European bishops reflect on the United States

Two European bishops have spent their summer holidays visiting the United States, and both have shared some of their thoughts and experiences on social media. And both have perhaps unavoidably, noticed the differences between their countries and the behemoth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Mgr. dr. G.J.N. de KorteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch travelled New England, including New York and Washington DC, with his sister, and wrote an article for Nederlands Dagblad. Noting the immense economic, military and cultural influence of the United States on the rest of the world, as well as the kind and informal attitude of its inhabitants, Bishop de Korte devotes most of his article to the political stalemate of two parties, virtually equal in size, who are increasingly unwilling to cooperate, and the media’s eagerness to contribute to this increasing polarisation, which the bishops calls “extreme”.

A similar gap exists in society, the bishop writes. Whereas most European countries have established extensive social welfare systems to help those people who can’t make ends meet, in the United States this falls mostly to private organisations and citizens, including the churches. While this expression of Christianity is far more developed than it is in Europe, it is no structural solution to solve the injustices underlying the enormous differences between rich and poor.

Bishop de Korte concludes his article with the hope that the churches can build bridges and add unity and nuance to the political and social debates. “What American society needs now are reasonable and moderate leaders in church and society”.

Another European prelate visiting the United States is the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. He shared his experiences via his Twitter account, in both German and English. Sharing encounters with religious communites (the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of Life and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal), parish  visits and meetings with brother bishops Cardinal Dolan of New York, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Wilton of Washington, as well as a harbour tour in Boston and visits to the 9/11 monument in New York and the White House, and a hamburger meal with Catholic youth in Washington, Cardinal Woelki’s account is mostly positive and hopeful. About his meeting with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, he writes:

“So many Catholic changes in America: the Franciscans of the Renewal care for the homeless in the Bronx and live from what is given to them. Their communties are small, but growing! I wonder what we can learn from them.”

And there was time to throw some hoops…

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Looking in from the outside, it is often easy to find fault with a person or, in this case, a country. And while it is clear there are problems and worrisome developments under the current American presidency, the positive things should not be forgotten. While we may be conviced that America can learn from Europe, the reverse is also true.

The Catholic involvement in American society is both inspired and down-to-earth. I see this also in those American priests and bishops I follow on social media; to be effective and make an impact in society, however great or small, it is necessary to get dirty hands, to be involved in a way that people can relate to. Sadly, this is something I don’t see often enough in the Netherlands (although it does happen). Sure, a priest and bishop has important duties and is a rolemodel and example. But he is also a person and must relate to other people. Share those personal passions and interests, show that you’re into sports, movies, music, cooking, gardening, whatever, joke around a bit… Be a man of God among men (and women). A cardinal playing basketball (or wondering why there is no thirteenth floor in his hotel, as Cardinal Woelki also did, leading to the question why faith evaporates while superstition persist): I’m all for it.

Photo credit: [1] RKKerk.nl, [2]  Cardinal Woelki’s social media team on Twitter.

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

“The bishop bearing witness to the Cross” – Cardinal Woelki’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Bätzing

On Sunday, Bishop Georg Bätzing was ordained and installed as the 13th bishop of Limburg. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, gave the homily, which I share in my English translation below. The cardinal also served as consecrator of the new bishop, together with Bishop Manfred Grothe, who lead the diocese as Apostolic Administrator during the two and a half years between bishops, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the new bishop’s native Diocese of Trier.

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

An ordination – be it to deacon, to priest or, as today, to bishop – is always a public act; an effective action which changes both the person being ordained – although he is an remains the same person – and his environment. This is true even when an ordination must be performed in secret for political reasons. And so public interest, especially at an episcopal ordination, is a most natural thing. Today too, many eyes are focussed on Limburg; perhaps even more eyes than usual at an episcopal ordination. In recent years, the focus of the media on Limburg and its bishop has been too strong, if the question of how things would proceed now was not one well beyond the Catholic press.

