Bishop de Korte’s vision of the future

In an address at Tilburg University, last Friday, Bishop Gerard de Korte gave an extensive outline of his vision of the future of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, and the main priorities we, as Catholics must have today. The text, which I have available in English, is perhaps the clearest and most extensive game plan of a Dutch bishop. Bishop de Korte, who was appointed ordinary of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden in 2008, has been much-maligned in orthodox circles for his perceived Protestant leanings, but here he gives his vision on practical orthodoxy – orthopraxis – which crystallises into a ‘living Catholicism’: “open to all questions from contemporary culture, but at the same time with a clear identity.”

Bishop de Korte outlines several priorities for the future. Most important among them is what he tentatively styles a “catechetical offensive”: “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.”

It is good to know the priorities of your bishop, to see the direction in which he leads you. Bishop de Korte is firmly grounded in the realities of today’s society, but from there looks to Jesus Christ as our lifeline. All we need to do is grab His hand.

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Ever wanting to share Christ, the cardinal turns 80

Four-and-a-half years into his retirement as Archbishop of Utrecht, Adrianus Johannes Cardinal Simonis – Ad in conversation – reaches another milestone today: his 80th birthday. A respectable age for anyone, of course, as the Psalmist acknowledges: “The span of our life is seventy years — eighty for those who are strong” (90:10a), but for a cardinal it is something of a further step back from the intricacies of the Curia, locally and in Rome. Upon reaching his 80th birthday, a cardinal can no longer vote in a conclave, to elect a new pope.

Luckily, it would seem that Pope Benedict XVI is still in reasonably good health for a man his age (even if the rumours of his suffering arthritis in his legs are true), so a conclave is still in the semi-distant future. I would be surprised, therefore, if Cardinal Simonis still harboured any hopes of participating in another one.

As the Psalmist continues about the years of our life: “their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, they are over in a moment and we are gone” (90:10b), Cardinal Simonis certainly had his share of anxiety and trouble. Ordained a priest in 1957, the dentist’s son from Lisse first made Catholic headlines at the Pastoral Council of Noordwijkerhout, where the young priest, then in his late thirties, was a voice for orthodoxy and thus soon placed by many in the camp of the bad guys. Rome, however, thought otherwise, as Father Simonis was appointed to be the second bishop of Rotterdam. His appointment there, as well as that of Bishop Gijsen to Roermond in 1972, is often considered to have been Pope Paul VI’s response to the new liberalism in the Dutch Catholic Church, especially considering that the name of Fr. Simonis appeared on none of the ternae supplied to Rome.

Bishop Simonis would remain in Rotterdam for 13 years, until 1983, when he was appointed to be Coadjutor Archbishop of Utrecht under Cardinal Willebrands. At the end of that year, on 3 December Archbishop Simonis succeeded the cardinal, who continued for six more years as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

As Utrecht’s archbishop, Msgr. Simonis was the principal host of Blessed Pope John Paul II during his cold reception in the Netherlands in 1985. Because of the hostility of many Dutch Catholics towards the bishops and especially Rome, personified in the pope, Archbishop Simonis was put under police protection for ten days. His elevation to the College of Cardinals in the consistory of 25 May 1985 is often seen as a way to strengthen the archbishop in his difficult position.

That difficult position did get easier over the years, as the climate in the Church mellowed, and Cardinal Simonis moved from being a voice of orthodoxy to one speaking for all Catholics, something that he considered to be an important attribute for all bishops.

In April of 2007, Cardinal Simonis retired and took up residence in a Focolare community in Nieuwkuijk. But even after his retirement, the cardinal remained a well-known face of the Church. His name appeared several times concerning abuse cases under his jurisdiction in the archdiocese, as well as ill-advised comments on national television. In recent year, many seemed to prefer to depict him as an evil genius, but the worst accusation that may, in my opinion, be brought against Cardinal Simonis is a naive attitude.

As  shown by his motto, Ut cognoscant te, Cardinal Simonis is driven by the desire to let people know Christ, doing so as a humble and friendly prelate who tends to first see the good in people.

The paths of the cardinal and I have crossed several times, although we never formally met. As chief celebrant at the Catholic Youth Day of, I think, 2007, during the installation of Bishop de Korte, and most recently in Spain during the World Youth Days, a constant was the cardinal’s health. In the years immediately following his retirement, his figure turned ever more stooped, but that seems to have reversed itself in later years. The quiet life seems to have done Cardinal Simonis good.

But now, as the Dutch Church Province is left without a cardinal elector, eyes turn to Cardinal Simonis’ successor in Utrecht, Archbishop Wim Eijk. With a consistory rumoured to be scheduled for this time next year, he is now among the chief candidates for the red hat, considering the fact that Pope Benedict tends not to appoint new cardinals in a country which still has an elector.

We will see how that turns out, but in the mean time, the only suitable way to wrap up this post, is with a heartfelt birthday wish to Cardinal Ad Simonis: ad multos annos!

