835 years after his death, Saint Hathebrand comes home

It may not look like it today, but the northern part of what is now the Netherlands, especially the provinces of Groningen and Fryslân, were once a monastic heartland. Much of the land reclaimed from the sea was the result of the work by monks or promoted by them. They established massive monastic complexes, of which the town of Aduard is perhaps among the best known.

One of the monasteries was Oldeklooster (which simply means ‘old monastery’) near the village of Feldwerd, near the shores of the Dollard sea arm. This was established by a man named Hathebrand (although the second ‘h’ in his name is sometimes omitted). Hathebrand’s monastery housed both male and female religious and, after a difficult first start, which, the story goes, even included one or more attempts on the life of its founder, the monastery flourished. Hathebrand went on to establish two more monasteries: Merehusen in East Frisia (now northwest Germany) and Thesinge or Germania in the vicinity of the city of Groningen. According to monastic records, Hathebrand died on 30 July 1183.

In 1594 the fortunes of the monasteries turned. The city of Groningen, which controlled much of the lands surrounding it, fell to the forces of the Dutch republic and quickly became Protestant. The Catholic faith became illegal and the monasteries fell empty. Over time, they turned into ruins which were later demolished. In the countryside of Groningen, there is very little that remains of the once ubiquitous religious foundations.

The remains of Hathebrand, by then deemed a saint, were moved to the Catholic south, ending up in Antwerp. While the north forgot about him, in what is now Belgium he was venerated as a saint and helper in need.  The Belgian town of Mortsel still has a street named after him. The relics of Saint Hathebrand found a final resting place in the church of Kortrijk-Dutsel. And there the story ends. Until recently.

In the words of reporter Reinder Smith, writing for RTV Noord:

“He had stopped hoping. Edze de Boer from Uithuizermeeden is almost 92 years old, and has been looking for Saint Hathebrand for more than fifty years. Last March he received a letter from the parish council of Kortrijk-Dutsel.

[…]

“De Boer was born in Katmis near Holwierde and knew from his youth the stories that there had been a monastery on this dwelling mound. He started to study the history, and so learned that the physical remains of Hathebrand had ended up in Belgium.”

[…]

“Former teacher De Boer had already visited [Kortrijk-Dutsel] in 2002, but the relic could not be found then. But the board of the church of St. Catherine kept looking and after 16 years a small chest appeared from the back of a closet, with in it, among other things, a part of the bones of St. Hathebrand.”

Today, those few remains returned home. Not to Hathebrand’s monastery, which is long gone, but to the dwelling mound of Feldwerd, and then to the church of Krewerd, for a public presentation, including a look back on Mr. de Boer’s search for the long-lost saint, medieval organ music, an address on the rediscovery of the saints following the restoration of medieval churches and the related study of medieval church interiors, and a brief word by Catholic priest Fr. Arjen Jellema.

Saint Hathebrand’s return is a temporary one, however. After a brief visit to his native lands, Hathebrand will return to Belgium.

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Pastoral exceptions and rules – support from abroad for the Woelki position

The group of German bishops, unofficially headed by Cologne’s Cardinal Woelki, who have questioned the bishops’ conference’s proposed pastoral outreach that would allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances – and whose position was recently confirmed and supported by the Holy See – have received further support from abroad.

In a recent interview on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Nordic bishops – which I wrote about in the previous blog post – Cardinal Anders Arborelius, himself a former Lutheran and now, as a cardinal, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked about the discussion in Germany. He answered:

kardinalen_2_thumb“It surprises me that the topic hasn’t been discussed that much. In Sweden, we have many mixed marriages. But most Catholics aren’t married to practicing Protestants. It is not an issue for us. Of course there are evangelical Christians who would like to receive Communion, but most are non-religious.

Of course, the ideal would be that the entire Church is able to arrive at a common solution, but it is difficult: in one country, the situation is thus, in the other it is different. Hopefully, we will one day be able to find a common solution with the entire Church.”

This is exactly what Cardinal Woelki has also said: it is not up to the German bishops alone to decide upon matters that are so essential to the Catholic faith and the understanding of the sacraments. Rather, the entire Church as a whole must decide upon it, if only to avoid the situation in which a regulation is valid in one place and not in another: the Church is not a national Church, but universal, and her sacraments and faith are not bound by borders.