The man who will be ordained as the thirteenth Bishop of Limburg today, is being sent to “bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted” (cf. Is. 61:1). He knows the wounds that need healing; he knows that the faithful in this diocese must be brought together and united again, and he knows the challenges which face not just the Church in Limburg, but everywhere, when she wants to proclaim, credibly,  Christ as the salvation of all people, also in the future. His motto, then, advances what has already been important to him in his various pastoral duties in Trier: he was and is concerned with unity in diversity – Congrega in unum. It is no coincidence that today’s ordination concludes the traditional week dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Diocese of Limburg.

The feast of the Cross and the Week of the Cross have a long tradition here, which is applicable in this situation. At the introduction of the feast in 1959 by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf its goal was to establish an identity in a young diocese. He chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as diocesan feast, with an eye on the relic of the Holy Cross kept in the reliquary of the cathedral treasury of Limburg. But not from this artistic and outstanding treasure of Byzantine art, before which one can linger in amazement and admiration like before an exhibit in a museum, does the Church in Limburg derive her identity. No, it is from that which is hidden within: the precious Cross of the Lord, by which we are saved. Only that grants the Church of Limburg, yes, the entire Church, her identity. The Apostle Paul knew this, and following him, everyone who is appointed to the episcopal ministry therefore knows this.

Our new bishop also knows. Because this is the heart of his calling and mission as bishop: to proclaim Christ, as the Crucified One in fact. He is not to proclaim Him with clever and eloquent words, so that the Cross “might not be emptied of his meaning” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17).

On the Cross hangs the unity of the Church, because from the crucified Body of Jesus the Church emerged. In her all the baptised are woven together. All the diversity of the Spirit, which animates and moves the Church, has its origin there. Understanding the mystery of Christ depends on the Cross. No salvation without the Cross! Without the Cross no Gospel, no Christianity! Only in the Cross do we recognise who God and who man is, what God and what man is capable of. We say that God is love. These horribly absurd, often abused and yet so eagerly awaited words gain their sober and exhilerating depth and truth against all kitsch and all shallow romanticism only in the light of the Crucified One.

Saint John the Evangelist reminds us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only son (cf. John 3:16). This was not an “either-or” devotion. It was not a game of God with Himself without us humans, no large-scale deception, no comedy. Christ died and so He become equal to us all, we who received everything that we have from God and who always violently want to “be like God”, on our own strength, as we can read in the first pages of the Bible, in the history of the fall. And then he, the Son of God, did not want to cling to His divinity with violence, like a robber, but He emptied Himself, became man, creature, became the second Adam, who did not want to be like God on his own strength, but wanted to be obedient until the death on the Cross. Only in this humiliation, in this selfless devotion to God’s love for us, He is raised: the Crucified One lives! The humiliated one reigns!

This is then the case: The God who we imagined as unapproachable, as fearsome, is dead, definitively dead! It was not us who killed him, as Nietzsche claimed, but this Jesus of Nazareth, He has killed him. But the true God lives, the God who came down to us, unimaginably close in Jesus Christ. This God lives, who we recognised on the cross as God-with-us, and whom we continue to recognise only through the cross of Christ, recognise in that complete sense in which recognition means acknowledging, loving, being there for others.