Photo credits:
[1] NRC Handelsblad / Rien Zilvold
[2] Bisdom Den Bosch
[3] Ramon Mangold

Belgian dean welcomes Dutch-trained priests

Father Felix Van Meerbergen is the dean of Diest, in the Belgian Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels. He shares some encouraging words regarding the arrival of the first Dutch-trained Belgian priest (Fr. Andy Penne) to the archdiocese. There is significant opposition among laity and clergy alike about these allegedly very orthodox priests, but Dean Van Meerbergen puts a sizeable portion of this opposition in perspective: it’s about externals such as the clerical collar and the cassock which some people seemingly find repulsive. Indeed, many priests in Belgium and other parts of western Europe now dress in suits and ties, hiding their identity as priests out of a misplaced desire to be ‘just like the laity, and not something special and above them’. A ridiculous reason, since priests, through their ordination and by their specific duties among the people of God are not like the laity. They are not better and more holy, but they are also not the same.

Anyway, on to Dean Van Meerbergen (the photo below obviously dating from before he started wearing his clerical collar):

“I know some of them: they are faithful priests. Oh yes, they wear a collar. And sometimes a cassock. And? Since a year, I’ve also been wearing a clerical collar. I have lost some friends. They removed me from their Facebook and for the first time they didn’t give me a call on my birthday. Apparently that clerical collar is something repulsive. For years I believed that priestly garments would alienate you from people. That it blew up bridges. I do wear it now. And it doesn’t simply make me a better priest. It doesn’t give me more holiness. And it doesn’t make my duties as dean and parish priest any easier. But I feel more connected to the world church. And yes, the unwanted priests are loyal to the pope and the bishops. And also to their flock. I wear a collar. Some people have abandoned me. But yet: I still try to be attentive to the entire flock. The stubborn sheep that stay behind or those that walk ahead. And those with spots on their skin. The sheep with mange and the outcast sheep.

The priests from the Netherlands are welcome and we should work with them in collegiality. And they with us. Didn’t St. Paul once say, “We shouldn’t say: we are of Cephas, we are of Paul or of Apollos… No: we are of Christ.” They may come… why don’t we close ranks? In great respect for each other. Those with a collar and those without. Church in Flanders, let’s build together the Church of Christ for the people. Let’s exclude no one. But let’s be loyal to pope and bishops.

I have the brave dream of hoping that one day I’ll get a priest from India or South America, from Japan or eastern Europe in the deanery. Their faith will support me. I would love it if some day in Diest we’ll be host to a group of religious from faraway… It will only enrich our faith.

Why be afraid? Why so smug and boastful about ‘our’ self-created vision of Church? Proclaiming Christ is the ultimate task. Andy Penne and the others: come. Come proclaim who Christ is. Lead us in the sacraments… And those with a collar and those without. Men and women in the Church, we are all members of the Body of Christ which is the Church… I a increasingly convinced that the archbishop has chosen the right path.”

Returning south? The Belgian priests in the Netherlands

Fr. Andy Penne

In an attempt to stem the development of DIY Church communities in Belgium, Archbishop Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels has welcomed the initiative by Father Andy Penne to see if it is possible to return to his native land. Father Penne is one of fifteen Belgian priest incardinated in the Dutch Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The reasons for their presence in the Netherlands are varied; Fr. Penne works here simply because he felt most at home in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch St. John’s seminary; others chose to be educated and formed here because they considered the Belgain seminaries too liberal. And for years the general attitude among the Belgian episcopate has been that once in a foreign diocese, the priests had best stay there.

But when Archbishop Léonard came to Brussels, the mood has changed. In a newspaper interview, Fr. Penne reports that he will be leaving his current parish in the Netherlands to work in the Belgian archdiocese, near the town where he grew up. Officially, he is ‘on loan’ from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, but the change from the past is striking.

The Belgian priests in the Netherlands are generally considered to be more orthodox, or true to the Catholic faith, than many of their brother priests and pastoral workers in Belgium. That is why their possible future return is no reason for joy for many. They fear the spectres of orthodoxy and conservatism which will threaten their lukewarm version of Catholicism. The opposing party’s feelings sound rather spiteful; “once chosen for the Netherlands, they’d better stay there,” and “Some of these priests were not good enough for Belgian seminaries.” But on the other hand, a poll among lay faithful in Mechelen-Brussels also revealed another sound. A catechist from Mechelen said, “There is a shortage of priests here. We should be thankful to the Lord if Flemish priests from the Netherland want to come and help us out here.” And a prayer group leader, “People call them conservative but they merely proclaim what the Church says. We shouldn’t all be making our own little churches.”

For Archbishop Léonard these priests may turn out to be valuable coworkers in the vineyard.

And, finally, the parishes left behind by Father Penne will be the new home for another Belgian priest who made headlines early last year: Father Luc Buyens.

Cardinal Burke to speak at St. Agnes

As announced before, Raymond Cardinal Burke will be offering Mass in the Extraordinary Form on 17 September at the church of St. Agnes in Amsterdam. That day marks the fifth anniversary of the FSSP apostolate in that church.