Μητροπολίτης-Γερμανίας-κ.κ.Αυγουστίνος-300x169Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan Augoustinos, who hosted Cardinal Woelki in Bonn for the annual plenary meeting of the Greek-Orthodox Church in Germany, expressed himself in similar words after indicating that his church is also following the debate closely. He referred to the Orthodox principle of Oikonomia, which indicates that a regulation can be ignored or a rule broken when it serves the salvation of the person involved. But he then quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, saying: “As soon as one defines the conditions under which Oikonomia can be applied, Oikonomia itself becomes a rule or regulation.”

Cardinal Woelki has spoken about the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic presenting himself for Communion is not turned away: a pastoral exception to the rule which, however, must not be made into a rule itself. That would “endanger the values that must be preserved with special care”. These values would include the Catholic (and, for that matter, Orthodox) doctrine about the Eucharist and Communion.

 

In an interview for Katholisch.de, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau also spoke about this point in the debate. He was also one of the seven signatories of the letter to Rome which questioned if the pastoral outreach did not transcend the authority of the German bishops. The bishop explains:

7I2A1125_0“It is right that we do not turn anyone away from the Communion bench. At that moment no judgement can be made about the discernment of conscience of the individual receiving. I can’t ‘expose’ anyone then. But when we take our understanding of the Eucharist seriously, there can be no superficial practice of giving Communion to just anyone. Therefore, as the priest giving Communion, I am obliged to offer people, at a suitable occasion, personal and spiritual guidance – and explain our understanding of the Eucharist more deeply. And yes, the praxis of individual pastoral care can indeed lead to singular and temporary situations. But in my opinion an official regulation of such exceptions can make it even more likely for such exceptions to become the rule. The current debate already shows that. It is basically less about the “serious spiritual need of individuals,” and more about the interdenominational marriages in general.”

Just another church? Utrecht to close its cathedral

An archdiocese closing its cathedral. An unheard of development, surely? Not so in Utrecht, and it really is a logical conclusion in a diocese which is merging parishes and selling excess property: when it may be expected from a rural parish somewhere along the German border, why not from the inner-city parish where the archbishop happens to live?

catharinakathedraal utrechtIt must be added that no decision to actually secularise and sell the cathedral of St. Catherine has yet been made. But the parish council has seemingly announced its plan to ask the archdiocese to allow the secularisation and sale of the ancient church, in order to solve the financial dire straits the parish, which encompasses all of the inner city of Utrecht, finds itself in. The final decision lies with the archbishop, Cardinal Willem Eijk, who usually agrees with such requests if the parish’s reasoning is sound. In this context, before anyone accuses the cardinal of willfully closing churches, even his own cathedral, it must be recalled that the archdiocese does not own her churches: the parish usually does, and they must finance the upkeep of sometimes ancient and monumental buildings in a time of decreasing church attendance and financial support from faithful.

Surely, the loss of its cathedral is a monumental event for a diocese, and it does not happen frequently or easily. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, it will have to find a new cathedral for the first time since 1853: St. Catherine’s was the only choice to become the cathedral of the newly-established archdiocese as it was the only Protestant church in Utrecht given over to the Catholics in 1842. The Protestants had used the current cathedral since 1636, and before that it had a secular use. It had in fact only been Catholic for only the first 20 years since its completion in 1560.

In other dioceses, the bishop’s seat has also been relocated to different churches in the past. A chronological overview:

  • 1559: The church of St. John the Evangelist becomes the cathedral of the newly established Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In Roermond, the church of the Holy Spirit is the new cathedral.
  • 1661: St, Christopher’s in Roermond becomes a cathedral for the first time.
  • 1801: Roermond is suppressed as a diocese, so St. Christopher’s ceases to be a cathedral.
  • 1853: In Haarlem, the church of St. Joseph becomes the cathedral of the newly-established diocese of Haarlem. In Breda, The church of St. Anthony of Padua becomes the new cathedral, and in Roermond, the bishop’s seat is again established in St. Christopher’s.
  • 1876: Breda’s cathedral of St. Anthony becomes a parish church again and the bishop’s seat moves to St. Barbara’s.
  • 1898: The cathedral of St. Bavo in Haarlem, still under construction, becomes the cathedral of the Diocese of Haarlem, the only current Dutch cathedral built as a cathedral.
  • 1956: The church of St. Martin in Groningen becomes the cathedral of the eponymous diocese. At the same time, in Rotterdam, the church of St. Ignace becomes that diocese’s cathedral and is renamed as Ss. Lawrence & Ignace.
  • 1967: Rotterdam’s church of St. Elisabeth becomes the cathedral of Ss. Lawrence and Elisabeth.
  • 1968: St. Michael’s becomes the new cathedral of Breda.
  • 1970: The cathedral of St. Martin of the Diocese of Groningen is secularised, and later demolished.
  • 1981: The church of St. Joseph in Groningen becomes the new cathedral of the diocese of the same name.
  • 2001: The seat of the bishop of Breda returns to St. Anthony of Padua, which resumes the title of cathedral after having lost it in 1876.