And so, after all, understanding this world and our lives also depends on the cross. Its image assures us that we are ultimately embraced by the mercy of God. That, dear sisters and brothers, is our identity as Christians and therefore also our identity as Church. That is what a bishop is to proclaim, even more, to live. Before everything, he is to be a witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decivise salvific act of God. From this everything else flows: our commitment to and engagement  with Church and society, our commitment to peace and social justice, to human dignity and rights, to the poor and homeless, to the suffering, the sick, the dying, to life, also of the unborn. Everything flows from the mystery of the cross, and so the bishop promises just before his ordination to care for all, to be responsible and seek out the lost to the very end. “Tend to my sheep,” (John 21:16) does not mean, “Tend to my sheep where it is easy, where no dangers lurk.” It means to protect every human being as God Himself does – also there where it becomes abysmal and dark; where people lose themselves, where they put trust in false truths or confuse having with being. God knows how vulnerable we people are, and how much care and mercy each of us needs to live in such a way that it pleases God: not loving ourselves, but God and our neighbour. The cross is the reality of this love which desires to exclude no one, but which also recognises the “no” of those which it addresses. The openness of the most recent Council to a universal understanding of divine salvation allows us to see those who believe differently, only half or not at all as potential sisters and brothers. Such an understanding of and relationship with all people also permeates our Holy Father, when he wants to cure the sickness in ecclesial and social coexistence with the medicine of mercy (cf. Jan Heiner Tück).

As universal sacrament of salvation the Church only has one single Lord: Jesus Christ. God Himself anointed Him (Is. 61:1). That is why we always must ask ourselves what He wants from us and where He wants to lead His Church. The future of the Church is critically dependant on how the different charisms that God has given us can be developed. At the time that Bishop Kempf established the feast of the Cross it was, in addition to establishing an identity, about bringing together unity and diversity, centre and periphery in the young diocese.

This program can not be better summarised than in the new bishop’s motto: “Congrega in unum“. Also today, it is the mission of a bishop to discover charisms, recognise talents, guide developments, allow unity in diversity: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom. 12:4-5). Where he succeeds in this service, oaks of justice can grow (Is. 61:3) and plantings can develop through which the Lord can show His justice (61:3) – in the heart of history, in the here and now, in the heart of this diocese. Where this service is successful people are encouraged and empowered to imitate and let God guide their lives – also when He may lead them, for a short while, “where they do not want to go” (John 21:18). We humans may be sure – in all hazards to which we are exposed or expose in faith – that we are protected by God; He has entrusted the bishop with the most valuable task that He has to give: “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:17).  Nothing more – but that absolutely.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Bistum Limburg

Three years of Pope Francis – years of continuity of rupture?

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^Three years ago tomorrow, the world’s first look at Pope Francis

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. Time flies. And of course, countless commentators are picking their high and low points from these past years.  And it amazes me how much opposition the Holy Father still faces, especially in online Catholic media. And I know, that can’t be taken as an accurate reflection of the Catholic world as a whole, but this is communication, and there volume sometimes matters as much as accuracy and perhaps more than representation. It’s not nice, but there you have it.

In these comments, and not just those that specifically aim to give an overview of this pontificate, an artificial opposition between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is strikingly noticable. Pope Benedict said, this, taught that, and now Pope Francis says something else and teaches another thing, so the commentary goes. The implication being that what Pope Francis is saying, doing and emphasising is somehow contrary to the things Pope Benedict focussed on, and some even go so far as to call the current pontiff a heretic because of this preceived discrepancy. A careful reader of what Pope Francis says (and yes, I admit, a careful reading of his remarks, especially the off-the-cuff ones, can be a challenge), knows that this is not the case. Not only are the two pontiffs in agreement with each other when it comes to the content of the faith, the differences in their focus is also not as large as some would have us think.

A fair few number of people lament the fact that Pope Francis emphasises mercy, care for the poor and creation and the economic inequality that seems an innate element of western capitalist societies. These are not really Catholic topics, they say, and the Pope should devote more time and focus on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, truth as revealed to us in the Gospels. But do these things suddenly no longer matter or exist, just because this Pope speaks about them less or in another way than his predecessor? Of course not. The Catholic Church consists of more than just the Pope, and we all share the same responsibility as he does: to proclaim the faith and defend it, to teach it, celebrate it properly and let it shine through in every part of our being and lives. Maybe we should talk less about what the Pope should say and say and do some things ourselves.

