A little prayer for Christmas

prayerA little prayer I whipped up this morning for my wife to use in her school’s Christmas celebration. As it was to be prayed before (and, it is hoped, with) an audience of teens who are generally only vaguely familiar with the act of prayer and the Christian faith as a whole, I chose to focus mostly on human kindness and charity instead of more difficult theological concepts such as the Incarnation. Still, Christmas can’t exist without God, the Light of the world, the Word become flesh, so even when celebrating with people unfamiliar with such things, it is no good to be so general as to ignore that world-changing event.

And, yes, there are traces of the well-known prayer of St. Francis in there.

“Lord God,

We celebrate Christmas. In the darkest time of the year we celebrate that it became Light. That Light enlightens our world and ourselves.

We see that there is much that is wrong, that people do things that harm others and the world. We, too, sometimes make mistakes.

We celebrate Christmas. A new beginning. The child in the manger shows us that beginning. Now, at the start of the Christmas holidays, in which we will also begin a whole new year, we want to ask You to keep lighting our way. So that we can bring peace where there are fights and arguments, joy where there is sorrow, hope where people no longer know where to go, light in the darkness.

And when we may find ourselves in darkness, may we also encounter people of light.

We celebrate Christmas.

Amen.”

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Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

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^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”

First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP

A rapid retirement for Bishop Wiertz

IMgr. F.J.M. Wiertzn a circular letter to be read out in the parishes of his diocese next Sunday, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond informs the faithful that he has asked Pope Francis to be allowed to retire on his 75th birthday on 2 December. ND.nl broke the news this morning. Normally, the request for retirement is sent upon reaching that age, and then it can take months or even years before the retirement is accepted.

The Holy Father responded positively to the bishop’s request. In addition to retiring immediately, Bishop Wiertz has also asked not to be appointed as apostolic administrator for the period between his retirement and the installation of a new bishop.

In his monthly column, Bishop Wiertz asks for prayer:

“I speak from experience when I say that it is very important for a new Church leader to know that he is supported by the prayer of many.

That is why I wish to urge you to pray in the coming months for the Church in our diocese, and for a good shepherd, teacher and manager.”

The bishop, who has headed the southeastern diocese since 1993, has been struggling with health issues for some time now. His eyesight has been progressively failing, as he revealed in May of 2016.

In February of this year, a poll held among priests of the Diocese of Roermond revealed that the new bishop should be a man in the line of Pope Francis: communicative, no stranger to social media, and able to be strong and inspirational in his policies.

Bishop Wiertz was the oldest serving bishop of the Netherlands, and also the most senior in terms of years served. His 24 years in office is the longest period since that of wartime Bishop Jozef Lemmens, who served from 1932 to 1957.

In his retirement, Bishop Wiertz has decided to take up residence in Maastricht, the city where he was parish priest from 197 to 1985. Maastricht oncde also hosted to oldest cathedral in what is now the Netherlands, and is today also a titular see (currently vacant).

Here follows the full text of the circular letter:

“Brothers and sisters,

“Jesus Christ is the same: heri, hodie, cras.” Thus writes the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews: “yesterday, today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8).

The world is changing, the times are changing and the Church is naturally also changing. But our mission remains the same: to proclaim Christ in every era and carry His Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It is now more than 24 years since Pope Saint John Paul II appointed me as bishop of Roermond. In the past years I have tried to proclaim Christ in this office. I have said before that that is a mission which requires more people. One man alone does not possess all the talents needed to fulfill the office of bishop.

Luckily I can say that I have had the support in all those years of the immediate coworkers in the diocese, in the staff, the chapter, the advisory councils, the seminary, the colleges of priests and deacons, of the pastoral workers and catechists and the many volunteers in parish councils, work groups and parishes. All of them – all of you – have helped me in word and deed to fulfill the office of bishop through liturgy, catechesis, charity and pastoral care. I thank you all.

I especially thank my auxiliary bishop Everard de Jong and vicar general Msgr. Hub Schnackers and their immediate predecessors in those offices, with whom I have worked in great kindness and friendship. My thanks to all who – each in their own way – have worked to proclaimed Christ is immeasurable. The Church in the Diocese of Roermond, as we know it today, is due in large part to them.

I am obviously aware of my limitations, sins and shortcomings. I realise that, over the course of the years, there have been people, also among you, who have been hurt because of what I did. For that, I wish to appeal to your gift of forgiveness.

