Mourning and rejoicing after Notre Dame burned

“We are gathered in the Mother Church of the Diocese of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises in the heart of the city as a living sign of God’s presence in our midst.  My predecessor, Pope Alexander III, laid its first stone, and Popes Pius VII and John Paul II honoured it by their presence.  I am happy to follow in their footsteps, a quarter of a century after coming here to offer a conference on catechesis.  It is hard not to give thanks to the Creator of both matter and spirit for the beauty of this edifice.  The Christians of Lutetia had originally built a cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr; as time went on it became too small, and was gradually replaced, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, by the great building we admire today.  The faith of the Middle Ages built the cathedrals, and here your ancestors came to praise God, to entrust to him their hopes and to express their love for him.  Great religious and civil events took place in this shrine, where architects, painters, sculptors and musicians have given the best of themselves.  We need but recall, among so many others, the architect Jean de Chelles, the painter Charles Le Brun, the sculptor Nicolas Coustou and the organists Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau.  Art, as a pathway to God, and choral prayer, the Church’s praise of the Creator, helped Paul Claudel, who attended Vespers here on Christmas Day 1886, to find the way to a personal experience of God.  It is significant that God filled his soul with light during the chanting of the Magnificat, in which the Church listens to the song of the Virgin Mary, the Patroness of this church, who reminds the world that the Almighty has lifted up the lowly (cf. Lk 1:52).  As the scene of other conversions, less celebrated but no less real, and as the pulpit from which preachers of the Gospel like Fathers Lacordaire, Monsabré and Samson transmitted the flame of their passion to the most varied congregations, Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country’s heritage.  Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 12 September 2008, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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Last night, Notre Dame burned. This morning, we find that more than we could have hoped for was spared of its interior. The roof and spire may be gone, and soot may cover the walls and mangled debris may have reached the floor, but Notre Dame still stands.

And most important of all, the reason of its existence still remains: the presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, the sacraments given to us who wish to follow Him, as well as some of the symbols of the salvation He wrought for us.

Notre Dame is a historical building which has a special place in the hearts and minds of many, first of all the Parisians and the French, but also those millions, including yours truly, who had the chance to visit her, however briefly.*

But more than a monument to history and the civilisation in which we live, Notre Dame is a church. It is the home of God, a prefiguration of heaven, the place where we come to encounter Him as closely as we can. It manifests the presence of God in the heart of Paris, in the place where that great city began, and thus also in the heart of all the works and endeavours we undertake.

Last night’s fire and its timing, as Holy Week begins, can be understood symbolically, regardless of the cause of the fire. The scenes of people praying and singing as the cathedral burned give us hope and remind us that God hears us at the difficult times in our lives, but He remains present when things are going well and we tend to forget or ignore Him. Like Notre Dame, He is always there.

Today, we may mourn the damage done, but we may also rejoice in what remains. Notre Dame still stands. God is still with us.

*Last October, my wife and I had the chance to visit Notre Dame. By chance we participated in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aupetit and Bishop Freddy Fuenmayor Suárez of Los Teques, Venezuela, who gifted an icon of the Blessed Virgin to Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the mood was celebratory. The joy of the Hispanic community was palpable and infectuous. A fond memory, which made yesterday’s developments all the more painful.

“Counting on God’s forgiveness” – Cardinal De Kesel’s homily at the funeral of Cardinal Danneels

In the presence of some 1,000 people, including priests and bishops from Belgium and abroad, as well as King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, Cardinal Godfried Danneels was laid to rest on Friday. The funeral Mass took place in Mechelen’s cathedral of Saint Rumbold and was led by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel. In his homily, the current archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel referred to Cardinal Danneels’ motto and spoke about the humanity of God. He characterised Cardinal Danneels as a good shepherd who desired and tried to renew and reform the Church as he felt Vatican II called for.

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“Good friends. In the final days of 1977, Cardinal Danneels was ordained a bishop in Antwerp. It was the third Sunday of Advent. A few days later it was Christmas. In the liturgy the Letter of St. Paul to Titus is read about God’s kindness and love. We have just heard this reading. Cardinal Danneels took his motto from this reading: Apparuit humanitas Dei nostri, the kindness and love of God has appeared. Those few words introduce us to the heart of the Gospel. And they also show us how the cardinal has lived his vocation as priest and bishop, all those many years.

