the impeccability of the elder in general, and does not make express statements about being married or unmarried. 1 Corinthians too has a lot to say about married life, and also states that those who are unmarried can try to remain so, to follow the example of St. Paul. He never demands that priests can’t live celibate.]

Secondly, that it is not right to blame the abuse cases on a systematic error within the Catholic Church [I am not sure what Küng refers to here, to be honest.]

The rule of celibacy practically did not exist during the first millennium of the Church [Not true. Church fathers such as Origen (185-254) advocated it, and since Pope Saint Siricius (late 4th century) it is discussed in papal decretals. It didn’t become mandatory until the 11th century, but that is not the same as ‘practically not existing’]. It was introduced in the 11th century in the West by monks (who freely chose celibacy) – especially by Pope Gregory VII – and was enforced despite heavy resistance by the clergy in Italy and Germany, where resistance was so strong that only three bishops dared enforce the Roman law. Thousands of priests protested against the new law [In itself, protest says nothing about the validity of a law, only about its popularity. Küng skilfully uses this emphasis on protest to depict the Roman hierarchy as evil and oppressive].

The rule of celibacy – coupled with the absolute rule of the pope and mandatory clericalism – became one of the central pillars of the ‘Roman system’. In contrast to the clergy of the eastern churches [which also maintain a distance between clergy and laity], the clergy in the west was completely separated from the rest of Christian society, especially because of celibacy: a unique and dominant class which was radically superior to the lay population, but totally subject to the pope in Rome [This is peripheral to the abuse issue, if factual at all]. Mandatory celibacy is responsible for the disastrous shortage of priests today, for the fatal neglect of the Eucharist and the sad deterioration of the personal pastoral priesthood in many places [These are all problems of the last fifty years, whereas celibacy has been around for at least sixteen centuries. Küng’s reasoning falls flat]. What would be the best solution for the recruitment of future priests? Simple: get rid of the rule of celibacy and allow women into the priesthood [That last point came out of the blue, but it’s not unexpected from Küng: it’s his other pet peeve. But since Christian denominations without celibacy and with female ministers suffer much the same problems as the Catholic Church does today, it is, at the very least, highly doubtful that these are any sort of solution].

Third, that the bishops have taken enough responsibility [I can’t find any statement to this effect in the bishop’s declaration either].

Of course it is good to hear that concrete steps are taken to reveal abuse cases and to avoid them in the future. But aren’t the bishops themselves responsible for the decades-long practice of hiding abuse cases, and often not doing much more than secretly relocating the offenders? Are the secretive bishops of the past suddenly reliable investigators? [Küng seems to assume that the bishops of 40 years ago are the same as today. People do die and new people do get appointed…] Shouldn’t there be independent committees to handle such cases? [Er… there are, both in Germany and in other countries.]

Until now barely one bishop has taken part of the blame, while the bishops can perfectly prove that they followed the instructions of Rome. For the cause of discretion [or for the cause of clarity and bureaucratic ease] the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith demanded exclusive legal jurisdiction for all cases of sexual abuse by clergy, and so, between 1981 and 2005, these all ended up on the desk of its prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger [Untrue. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not become solely responsible until 2002, on the initiative of Cardinal Ratzinger]. On 18 May 2001 he sent and Epistula de Delictis Gravioribus to all the bishops in the world, indicating all forms of abuse which fell under secretum Pontificium or ‘pontifical secrecy’ [Catholic.org has a clarification of this letter here. Note especially: “[This document deals] with the Church’s internal judicial acts, at the canonical level. Therefore they do not deal with the accusations and the provisions of the civil courts of states, which must be carried out according to their own laws. Whoever has addressed or addresses the ecclesiastical court can also address the civil court, to denounce similar crimes. Therefore the action of the Church is not aimed at retracting these crimes from the jurisdiction of the state and keeping them hidden”]. Does the Church not have a right to a mea culpa from the pope, in solidarity with the bishops [I don’t get Küng. First he calls for the bishops to stand along side the accused and now they deserve the pope’s solidarity? Besides he pretends there is a gap between pope and Church, whereas they are one]? The same openness with which the Church finally comes to terms with the abuse is now needed to confront one of the main structural causes: the rule of celibacy. The bishops should expressly propose that to Pope Benedict XVI.

Hans Küng is emeritus professor ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen. In 1980 the Vatican removed his license to teach.