In the past centuries, there have been some changes in cathedrals in the Netherlands, with the Diocese of Breda taking the cake in number of switches: it has had three cathedrals – one of which twice – since 1853. Only in the southern dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond there has been significant stability. The only direct comparison to the developing situation regarding the cathedral of Utrecht is what transpired in Groningen in the 1970’s: the cathedral of St. Martin was closed in 1970, but remained the official cathedral until 1981, when it was demolished after having been deemed unsuitably to be rebuilt into the new university library. For 11 years, the Diocese of Groningen had a cathedral it no longer used, before another church took over the mantle. If Utrecht’s cathedral is closed and eventually secularised and sold, it is to be hoped that a new cathedral is found rather quicker. The most likely candidate is the church of St. Augustine, also located in the inner city of Utrecht, and the only other church in use by the city parish.

In the meantime, the announcement, which has not yet appeared officially in online media, has been met with sadness and disappointment, and the accusation that finances are the only reason for closing the cathedral, while its historical and religious importance for Catholics in Utrecht and beyond, as well as for all inhabitants of the city where St. Willibrord first established his see in the late 7th century, is being ignored.

EDIT: Shortly after my posting this, the cooperating parishes of Utrecht published a statement on their website. In it, they state an annual deficit of more than 400.000 euros, with building maintenance costs as one of the major posts, as the main reason to want to close St. Catherine’s cathedral. The parish of San Salvator, which owns and uses both the cathedral and the church of St. Augustine, is not able to keep both churches open. The cathedral is substantially more expensive than St. Augustine’s, so the parish will, in due course, request that the archbishop relegate it to profane use, per CIC §1222. The parish has extended feelers to the Catharijneconvent museum, which owns the former convent buildings adjacent to the cathedral, as a possible future owner. Moving the function of cathedral to St. Augustine’s is a process which will involve the Holy See. The entire process is still in a preliminary phase and may take several more years to complete.

Looking ahead at the Amazon Synod, Bishop Bode hints at married priests

bode_purpur_240In a recent interview for a documentary broadcast on Monday in Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück seemed rather ahead of events. The documentary discussed the future of the Church when there is a shortage of priests, and Bishop Bode spoke about the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, scheduled for next year. One of the expectations for that Synod is that it will discuss the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood, as the shortage of priests is also a problem in the Amazon, where settlements are often few and far between, and faithful sometimes have to make do with one Mass per year. Ordaining married men would, the supporters of the idea, say, alleviate that problem, as it makes more men available for ordination. If there will actually be more men presenting themselves at seminaries remains a good question, though.

What that idea in mind, Bishop Bode said that, if the Synod would decide in favour of ordaining married men, the German bishops would also ask for that option to be implemented in Germany. “If it is possible in principle,” he explained, “it should also be in situations where the need is different.”

The Catholic Church maintains that priests should live celibate lives. That is obviously incompatible with marriage, although married priests do exist in the Catholic Church. Usually these are former Protestant ministers who converted and later became priests. These are exceptions which take into account the specific situation of these men. The Church is not going to say they are no longer beholden to the obligations of marriage when she recognises the validity of their vocations to the priesthood. She takes marriage serious enough to prevent that. In such cases the Church is able to allow a dispensation from the law on celibacy, since it is not a divine law. Currently, she does so on a case-by-case basis, so there is no general law allowing dispensation from the obligation of priests to live celibate lives.

What Bishop Bode is hoping the Synod on the Amazon will allow is exactly such a general law, and he is not wrong when he says that if it can be done for a diocese in Brazil, it should also for one in Germany. But will it truly solve the problem? Maybe the bishop knows of throngs of married men wishing they could be priests, but I somehow doubt it. I think that the shortage of priests is tied to the shortage of active faithful and the lacking visibility of the Church. Bishops are struggling to counter these trends by merging parishes and giving parish priests responsibility for wide swathes of territory, but that is merely fighting the symptoms. The heart of the problem lies in clear teaching, visible charity and honest devotion. In the end, men must be attracted to the priesthood because of these, and not by the problems that will arise if they do not come.