But today Catholica announces that the cardinal will also speak at the annual Catholica conference, on the afternoon of that same day. His topic will be Summorum Pontificum and the Church after Vatican II. The high-ranking prelate is known to celebrate Mass in both forms, and is in many circles considered to be a man to be watched. The 62-year-old Burke was made a cardinal during the most recent consistory and serves as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Roman Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Church and overseer of the administration of justice in the Church. Before his appointment, Cardinal Burke was bishop of La Crosse (1994-2003) and archbishop of Saint Louis (2003-2008) in the United States.

Catholica is, in the Dutch Catholic media landscape, a voice for orthodoxy, made clear in its advocacy for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass as well as a return to a Catholic practice that has mostly disappeared from the Netherlands. In recent months, it has been a platform for debate about the nature of the Second Vatican Council and how it should be understood and implemented.

Other organisers of the conference are the Benelux region of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Ecclesia Dei foundation in Delft.

Rigid and one-sided?

A somewhat strange definition of orthodoxy on Dutch news site Nu.nl today. A study by the University of Amsterdam into the Salafi school of Islam – the proponents of which favour a fairly strict interpretation of scripture – and its attitudes towards Dutch society, identifies said school as a “‘normal’ orthodox movement”. And what is a normal orthodox movement then? Well, the news report says, one whose followers have a “rigid and one-sided” world view.

I don’t think that’s a fair description of orthodoxy, be it Muslim or Christian orthodoxy. I consider myself orthodox as well, but I don’t think I’m any more rigid and one-sided than other parts of society. I can generally agree with the description that Wikipedia gives of the word:

The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos “having the right opinion”, from orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “praise”, related to dokein, “to think”), is typically used to mean the adherence to well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, especially in religion.

So an orthodox person adheres to well-thought-out norms, which obviously means that some less well-considered norms are not accepted by that person. Is that rigidity and one-sidedness? Is good consideration of things the same as rigidity? Of course not. The only commonality between the two terms is that neither refers to the automatic acceptance of everything that is humanly possible, as much of modern society tends to do. Is orthodoxy one-sided? I would vehemently disagree with that. Perhaps seen from the outside it may look like it is, but from the inside the orthodoxy of, for example, my Catholic faith, has too many facets to ever be one-sided.

Orthodoxy presupposes a set of norms and values, ideally well-considered and developed over the course of centuries, but around that foundation – because of that foundation – the human being flourishes. Like a house or a tree, people also need a solid foundation to bloom. That, in my opinion, is orthodoxy. A positive concept, not negative like rigidity and one-sidedness.

“It’s exciting!”

As Scotty said in last year’s Star Trek: “I like this ship! You know, it’s exciting!” Replace ‘ship’ with ‘Church’ and you’ve arrived at the point I want to make in this post.  

In various blogs I’ve been reading defenses of orthodoxy and explanations of why young people would feel attracted to that. These comments are responses to the more liberal quarters of the Church (in many ways still a majority in the Dutch Church) and their apparent surprise at these young people and their choices: if they choose to go to Church, they often choose the more orthodox parishes and communities, whereas the worldly ones should, by all logic, be more appealing.  

The aforementioned blogs mention the spiritual emptiness of the liberal camp and their hostility towards people who look for honest and through catechesis. I think another good point is that the orthodox position is not only more honest and true to the Church, but it is also challenging. Young people, and I use that term broadly, are not attracted to sedate coziness and empty warmth. That can be fun, but it is hardly a goal in life. Young people are intelligent, well-educated and want to be challenged accordingly.  

'The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew' by Caravaggio (1603-1606)

“Because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you” (John 15: 19).   

If we do not belong to the world, although we live in it, we can’t let the world dictate our lives. Jesus dictates our lives. He asks us to leave the world behind, to not let it hold us back:  

“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16: 24-25).  

In return, He says, we will find life. But we are alive already, right? Certainly, but that will end. Christ promises us not only eternal life, but also the fulfillment of our lives here.  

“Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times as much, and also inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).  

These are challenges, they are difficult, but they come with one important benefit: we have the best coach anyone can hope for.  

“Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, look!-your reward will be great in heaven” (Luke 6: 22-23a).  

How does this fit a faith community which is solely founded on human needs, focussing on community, on being warm, open, welcoming? Sure, openness and warmth are good. We need the support and brotherhood we find in our parishes and communities. But Christ never took that as the point of His ministry? He took it as read. He callled the Twelve to accompany Him, and later He sent the disciples off in pairs, to spread the Good News. Not alone, but with company. But did he call a group of men, and did he sent pairs off, so they could have some nice conversation, so that they could feel part of a group? No. He called and sent them to become men of God and to make others men of God, to spread the Good News of the incarnation and to follow Him.  

And that is the challenge we have been given. Jesus asks us to work, to give ourselves, to suffer and to hurt sometimes, but we know why we do it: for Him and for eternal life in God. Nothing less than that. And that is the challenge that should be appealing to many: our work, our effort, with the oh-so-necessary guidance and support from the Father through His Son, is how we can and must achieve it. That is a faith that challenges, that promises and to achieve that we must live life to the fullest. That is orthodoxy: not giving up when it seems difficult, keeping your eye on the prize, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by what is temporary.