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”

Discordant voice? Confusion about what bishops should do when confronted with abuse

Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s statement – “Bishops are not obliged in all cases to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities” – has led to shocked headlines and articles in the media. And it is not hard to see why. Isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church has done in the past and what it continues to be accused of doing? Keeping the facts hidden to protect her own image? Well, yes and no.

AP3063773_LancioGrandeYes, it is true that image was often the first thing that needed protection, instead of the victims of an abusive priest, or so many in the Church thought and acted upon. And no, this is not really what Msgr. Anatrella, speaking at the regular course for new bishops in the Vatican (a previous meeting pictured), said.

He added something to the above statement: “It is up to the victims and their families to do so”. And that is true: the victim decides what should be done, not in the first place the bishop. If a victim, for example, wishes that no legal proceedings take place (and this has happened), a bishop can (and should) urge for the wisest course of action, but has to abide with the victim’s wishes. This is a consequence of the primary concern that needs to be given to this victim, a concern urged for by Pope Francis, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and many prelates and bishops’ conferences.

As John Allen points out, Msgr. Anatrella’s speech could have been much better if it did not only focus on canon law and psychotherapy, but also on the interactions between Church and state authorities in these matters: what can and must a bishop do or not do when confronted with such terrible crimes against the dignity of a person? Not just with the means at his disposal as a shepherd in the Church, but also as a person living in a modern society.

And there lies the rub: in our modern western societies (at least most of them) reporting allegations to the police is the surest and safest way to see justice being done. In many countries this is not a given. Police forces and judicial systems are not always just and safe, but corrupt or tainted by political, social and religious ideologies which are not necessarily sympathetic to the Christian churches and faithful.

As Father Lombardi pointed out yesterday, Msgr. Anatrella said nothing new. And the fact that his statements were published as part of the proceedings of the entire course does not mean that there is a new Vatican policy on dealing with sexual abuse. But Msgr. Anatrella could have phrased things differently, emphasised the continuity of his statements with those of the Popes in recent years and suggested that, all things being equal, legal proceedings are a necessity towards justice, as long as the victim desires it.

Affairs like these do muddle the issue and give false impressions of the Church’s resolve to prevent the past from repeating itself. The will is there – as is clear from what Pope Francis and other prelates have said in multiple occasions – but the execution sometimes lacks. However, I do not expect any bishops to have come away from this course with the idea that they don’t have to act when someone approaches them with the terrible news that they have suffered abuse in the one place they should have been nothing but safe.

Photo credit: Vatican Radio

For Groningen and Rotterdam, 60th birthdays

60 years ago today, the Dutch dioceses of Groningen and Rotterdam were officially established. This was the most recent major change in the composition of the Dutch Church province (in 2005 and 2008 respectively, Groningen and Haarlem changed their names to Groningen-Leeuwarden and Haarlem-Amsterdam, but those changes did not include any territorial modifications). In addition to the establishment of two new dioceses, which brought the total number to seven, parts of dioceses were also exchanged: Haarlem received some territory from Utrecht, and Breda was expanded with areas previously belonging to Haarlem and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

groningenrotterdam

^Maps showing the location of the Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden. Rotterdam was formed out of territory belonging to Haarlem, located to the north and south, while Groningen was taken from Utrecht to its south.

The creation of Rotterdam and Groningen was initiated by Pope Pius XII, who entrusted the practical matters to the Internuncio to the Netherlands, Archbishop Paolo Giobbe, who went to work immediately and issued a decree on the 25th of January of the following year, coming into effect a week later, on 2 February. The Apostolic Letter commanding the changes was titled Dioecesium Imutationes, Changes in Dioceses, a rather unimaginative title which describes the purpose rather well. There is a PDF file of a Dutch translation of this Letter available here.

Below I present an English translation of the relevant text describing the new dioceses, as well as the other territorial changes. It is a translation of the Dutch translation, which was written in rather official words which may even seem archaic to modern ears. But my translation will hopefully get the message across.

“From the territory of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we separate that part containing those areas which are commonly called Groningen, Friesland and Drente, plus the Noordoostpolder, and we will make that territory a new diocese which we will name the Diocese of Groningen, after the city of Groningen, which will be the head and seat of the new diocese. In this city the bishop will reside and have his seat, namely in the church of the Holy Bishop and Confessor Martin, which we will therefore elevate to the dignity of cathedral.