“The kindness and love of God has appeared.” It has been translated into Latin so beautifully and so right: humanitas Dei, God’s humanity. God who is not only motivated by a great love for His people, but who has also become man Himself. And thus treats us so humanely. Not demanding, not enforcing, not judging. He has saved us, it says, “not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy.” Many of our contemporaries are under the impression that faith and religion limit people in freely finding their happiness.  They feel that it is always about having to or not being allowed to.

Of course, being human is serious business and love can be demanding. Yet the Gospel is the good news of God’s love. This one thing is promised to us in every way: that God is attuned to humanity, that we are known and loved by Him, and radically accepted, even in our fragility and finitiness, even in our sin. Yes, the kindness and humanity of God has appeared. It is our joy and our salvation. That is why we are not without hope. And that is why the Gospel is for all who want to hear it a call to true humanity. The fact that Cardinal Danneels chose precisely these words for his episcopal motto characterises him. It is the way in which he has been a good shepherd through all those years.

We have received the same good news of the kindness and humanity of God in the gospel reading that we have just heard. It tells about the beginning of Jesus’ mission, when, in the synagogue of Nazareth, He is asked to read Isaiah’s prophecy, which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news.” Jesus recognised Himself in these words from Isaiah and discerned His own mission. Here we find the first reference to a “gospel”. It has become a key to understanding all of His mission. He did not come to judge but to save. We are known and loved by God as we are. This is, as Pope Francis says, “the joy of the Gospel”.

To the proclamation of this gospel, Cardinal Danneels dedicated his life. As He did on Jesus, the Spirit also came down on him and he too was consecrated by anointing. He received this Spirit in abundance. With the gift of the word which he had, and always with the simplicity of heart which is the mark of a disciple of Christ, he touched so many people, here and in the world Church. The long years in which he was a priest and a bishop represent, in many respects, a decisive turning point for both the Church and for society. It was the end of an era and the beginning of an unknown  and uncertain future. It was not easy to be a guide and pastor in these times. But he was. With courage and authority, but always without “breaking a bruised reed or quenching a dimly burning wick”. His words about King Baldwin at the latter’s funeral also apply to him: “There are kings who are more than king; they are the shepherds of their people.”

The cardinal had the gift of the word. Through that word, spoken and written with so much passion, he touched the hearts of many. Through that word he always led us to the source. He was not nostalgic about the past. And, loyal to the Second Vatican Council, he was fundamentally convinced about the need for renewal and reform in the Church, in her head and members. An open Church which does not elevate herself above the people, but sympathises with the joy and the hope, but also with the grief and the fear of the people.

Renewal and reform. He really desired these. But not without resourcement, not without spirituality, not without a thorough liturgy, not without prayer. That concern for the interior always took priority amidst all structural reforms. He also knew that there was no future for our Church without the other Christian churches. Ecumenical dialogue was important to him, just as he was convinced of the importance of interreligious dialogue and of other religious traditions in our country.

At a funeral one does not honour the deceased by praising him to high heaven. At a funeral one prays for mercy and consolation. That is no less true for Cardinal Danneels. When he reached the age of 75 and he was asked in an interview about what he would ask for when he would ultimately stand before God, he answered, “For mercy for what I did wrong.” When his biography was presented a few years ago, he spoke publicly for the last time. At that time the Church was much confronted with sin and weakness because of abuse in her own circles. And then, too, he said: “where I fell short, I count on God’s forgiveness.”

That is our prayer today. With a heart filled with gratitude and a deep love. Have mercy, Lord, for him who served You with so much love, and receive him with love in Your house.”

Photo credit: Hellen Mardaga

Attack in Utrecht: reactions from the archdiocese

A terrorist attack or an honour killing, whatever motivated the shooter, three people were killed and five injured while riding a tram in the city of Utrecht this morning. The shooter was arrested in the evening after the city had been on lockdown for the better part of the day.

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In a first reaction, the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk, said:

“Today’s shock is great. The perpetrator’s motives remain unclear for now, but it is clear that the impact on the city and the Netherlands is great. We greatly sympathise with the victims and their family, and also with the witnesses of this horrific incident. I ask your prayer for the deceased and those they leave behind, and for the injured we mourn today, for a quick and full recovery.”