 


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Bishops refuse to stand up against Pope, and with good reason

Earlier this week, a group of 20 Dutch Catholics wrote a letter to the bishops of the Netherlands, asking them to take a position against the course on which Pope Francis is taking the Church. It made international headlines (such as on sensationalist LifeSiteNews).

The letter lists a number of cases which prove their point, although some are rather far-fetched (they seem to see the Holy See’s acknowledgment of the existence of people such as feminists, Protestant, Muslims and homosexuals (let alone meeting them) as tantamount to supporting their ideas and opinions). The majority of points are related to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and that footnote in Amoris laetitia. All of their points, the writers say, can be summarised under the headers of Modernism and Protestantism. In this papacy, they see a resurgence of 1960s ideas which were buried under previous Popes.

The letters asks three things from the bishops, that they express themselves:

  1. In favour of an integral upholding of Humanae vitae;
  2. In favour of teaching and practice regarding reception of Holy Communion by validly married people in a new relationship;
  3. In favour of upholding the moral teachings regarding homosexual relationships;
  4. In favour of upholding the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, following the example of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium); especially in favour of upholding the teachings regarding the supremacy of God’s Law above the subjective conscience.

They also ask the bishops to join the request for clarification, the dubia, presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner.

The signatories of the petition feel supported by comments made in recent months and years by Cardinal Wim Eijk, who has repeatedly argued that Pope Francis should clear up the confusion caused by different interpretations of Amoris laetitia.

The four points mentioned above are misleading in that they assume that the bishops are currently not upholding these teachings. As current Church teaching stands, the bishops are upholding it, and while it is true that other bishops’ conferences are interpreting papal documents and statements differently, that does not change anything about the doctrine regarding human sexuality, reception of the sacraments and the relationships with people of other faiths.

Via their spokesperson, the Dutch bishops responded as follows:

“This week, the bishops have sent a joint response to the signatories of the petition.

The bishops let it be known that, while the issues addressed are important, they will speak about them directly with the Holy Father when they wish to do so, and not with the signatories of the petition.”

Of course, it was never very likely for the bishops to sign on to the dubia in any public way. Which is not to say that they automatically disagree with any of them. As mentioned above, Cardinal Eijk has rightly been critical about the different interpretations allowed by Amoris laetitia and the lack of any kind of clarification from the Pope. But, and I think they are right in this, the bishops seem to be of the opinion that no doctrine has changed since Pope Francis was elected, and they have acted accordingly, at least as a conference.

But the signatories of the petition write from a position which is not only highly critical of Pope Francis, but also from a world view which is wont to see conspiracies everywhere (with the traditional teachings of the Church as the main target of these conspiracies). This is a problem with a significant part of more conservative Catholic groups. They see enemies everywhere, and non-Catholics are especially suspect. This colours their views on ecumenism and relations with other faiths, as well as on people who do not live according to the ideals of the Church. So, while the petition is correct about the need for clarity, it presumes too much when it asks that the Church essentially stops talking to people with different outlooks (at least until they confess and convert). This negates the need for the bishops to agree to the petition, as they have already asserted that doctrine hasn’t changed, clarity is desirable in the case of Amoris laetitia, and cordial relations with non-Catholics are necessary and do not necessarily constitute any agreement with them.


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What Willibrord brought – the ecumenism of a procession

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175Every year, the inner city of Utrecht is the site of a procession in honour of the man who first built a church there – Saint Willibrord. Initially begun as an initiative by local faithful after the ancient law forbidding Catholic processions north of the great rivers was silently abrogated, it is now organised by the city parish and has come to represent not just Utrecht, but the entire country of the Netherlands, of which St. Willibrord is the patron. As such, the procession sees the participation of the archbishop of Utrecht, the auxiliary bishops and other clergy, seminarians, as well as representatives of other Christians churches and church communities. For this year’s edition, however, the archbishop, Cardinal Wim Eijk, has sought to limit the ecumenical aspect and no longer allows clergy of other denominations to participate in the procession as official respresentatives of their church or community. They remain welcome to participate, but not in any official capacity. The measure is said to have been taken to strenghen the Catholic identity of the event, and to avoid an undescribed sense of confusion among the faithful.

This has obviously led to much disappointment and misunderstanding. Cardinal Eijk is once again seen as the bishop who wants to smother all signs of ecumenism and Christian cooperation in general, and of course, he is presented as the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is diametrically opposed to.