Sure, one may prefer one Pope over the other, but just because ‘your Pope’ has passed away or retired, his teachings have not. St. John Paul II’s teachings about the family and Pope Benedict XVI’s words about liturgy and truth remain as valid and valuable as Pope Francis’ attention to mercy and the environment. The different topics and emphases should not automatically be considered as contrary, but as in continuity. Pope Francis does not suddenly disregared his predecessors’ teachings simply because he speaks about something else. Neither should we.

Network of love – Bishop van den Hende on what makes a diocese

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.

20160206_Rotterdam_60JaarBisdom_WEB_©RamonMangold_08_348pix“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.”

‘Embracing’ mercy – Bishop Hoogmartens’ message for Lent

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens’ message for Lent, like many others, revolves around the special signifigance of Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy. He describes the Holy Year as an opportunity to become “better and more joyful Christians”, and mentions some of the means to do so in his own Diocese of Hasselt – the Holy Door, the Blessed Sacrament and the sacrament of confession at the cathedral and the preparation for the diocese’s 50th anniversary in 2017.

While treading carefully around such ‘hot button’ topics (or so some seem to perceive them) as personal prayer and sin, Bishop Hoogmartens joins Pope Francis in inviting his readers to make the mercy we receive from God an integral part of our lives, penetrating down into everything we say and do and into eveyr interacting with other people.

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,
Good friends,

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent: a time to prepare ourselves in order to fully experience Easter. This year, Lent is very special because of the Jubilee of Mercy which Pope Francis opened in early December in Rome.

In our cathedral too, in the ambulatory, in front at the left, a “Holy Door of Mercy” has been opened for the duration of the Holy Year of Mercy. Faithful – alone or as a group – are expected to enter through it as pilgrims, with the intention to enter into the reality that Jesus has revealed to us, the mercy of the Father. The image on the Door is that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He leads us – in the Spirit – to the mercy of the Father. Further along in the ambulatory of the cathedral one can physically go this path: past Mary, the Virga Jesse which will be placed there for the entire year, via a personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, for which the presence of a confessor is assured.

For us faithful it is important to make use of the Jubilee of Mercy – wherever in the world – to become better and more joyful Christians. Lent offers rich opportunities for that. The liturgy frequently mentions God’s mercy. It also invites us to ’embrace’, which should be a part of the lifestyle of the Christian who always wants to make room in his heart for people living in poverty. It also invites us to personal prayer, each perhaps in his own rhythm and his own way, but best after the Biblical example. We are also invited to take part in the confession services which will be organised in the parish federations and deaneries. I will be leading the service in the cathedral on Monday in Holy Week.

By experiencing the Year of Mercy with many others in all its depth, we also prepare for living the glory of God’s mercy in the cathedral on the “starter evenings” on 20 and 21 September. A greater gift our diocese can not receive on the 50th anniversary of its founding.

As modern people, with so many other things on our minds, with a frequently busy life, and each with our own concerns, we perhaps wonder what this mercy means for us and the world? Pope Francis wrote a beautiful letter about it. But we ourselves also sense what it is about. We all know we are often weak, careless, focussed on ourselves, and yes, also sinful. From the mercy that we experience from God we in our turn can then be more merciful towards others, including people living in poverty. ‘Embracing’; Pope Francis calls it the key to the Gospel! The name of God is mercy, after all, as the title of his latest book says.

Would our world, with all its concerns, with so much violence, with the refugee crisis and poverty issues, not gain much when many would experience and contemplate the “mercy of the Father” as Jesus showed it to us?

When that mercy also becomes an incentive for political and economical leaders, of pedagogues and parents and of communities, the world can only become better. It is the joy of Easter which for us Christians always remains the corner stone in this context. And we can already look ahead to that Easter now.

In the meanwhile, let us practice in this Lent for a simpler life, the application of prayer and the sacraments and the love for everyone encountered, who we want to embrace out of God’s mercy.

I gladly wish you a meaningful and blessed Lent, in this Jubilee of Mercy.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens
Bishop of Hasselt”