Last month, the Dioceses of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Rotterdam marked the 60th anniversary of their foundation. A week ago, the website of the latter diocese published the text of the Bishop Hans van den Hende’s homily for the festive Mass on 6 February. In it, the bishop puts the sixty years that the diocese has existed in perspective, and goes on the describe the diocese not as a territory, but as a part of the people of God, as the Second Vatican Council calls it in the decree Christus Dominus. Following Blessed Pope Paul VI, Bishop van den Hende explains that a diocese is a network of love. following the commandment of Jesus to remain in His love. This network starts in the hearts of people and as such it contributes to building a society of love and mercy.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we mark the sixtieth year of the existence of the Diocese of Rotterdam. “Sixty years, is that worth celebrating?”, some initially wondered. “We celebrated fifty years in a major way. One hundred years would be something.”
In the history of the Church, sixty years is not a long period of time. But sixty years is a long time when you consider it in relation to a human life. Many people do not reach the age of sixty because of hunger and thirst, war and violence. There are major areas where there hasn’t been peace for sixty years. Sixty years is long enough to contain a First and a Second World War.
Every year that the Lord gives us has its ups and downs, can have disappointments, great sorrow and joy. Sixty years we began as a diocese. In 1955, Pope Pius XII had announced that there would be two new dioceses in the Netherlands. The north of the country received the Diocese of Groningen. And here the Diocese of Rotterdam was created from the Diocese of Haarlem.
In 1956, on 2 February, both dioceses began. The new bishops came later. The bishops of the older dioceses of Utrecht and Haarlem initially were the administrators of the new dioceses. But in May of 1956 the first shepherds of the two new dioceses were consecrated (the consecration of Msgr. Jansen as bishop of Rotterdam was on 8 May 1956).
Describing the division of dioceses in provinces and areas, I could give you the impression that a diocese is in the first place a territory that can be pointed out geographically. But a diocese is not primarily a firmly defined area or a specific culture. The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese in the first place as a part of the people of God: “portio populi Dei” (CD, 11). The Vatican Council avoids here the word “pars”, that is to say, a physical piece.
A diocese is a part of the people of God. And that automatically makes a diocese a network of people united in faith around the one Lord. A network in the heart of society, connected to people that they may travel with. Pope Paul VI characterised the Church as a “network of love”, with the mission to contribute to a society of love in the entire world.
A network of love in unity with Jesus, who tells His disciples in the Gospel (John 15: 9-17), “Remain in my love”. Now that we are marking sixty years, we must recognise that things can go wrong in those sixty years, that there are things which do not witness to the love of Christ. How we treat each other, how parishes sometimes compete with each other, and also the sin of sexual abuse of minors and how we deal with that, these are part of our history.
Should we then say that this network of love is too difficult a goal to achieve? If we think that, we should remember what St. Paul says in the first reading (1 Cor. 1:3-9). He says: the network of love does not just belong to people, but is united with Jesus Christ, who helps us persevere until the end. Jesus is God’s only Son who has lived love to the fullest, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead and who made no reproaches but said, “Peace be with you” (cf. John 20:21).
The network of love is inspired by the Holy Spirit whose efficacy becomes visible where there is unity, where forgiveness is achieved, where people can bow to each other and serve one another.
To be a network of love is a duty that we must accept ever anew as a mission from the Lord. We are a diocese according to God’s heart, insofar as the witness to Christ has taken root in us (1 Cor. 1:5-6). When we do not consider the disposition of His heart we do not go His way. And when we do not store and keep His life in our hearts (cf. Luke 2:51), we are not able to proclaim His word and remain in His love.
As a diocese (as a local Church around the bishop) we are not just a part of the worldwide Church of Christ, but a part in which everything can happen which makes us Church in the power of the Holy Spirit: in the first place the celebration of the Eucharist as source and summit, and the other sacraments: liturgy. Communicating the faith in the proclamation of the Gospel: kerygma, which – in catechesis, for example – must be coupled with solidarity between the generations. And thirdly, that we, as a network of love, show our faith in acts of love: charity (cf. Deus caritas est, n. 23).
We celebrate this anniversary in a year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis. It is a holy year of mercy. Mercy means on the one hand to continue trusting in God’s love, asking for forgiveness for what’s not right, for what is a sin. Allowing Him into our hearts. On the other hand it means that we make mercy a mission in our lives and show it in our service to our neighbours, in acts of love, in works of mercy. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus summarises this for us: I was thristy and you gave me to drink, I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked, I was homeless and alone. Did you care for me? Jesus does not isolate people in need, but identifies Himself with them: You help me when you approach a person in need (vg. Matt. 25:40).
Characterising the diocese and the entire Church as a network of love is not a recent invention from our first bishop, Msgr. Jansen, but is an answer to Christ’s own mission for His Church. And many saints went before us on that path with that mission. Saint Lawrence was a deacon in third-century Rome (225-258), who helped the people where he could. And when the emperor wanted to take all the Church’s treasure, which wasn’t even in the form of church buildings, as the Christians did not have those yet, Lawrence did not come to him with the riches, but with the people in need. And he said, “These are the treasures of the Church”. These treasures don’t take the form of bank accounts or the wax candles the emperor loved so much, but people, who are images of God. Jesus looking into our hearts also asks us to see in the hearts of people. In this way we continue to celebrate Lawrence and his witness.
And what about Saint Elisabeth (1207-1231) who went out to give bread to people and help the sick? She was of noble birth and was expected not to do this, but she went out from her castle and helped people in need. In this way she was a face of God’s mercy. And consider Blessed Mother Teresa (1910-1997), of whom there is a statue in this church. She saw people collapsing in misery, lying in the gutter, and she saw in their hearts. And also in our city of Rotterdam we are happy to have sisters of Mother Teresa realising mercy in our time.
A network of love and building a society of love. What more can we do in love and mercy? Marking sixty years of our diocese, it is a good time to ask ourselves: has the witness of Christ, has His love properly entered our hearts? And then we should say, and I am answering on behalf of all of us: we could do better. We need mercy and are to communicate God’s merciful love. In this city and elsewhere we are to contribute to a civilisation of love, contribute to a community which builds up instead of tearing down. It is clear that neither the Kingdom of God nor a diocese can be found on a map, because it starts in the hearts of people.
I pray that we celebrate this anniversary today in the knowledge that God’s mercy accompanies us and that we may accept his mission of solicitude, compassion and mercy. This is more than enough work for us, but it is only possible when it fills our hearts. Amen.”