In general, I can understand the disappointment (not least because the procession was intended to be open to other Christians from its inception), if not the thoughts about what the cardinal does and does not want, or what the Pope thinks of him. But one thing struck me in the comments I have read.

Saint Willibrord, some critics say, came to bring the Christian faith to this country, not just a single denomination, so a procession in his honour must be a general Christian one too. This is nonsense in so far that Willibrord was Catholic. He did not bring a general Christian faith consisting of the generalities that unite the Catholic, Orthodox and the countless Protestant groups, but the faith as it was communicated and understood by the Catholic Church, in unity with the Pope. Of course, in his time there were no Protestants yet. They came later, when men like Luther and Calvin broke away from the Catholic Church. But that means that they also broke away from the faith that St. Willibrord had and brought to the people in what would later become the Netherlands.

St. Willibrord was Catholic, not Protestant and not some sort of ‘generally Christian’. A procession bearing his name and carrying his relics not only honours him, but also his faith which became our faith.

Does this mean the procession can’t have an ecumenical element. Not at all. I think it is good if members of other Christian churches and church communities take part. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that St. Willibrord intended to bring anything other than the Catholic faith. The unspoken assumption in the comment I mentioned above does suggest that mistake. Strengthening the Catholic identity of the procession, underlining the Catholicity of the St. Willibrord and his faith, is a good reminder of what we are called to. But I am not sure if excluding the participation of non-Catholic Christians in any official capacity is the way to do it.

How God left the Netherlands – or is it the other way around?

Lots of news on social media today about the latest edition of the five-yearly poll on the faith of the Dutch. In short, the trend is as expected: fewer people who call themselves Christians, who believe in the existence of God, or go to any church. At the same time, and this is perhaps surprising, fewer people call themselves generally spiritual (this despite the apparently steady popularity of vaguely spiritual magazines, websites and television programs).

Among Catholics the trend is largely similar to the overal picture: fewer people remain members of the Catholic Church, and of those who do, fewer are active in the Church. Some numbers: 13% believes in the existence of heaven, and 17% in a personal God. Only one-third of the Dutch Catholics prays every day and less than half believe that Jesus is the Son of God or was sent by Him (in comparison, among Protestants 77% believes that Christ is God). Disconcerting numbers, to be sure. These are essential elements of the Christian faith, but apparently there are many Catholics who see no apparent problem in denying them and continuing to consider themselves Christian.

Does the root of the problem lie in a serious failure of the Church to communicate the faith? Perhaps in part: the Church has become marginalised over the past decades, by forces outside of her control, but also by a creeping fear of being too visibly Christian in society. Many Catholic communities, in my opinion, are content to keep their faith indoors, and when they do make it visible, it is in the form of charitable and social activities, which are laudable in their own right, but not exclusive to churches and faith communities. Another element, I think, is the extreme individualism prevalent in Dutch society. Certainly, society is still social, but when it comes to religion, the general idea is that people have to make up their own minds, and that means figuring it all out for themselves. For those many people who call themselves atheist, agnostic or vaguely spiritual, the decision to become Christian would be a personal one and one that must not be influenced by what others say, or else the individual’s freedom becomes curtailed. Others see religion is essentially curtailing freedom, but they are often blind to the fact that any life philosophy, including their own, is equally or even more curtailing. The moment one makes a choice or a decision, other options become impossible, and so the freedom to choose it has vanished. Lastly, an increasing number of people see no need to believe in God. They get along fine in society, and even if they don’t, they do not see how faith will change any of that. The value and need for faith is invisible, and so is the distinction between the various religions. What does it matter if you are Catholic or Protestant, Jew of Buddhist, if it works for you and it all boils down to being nice to each other? Here lies perhaps the hardest challenge for us: how to show the value of faith.

There is, however, always hope. Catholics under 40 are generally more orthodox in faith and practice, and that is a new trend. New and young Catholics do not want mere general sentiments of being nice. They can get that anywhere. They want a solid body of faith and philosophy, teaching and action. And the Catholic Church has that aplenty. It’s a shame that that is too often hidden.

Should we be overly worried about these developments? Of course, we are talking about increasing numbers of people who do not know about the truth of their existence. That is a concern. But God does not depend on popularity. He does not abandon His people, not even in the Netherlands. Let these numbers be an incentive for us, as Catholics, not to hide behind the doors of our churces, to take the faith out into the Streets, show its value and invite others in.