Recently, Pope Francis once again called upon all bishops to present their resignation when they rech the age of 75. Since I hope to reach that age on 2 December, I have presented my resignation to the pope several months ago, and I have already received a positive response from him.

In my letter of resignation I also asked the pope not to appoint me as administrator of our diocese after 2 December. This because of my greatly reduced vision. This means that I will really finish my episcopal activities on 2 December.

In canon 412 and 413, canon law allows a bishops who is prevented from fulfilling his pastoral duties to let the chapter appoint a temporary administrator. He will govern the diocese in my name until a new bishop has been appointed.

On Saturday 9 December I will bid my farewell in a celebration of thanksgiving in St. Christopher’s cathedral, and subsequently at a reception in De Oranjerie in Roermond. I have been able to fulfill the office of bishop with great joy. There have definitely been difficult times, but I can look back in great gratitude on the almost quarter of a century in which I could be your bishop and could walk through the times with you. They have been happy years.

I will bid you farewell in the certainty that Christ remains the same as He was, as He is and as He will be in the future: the Son of the living God, our Saviour, on whom we can establish all our hopes, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

On this occasion I gladly ask for your prayer for a good successor on the seat of Roermond. On the intercession of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who is so loved in our entire diocese, I wish you salvation and blessings. In my new place of residence in Maastricht I hope to be united with you in prayer for some years.

I wish you all well. Adieu, adieë, until before God.

Roermond, 4 october 2017
on the feast day of Saint Francis,

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop of Roermond”

75 years after his death, is the canonisation of Titus Brandsma any closer?

Blessed Titus BrandsmaOn this day in 1942, 75 years ago exactly, Dutch Carmelite priests Titus Brandsma died in the Dachau concentration camp. 22 years ago, in 1985, he was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II, and now, as his life and death are commemorated in his native Fryslân, as well as in Oss and Nijmegen, where he lived and worked, we may ask when he will be canonised.

The main thrust in that process, it turns out, comes from America, where, in 2004, a Carmelite priest was diagnosed with an advanced form of skin cancer. Members of his order in Boca Raton, Florida, as well as parishioners of St. Jude’s in that city, prayed for the intercession of Blessed Titus Brandsma for Father Michael Driscoll. After ten years of intermittent treatment and observation, Fr. Driscoll was dismissed by his doctors. He was clear of cancer cells.

In July of 2016 Bishop Gerald Barbarito of the Diocese of Palm Beach opened the diocesan inquiry into the presumed miracle. Following this inquiry, in which all evidence, such as medical records, eyewitness accounts and testimonies will be collected and investigated, the case will advance to Rome, where the Congregation of Causes of Saints will once more look at the evidence and advise the Pope on whether a miracle has really occured and Blessed Titus Brandsma should be declared a saint.

Titus Brandsma was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis as one of several measures against the resistance of the Dutch Catholic Church, who protested the persecution of Jews and others in Germany and the countries they had occupied. His canonisation would underline the importance of free speech and the fight against hate, injustice and basic human dignity.

Politicising a funeral message

19884123_1597082450303992_1991844372893705580_nPope emeritus Benedict XVI’s message for the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, read out at said funeral by his personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein (at right), has become the most discussed part of the impressive ceremony at Cologne cathedral. And it is a beautiful text, personal, full of fond memories of the late cardinal, outlining Cardinal Meisner as a prayeful man with a deep love for the sacraments, for the Eucharist Lord and for the Church of eastern Europe, but also as a passionate shepherd who found it hard to leave his office “at a time when the Church had a pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint.”

The blogging bishop of Lancaster, Michael Campbell, has a good translation of the Pope emeritus’ words. One line that has been highlighted from this has been the following:

“Yet I have been all the more impressed that in this last period of his life he learned to let go, and live increasingly from the conviction that the Lord does not leave his Church, even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck.”

Although it is a line deserving of attention, it has been abused by too many who wanted to see it as a judgement on the current affairs in the Church, and especially as a criticism against Pope Francis. In my opinion, this is does not do justice to either Benedict XVI’s intentions or Cardinal Meisner’s memory.