From Germany, Domradio reached out to Father Anton Ten Klooster, priest of Utrecht who teaches at a university in the city. He was forced to spend his day at the university as the police had asked everyone to remain indoors while the shooter remained at large,  and describes his first thoughts upon hearing the news:

“As a priest I think in the first about the people and their fear. But I also think about what it means for society. These are, after all, tense times. There has been the terrible terorrist attack in New Zealand. And now this. What does that mean for us priests? How can we really try to accompany people and also respond in the right way? These are the first thoughts, but one can’t really do anything immediately.”

Anoher priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, Father Roderick Vonhögen, shares his thoughts upon hearing the news in the vlog below (starting at 2:09):

Photo credit: ANP

On the death of Cardinal Danneels

Although he had vanished from the spotlight in recent, Cardinal Danneels’ near-decade’s worth of retirement was one of the defining periods in his long years of service to the Church in Belgium and across the world. Retiring from the country’s premier see in 2010, Cardinal Danneels made way for a successor who in many ways was his opposite, although Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard shares the cardinal’s innate modesty and prayerful attitude to life. Following the election of Pope Francis in 2013, and Archbishop Léonard’s retirement in 2015, Cardinal Danneels returned to the world’s attention.

Identified by some as a kingmaker playing a pivotal role in the conclave of 2013 (one of two in which he participated), Cardinal Danneels was clearly a trusted cooperator of Pope Francis, who selected him as one of his personal choices to take part in both assembles of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family in 2014 and 2015. And it is no secret that Cardinal Danneels himself was very happy that Francis became our pope.

But this has rather been an epilogue to a long life, of which more than 60 years were spent in service to the Church.

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Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Anastasia and archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussel, died today at the age of 85. His health had been steadily declining over the past years, and the cardinal spent those years quietly at home in Mechelen, except for those times when Rome called…

Godfried Danneels was born in 1933 and was ordained in 1957 by Bishop Emiel-Jozef De Smedt of Bruges. Danneels spent his priesthood as a professo of liturgy and sacramentology in Bruges and Louvain. In 1977 he was appointed as bishop of Antwerp. He was consecrated by Cardinal Leo Suenens, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel. A little over two years later, he left Antwerp to succeed Cardinal Suenens in Mechelen-Brussel. As Belgium’s only archbishop, Danneels was the metropolitan of the Church province. He also served as president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference and vicar of the military vicariate of Belgium, which was promoted to an ordinariate in 1986. In 1983, Pope St. John Paul II created him a cardinal, with the basilica of Santa Anastasia as his title church. Cardinal Danneels served as cardinal in several dicasteries including the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

More to come.

Kerknet has an obituary in Dutch.

Photo credit: Belga

As the summit opens, Bishop van den Hende on what the Dutch experience brings

One of the first things that Pope Francis asked of the bishops he has called to Rome to take part in the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church, which opens today, was that they meet with victims. This is something that victims themselves had also generally demanded, as a part of the recognition of their suffering: that the Church see them, hear them, understand what they had gone through. In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops have made efforts to do so since the crisis broke here some nine years ago.

20160412_Utrecht_MgrVanDenHende_©RamonMangold-e1478072701381-280x267Bishop Hans van den Hende, chairman of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and as such a participant in the meeting, decribes the context of his meetings with victims as follows:

“Several times I have met and spoken with victims of sexual abuse. Sometimes they were people who did not want a procedure, but who did want to tell their story. Most often the meetings were a part of the sessions of the complaints commissions of the reporting authority. Also in the framework of the socalled contact group, there has in some cases been direct contact with victims, because their procedures had stagnated. These meetings were a confrontation every single time. As a bishop you act on behalf of the community of the Church. Often the accused had already passed away. Many people have been marked by the abuse and I could see that speaking about the personally suffered abuse is difficult and requires courage.”

Bishop van den Hende sees the meeting as a unique event, the first in its kind, and forms his expectation around the goals expressed by Pope Francis:

“The pain and shame for the abuse of minors has been felt for years inside and outside the Church. This is the first time that the problem of abuse of minors in the Church is discussed in a special meeting of the worldwide Church. Pope Francis has indicated that he has three things in mind with this meeting: to make bishops across the world aware of the abuse and make them recognise it, commitment of the worldwide episcopate to engage this problem, plus communal moments of prayer and penance.”