Additionally, we seperate from the Diocese of Haarlem that province called Zuid-Holland, and make it another diocese, namely Rotterdam, to be called such after the city of the same name. This renowned city, which we will make the residence of this new diocese, where the episcopal seat will be established by the bishop in the church of the Holy Martyr Lawrence and the Holy Confessor Ignatius, self-evidently with the rights and dignities befitting a cathedral.

Lastly, we separate from the Archdiocese of Utrecht that part, which in Dutch is called the Gooiland and add it for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Haarlem.

From the Diocese of Haarlem we separate the part which includes most of the province of Zeeland, and from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch the entire strip of the deanery of St. Geertruidenberg, and we join both areas for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Breda.”

The reasons for the creation of the new dioceses are given as the growth in number and activities of the Catholics in the Netherlands, as well as the perceived need to redistribute the means and possibilities according to the needs present, to safeguard the divine truth and to promote the social environment. The size of the dioceses was also an obstacle for the bishops to conduct regular visitations to all parts of their sees. Haarlem stretched all along the western coast of the country, and by detaching Rotterdam and adding Zeeland to Breda it was roughly halved in size. The same is true for Utrecht, which stretched from the great rivers in the south to the islands of the northern coasts, and from the major cities in the west to the rural areas along the German border. The creation of the Diocese of Groningen meant that it now stretched only half as far north.

niermanFinding bishops for the new dioceses did not take overly long. Both were appointed on the same day, 10 March 1956. In Groningen,  it was the  dean of the city of Groningen, Pieter Antoon Nierman (pictured at left, in a photo from 1969). He was consecrated in May by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Bernard Alfrink. Fr. Jan Alferink, a retired priest of the diocese, recalls those days, when he was studying philosophy in seminary:

“There were about eight or nine students from the north. We did not go to the installation of Bishop Nierman in Groningen. We simply had classes. Today you’d go there with a bus. Bishop Nierman later came to us to get acquainted. The new diocese was a completely new experience. The Archdiocese of Utrecht was very big, of course. Those who worked in and around Groningen did regret the split, as it made their work area smaller. We did not experience it to be a disappointment.”

SFA007005231In Rotterdam the choice fell on the dean of Leyden, Martien Antoon Jansen (pictured at right in a photo from around 1960). He was consecrated on 8 May by Bishop Johannes Huibers, the bishop of Haarlem.

Since 1956, Groningen has had four bishops and Rotterdam five. Both have given an archbishop and cardinal to the Dutch Church: Wim Eijk (bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2007, cardinal since 2012) and Adrianus Simonis (bishop of Rotterdam from 1970 to 1983, cardinal since 1985).

The bishops of Groningen:

  • Pieter Antoon Nierman, bishop from 1956 to 1969.
  • Johann Bernard Wilhelm Maria Möller, bishop from 1969 to 1999.
  • Willem Jacobus Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2007.
  • Gerard Johannes Nicolaas de Korte, bishop since 2007.

The bishops of Rotterdam:

  • Martien Antoon Jansen, bishop from 1956 to 1970.
  • Adrianus Johannes Simonis, bishop from 1970 to 1983.
  • Ronald Philippe Bär, bishop from 1983 to 1993.
  • Adrianus Herman van Luyn, bisschop from 1993 to 2011.
  • Johannes Harmannes Jozefus van den Hende, bishop since 2011.

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgIn their 60 years of existence, both dioceses have struggled with the challenge of being Catholic in a secular world. Rotterdam became even more urbanised and multicultural, while Groningen had its own blend of Protestantism, atheism and even communism, with a few Catholic ‘islands’. For the northern diocese the course of choice was ecumenism and social activism, making the Church visible in society, while trying to maintain the Catholic identity where it could be found. Church attendance, while low like in the Netherlands as whole, remains the highest among the Dutch dioceses. The diocese will celebrate the anniversary today, with a Mass offered by the bishop at the cathedral, followed by a reception.

Wapen_bisdom_Rotterdam_svgThe Diocese of Rotterdam also has a taste of Groningen, as its current bishop hails from that province and was vicar general of Groningen-Leeuwarden before he became a bishop (first of Breda and in 2011 of Rotterdam). His predecessor, Bishop van Luyn, was also born in Groningen. Ecumenism and an international outlook have marked the diocese, as well as its proximity to the world of politics. The royal family lives within its boundaries, parliament is located there, as are many diplomatic missions, including that of the Holy See in the form of Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli. The 60th birthday of the diocese will be marked on 6 February, with a Mass at the cathedral.

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.

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).