What should we take away from that line? That the the ship of the Church is about to be shipwrecked (the original German text speaks of ‘Kentern’ – capsizing)? Or is it that God does not leave His Church? Surely it is the last, as that was the conviction of Cardinal Meisner, one he increasingly learned to live from and be inspired by. Yes, in Germany, and Europe as a whole, the future of the Church does not seem rosy. That is a reality that Cardinal Meisner had to live with, but certainly not one that can be attributed to recent events alone. The papacy of Pope Francis hardly stood at the cradly of the decline. In his own papacy, from the very beginning even, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as well. No one would read the lines quoted as a criticism against his own papacy. Because it’s not, and neither is it aimed at what Francis does or fails to do. Rather, it serves as a realistic image of what Cardinal Meisner struggled with and how, towards the end of his life, he learned to live with it: by seeing and understanding that, no  matter how bleak things seem, the Lord does not abandon His Church. Not when Francis is Pope, and not when Benedict was.

This is a lesson to be learned from the life of Joachim Meisner, not a tool to put two Popes in opposition against one another.

EDIT: In Italian daily Il Giornale, Archbishop Gänswein commented today on the misuse of Benedict XVI’s words, saying that the Pope emeritus intended no criticism against Pope Francis. “The Pope emeritus was arbitrarily exploited with this sentence which alludes to nothing concrete,” the archbishop said. He also repeated that Pope Benedict XVI’s words were written on the request of Cardinal Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne.

Photo credit: Erzbistum Köln on Facebook

On the death of Cardinal Meisner

Cardeal-Joachim-MeisnerUnexpected and sad new from Cologne this morning. Cardinal Joachim Meisner, archbishop of that see from 1988 to 2014, passed away this morning while on holiday in Bad Füssing, near Passau. The Pretiosa bell of Cologne cathedral just completed 15 minutes of tolling to mark the death of the cardinal, who passed away peacefully, according to a spokesman. He was 83 years old.

Cardinal Meisner recently visited the Netherlands on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the ordination of Cardinal Simonis, and he was of course on the eye of the media as one of the authors of the dubia regarding the interpretation of Amoris laetitia.

The late cardinal will remembered during today’s midday prayers at Cologne’s cathedral, and at the evening Mass offered by Cardinal Woelki, Cardinal Meisner’s successor as archbishop. This will be streamed live via Domradio.de at 18:30 local time. The archdiocese has opened a condolence book on their website here.

In a telegram to Cardinal Woelki, Pope Francis wrote:

“With inner sympathy I learned of the news that the merciful God has suddenly and unexpectedly called Cardinal Joachim Meisner from this world. I am one withh im and the faithful of the Archdiocese of Cologne in prayer for your deceased shepherd. Cardinal Meisner stood for the good news out of a deep faith and a sincere love for the Church. May Christ the Lord reward him for his loyal and unflinching work for the wellbeing of people in east and west, and may He grant him a part in the community of saints in heaven. I gladly grant all who remember the deceased in prayer and sacrifice, the apostolic blessing.”

Cardinal Woelki learned of the death of his predecessor this morning.

“I received a phone call this morning from auxiliary bishop Heinrich. The auxiliary bishop of Berlin is a friend of Cardinal Meisner and contacted us. He told me that Cardinal Meisner was found dead this morning by his friend Michael Schlede, while they were on vacation. The cardinal had sat there quite peacefully and had to have died immediately. He had wanted to celebrate Holy Mass with his friend, he had prepared everything for the celebration of the Eucharist and still had his breviary in his hands. He must have simply fallen asleep over it.”

For those who understand German, hear Cardinal Woelki reflect on the life of Cardinal Meisner:

The Archdiocese of Cologne has announced the program leading towards Cardinal Meisner’s funeral. From Friday 7 until the early morning of Saturday 15 July, the cardinal will lie in a closed coffin in the church of St. Gereon, at a fifteen-minute walk from the cathedral. The church will be open for the faithful until Monday the 10th. Cardinal Woelki will receive the deceased at Vespers on the Friday, and the liturgy of the hours will be prayed on each of those days. The church will open again on Friday, when a Vespers for the dead will be prayed. On Saturday the 15th, Cardinal Meisner will be carried in procession to the cathedral, where his funeral will take place at 10am. The cardinal will be buried in the crypt.

One of the last people to speak with Cardinal Meisner was Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who spoke with him over the phone on Tuesday evening: “He told me that he felt healthy, but that he was very concerned about the situation in the Catholic Church,” undoubtedly referring to the dubia, but also to Cardinal Müller’s retirement, which “upset” Cardinal Meisner.

More to come.