The Dutch approach has always had a sharing with the rest of society in mind. This was a recommendation of the Deetman Commission, which executed the independent investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. As part of this effort, the Commission’s final report was translated into English and communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Dutch experience, Bishop van den Hende explains, is in a sense unique and may well be a valuable contribution to the meeting:

“In the Netherlands the bishops and religious are fully aware of the seriousness of the abuse of minors by people of the Church. Together they chose at the time for an independent investigation and an independent procedure to achieve recognition and compensation for victims, and also support. Elsewhere in the world you do not often see such cooperation or joint approach.”

Source

Cardinal Newman to be canonised – The Pope emeritus reflects

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Blessed John Henry Newman is to be declared a saint. That joyful news was announced today as Pope Francis authorised the promulgation of a decree recognising, among other things, a second miracle attributed to the intercession of the English cardinal. That second miracle is required before a person can be canonised (unless he or she is recognised as a martyr).

In 2010, Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his papal visit to the United Kingdom. That visit was centred to a large extent around the person of the soon-to-be-saint, and Pope Benedict spoke about him on several occasions. Below I wish to share a few of the Pope emeritus’ thoughts, as a way to mark the great news. All the quotations were taken from the official texts available on the website of the Vatican, linked to above:

“As you know, Newman has long been an important influence in my own life and thought, as he has been for so many people beyond these isles. The drama of Newman’s life invites us to examine our lives, to see them against the vast horizon of God’s plan, and to grow in communion with the Church of every time and place: the Church of the apostles, the Church of the martyrs, the Church of the saints, the Church which Newman loved and to whose mission he devoted his entire life.”

“On the one hand Cardinal Newman was above all a modern man, who lived the whole problem of modernity; he faced the problem of agnosticism, the impossibility of knowing God, of believing. He was a man whose whole life was a journey, a journey in which he allowed himself to be transformed by truth in a search marked by great sincerity and great openness, so as to know better and to find and accept the path that leads to true life. This interior modernity, in his being and in his life, demonstrates the modernity of his faith. It is not a faith of formulas of past ages; it is a very personal faith, a faith lived, suffered and found in a long path of renewal and conversion. He was a man of great culture, who on the other hand shared in our sceptical culture of today, in the question whether we can know something for certain regarding the truth of man and his being, and how we can come to convergent probabilities. He was a man with a great culture and knowledge of the Fathers of the Church. He studied and renewed the interior genesis of faith and recognized its inner form and construction. He was a man of great spirituality, of humanity, of prayer, with a profound relationship with God, a personal relationship, and hence a deep relationship with the people of his time and ours. So I would point to these three elements: modernity in his life with the same doubts and problems of our lives today; his great culture, his knowledge of the treasures of human culture, openness to permanent search, to permanent renewal and, spirituality, spiritual life, life with God; these elements give to this man an exceptional stature for our time. That is why he is like a Doctor of the Church for us and for all, and also a bridge between Anglicans and Catholics.”

“At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).”

“Newman’s life also teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly. The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard, and in the end its convincing power comes from itself and not from the human eloquence or arguments in which it may be couched.”

“Finally, Newman teaches us that if we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of his Kingdom. Newman understood this, and was the great champion of the prophetic office of the Christian laity. He saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being. Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognize what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.”

“Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or “Heart speaks unto heart”, gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness. As he wrote in one of his many fine sermons, “a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv, 230-231). Today’s Gospel tells us that no one can be the servant of two masters (cf. Lk 16:13), and Blessed John Henry’s teaching on prayer explains how the faithful Christian is definitively taken into the service of the one true Master, who alone has a claim to our unconditional devotion (cf. Mt 23:10). Newman helps us to understand what this means for our daily lives: he tells us that our divine Master has assigned a specific task to each one of us, a “definite service”, committed uniquely to every single person: “I have my mission”, he wrote, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling” (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2).”

“While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: “Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3). He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison.”

John Henry Newman’s feast day is 9 October, the date in 1845 on which he converted to the Catholic faith. That will most probably not change upon his canonisation. The most significant change is that Saint John Henry Newman may now be venerated world wide. The veneration of Blesseds is limited to the dioceses or countries where they lived and worked. No date has as of yet been announced for the canonisation, although it will most likely take place in Rome.

 

Cardinal no more – McCarrick goes back to purple

A historic development today in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church: a cardinal, albeit a retired one, resigned his title and red hat, and was ordered to cease all his public duties and lead a live of prayer and penance in a yet to be announced location.

_CNS-NY-TIMES-MCCARRICK-SEMINARIANS.jpgCardinal – now just Archbishop – Theodore McCarrick faces two allegations of sexual abuse of minors and several further claims of harassment of and misconduct with adults. The steps taken today come before his case is heard and judged in a canonical trial according to ecclesiastical law, and any legal developments which may take place  in an American court of law, as the law allows (the major obstacle in such cases, which – as here – often took place many years ago, remains the statute of limitations).

The case of McCarrick brings back strong memories of that of the late Scottish Cardinal O’Brien. He too saw all his cardinal rights and duties removed on his own request, but he was allowed to remain a cardinal. Former Cardinal McCarrick is punished more severely, although it is, in some ways, a passive punishment, as it was McCarrick himself who requested it in a  letter to the Pope.

The full resignation of a cardinal is a rare event, and this is the first time it has happened since 1927. In 2015, I wrote a blog post about the history of cardinal resignations, in which I gave an overview of past resignations of cardinals (although in it I erroneously claimed that the last such resignation took place in 1911 instead of 1927).

It remains to be seen if there will be a canonical trial for McCarrick, as today’s press release suggests, and if so, what its result will be. Perhaps there will be further penalties for Archbishop McCarrick. On Twitter,  Dr Kurt Martens, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, offers a detailed analysis of the possible penalties that can be levied against McCarrick according to the laws of the Church. He suggests that dismissal from the clerical state is one of the few options remaining, as McCarrick is already retired and so no longer holds any office. Martens mentions two recent examples of prelates having been laicised after allegations of abuse: Raymond Lahey, former bishop of Antigonish in Canada in 2012, and Józef Wesolowski, former Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic (and thus automatically an archbishop)  in 2014.

Beyond McCarrick, there is a chance that there will be consequences for other bishops in the United States and Rome, as the question of who knew what and when about McCarrick’s abuse remains unanswered.

Theodore Edgar McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and became auxiliary bishop of that archdiocese in 1977. In 1981, he was appointed as bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey, and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986. From 2011 to 2006 he served as archbishop of Washington. He was created a cardinal in the giant consistory of 21 February 2001 (making him a cardinal class mate of Pope Francis). He held the title of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo. The two allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, which were deemed credible and substantiated by the Archdiocese of New York in June, took place in the early 1970s and involved a then 16-year-old boy. McCarrick was then serving as a priest in New York, and today claims to have no memory of the alleged abuse. At the same time last month, the chanceries of the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, where McCarrick served as bishop, announced that they had received three further allegations of misconduct involving adults, and that two of these allegations had resulted in settlements.

Photo credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller

Tiptoeing towards understanding – Bishop co-hosts meeting between Church and LGBT community

Almost one year ago, an ecumenical prayer service in a Catholic cathedral to open a gay pride festival, and including a blessing by the bishop, was a bridge too far. This year, more exactly last night, the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch co-hosted the first of three dialogue meetings about faith and sexual diversity. Participating in the private meeting, characterised by an atmosphere of “security, openness and honesty”, were Bishop Gerard de Korte, cathedral administrator Fr. Geertjan van Rossem as well as representatives from the churches in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the political world.

Dialoogbijeenkomst rond geloof en seksuele diversiteit

The meeting was promised by the bishop as he announced last year’s plan to host the ecumenical prayer service on Pink Saturday at the cathedral of St. John. Those plans were later cancelled after significant protests, and the service was relocated to the Protestant Grote Kerk. Fr. Van Rossem did participate in it, but Bishop de Korte did not.

The focus of the meeting was to foster understanding. The participants spoke in groups of ten, and the bishops joined several of these groups. “What struck me in the conversations was the willingness to really listen respectfully to each other’s experiences. The participants were courteous, did not look for discussion, but spoke about what they had experienced themselves.”

Mr. Ivo van Harmelen, former Pink Saturday program manager and co-organiser of the dialogue meeting, said: “From the conversation the wish to remain in contact manifested itself especially. First show love, begin a dialogue and try to find each other in that way.” As such, the meeting had no ideological character. It was intended to listen, to create some form of connection and understanding, which can be the basis for further developments.

The interests of Christians and people who identify themselves in sexually different ways are often strained and usually diametrically opposed. The contacts between, if any, are often hostile and judgmental. But both also want to convince the other of their beliefs. Fighting and condemnation will not do that. If there is any hope of dialogue and understanding, there must be a foundation first. These meetings are an attempt to achieve that.

Two more meetings are planned for tonight and tomorrow evening, between faithful, pastors and representatives of various sexual diversity communities.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Rome has spoken (maybe) – two of the seven bishops explain themselves [Updated]

At the time of my writing this there is no official word from Rome yet, but strong rumours started to surface yesterday that Rome has issued a decision in favour of the seven German bishops who had serious doubts about the proposed pastoral guide concerning Communion for non-Catholics, that the German Bishops’ Conference had voted for in February. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rumours say, has studied the matter and the final decision is explicitly endorsed by the Holy Father. The official statement may become public, but it appears that the question was deemed important enough to lead to an unusual swift decision, made all the more significant by papal involvement.

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210While the letter by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Schick and Bishops Zdarsa, Hanke, Ipolt, Voderholzer and Oster received much attention in the media, the signatories themselves treated it as a normal matter of correspondence. Cardinal Woelki, who was visiting Ukraine when the news broke, expressed his surprise at the hype and the talk about dissent. Presenting the questions about intercommunion to Rome was not so much a matter of going against his fellow bishops, but rather came from the importance of the matter: “With several bishops, we were convinced that it would be good to universally coordinate the solution that we have discussed and established here, with an eye on the unity of the Church and the common ground with the other particular churches.” Cardinal Woelki is not so much opposed to the proposals from the conference, to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion with their partner on a case-by-case basis, but does not think it is a decision that should be made by the German bishops alone.

osterThe most extensive explanation for signing the letter comes from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. In an article published in the diocesan magazine and on his personal website, he emphasises that the debates within the bishops’ conference have always been fraternal and respectful. He then goes on to explain his reason for signing the letter to Rome.

“The Eucharist is so central to us Catholics, that it expresses the basis of our entire understanding of faith and church. Someone who is able to say “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, says yes to the communion with the Pope and the bishops and with the saints that it implies. He says yes to the special priesthood, the prayer to the mother of the Lord and for the dead – to name just those points which distinguish us, for example in the understanding of what a church is, from our Evangelical brothers. In essence our being Church is expressed in its most dense and concrete way in the Eucharist.”

The proposal from the German bishops includes the idea that a non-Catholic with a strong desire to receive the Eucharist, and after confirming the Catholic understanding of it, can do so. They claim that this is one of the exceptions in which a non-Catholic can receive, normally in an emergency and danger of death. But Bishop Oster rightly states that a person with the desire to receive with his or her spouse is not automatically in danger of death and “has time and opportunity to enter into the Church, as he or she already shares the same understanding of Church and Eucharist.” The bishop wants to know if this desire is indeed a serious necessity or even danger which would allow a non-Catholic to receive Communion.

The proposal also creates some strange ecumenical discrepancies:

“At the same time the proposal states that the Catholic spouse can not join in the Evangelical Last Supper, since the understanding of this Last Supper is so clearly different. This means that, according to the logic of the proposal the Evangelical partner can receive both Eucharist and Last Supper, but the Catholic can not. The Evangelical partner is trusted to somehow uphold both understandings of faith, but not the Catholic, since they do not go together. I think it is very difficult to communicate this!”

Bishop Oster also no romantic notions of how such a change would be generally received by the faithful:

“Experience with past regulations show us that what are depicted as singular cases here, will be perceived by the general public as a broad permission, in the sense of: “Now the others can finally come to Communion with us.”

The first reactions support this reading, the bishop says, and that may lead to a trivialisation of the Eucharist. “After all, we rightly call the Eucharist “the most holy”, and how we treat it is, in my opinion, very important.”

The bishop of Passau ends his article with a second reminder that, despite what some media claim, there is no schism among the German bishops, and nor will there be.

“I am fully convinced that the bishops who think differently also want what is best for the Church and ecumenism. For us signatories the unity of the bishops’ conference, as well as progress in ecumenism, is also important. But we wonder if the path chosen can be taken in this way – and very much want to receive a deeper explanation.”

EDIT (19-4): The German Bishops’ Conference released a statement today in which it declares that any reports about a decision against the pastoral document from the bishops about intercommunion are false. The Holy Father has, however, issued an invitation to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the conference, to discuss the issue in Rome. Cardinal Marx has gladly welcomed this invitation. Who will take part in this discussion remains to be seen.

Photo credit: [1] Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

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“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


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