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.

It starts with sorry – another Catholic apology in Lund?

“I do not have a direct line with the Pope, but I certainly expect that there will be a Lund Declaration”. Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte about Pope Francis’ October visit to Sweden, where he will attend a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation. From protestant circles comes the hope that this declaration will include a Catholic acknowledgement of past mistakes  in dealing with the church communities that came of the Reformation (and also with Martin Luther himself). I have to wonder if the recent apologies made by Pope Francis, and those made by Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, are anything like the acknowledgements hoped for?

Fact is that the Catholic Church has long been aware and honest about mistakes made in the past. Have the Protestant churches done anything similar? I know of none. Father Dwight Longenecker had a thoughtful blog post about that recently.

We can make all the declarations, acknowledgements and apologies we want, but if it ends with that, ecumenism is going nowhere.  They are a starting point, and as such we shouldn’t repeat them over and over. An apology once made remains valid, of course. After acknowledging our past, we can proceed to the future. With Father Dwight I wonder, are the Protestants that far yet? Maybe what we should hope for is a declaration in which they also honestly acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them, and not always look at the Catholic Church to repeat how wrong they have been. We know. We have said so. We regret it and are now looking forward to right the wrongs. In that way the Reformation can be commemorated for what it is: not a reason to celebrate, but a very painful rupture in the unity of the Christian church.

For Groningen and Rotterdam, 60th birthdays

60 years ago today, the Dutch dioceses of Groningen and Rotterdam were officially established. This was the most recent major change in the composition of the Dutch Church province (in 2005 and 2008 respectively, Groningen and Haarlem changed their names to Groningen-Leeuwarden and Haarlem-Amsterdam, but those changes did not include any territorial modifications). In addition to the establishment of two new dioceses, which brought the total number to seven, parts of dioceses were also exchanged: Haarlem received some territory from Utrecht, and Breda was expanded with areas previously belonging to Haarlem and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.


^Maps showing the location of the Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden. Rotterdam was formed out of territory belonging to Haarlem, located to the north and south, while Groningen was taken from Utrecht to its south.

The creation of Rotterdam and Groningen was initiated by Pope Pius XII, who entrusted the practical matters to the Internuncio to the Netherlands, Archbishop Paolo Giobbe, who went to work immediately and issued a decree on the 25th of January of the following year, coming into effect a week later, on 2 February. The Apostolic Letter commanding the changes was titled Dioecesium Imutationes, Changes in Dioceses, a rather unimaginative title which describes the purpose rather well. There is a PDF file of a Dutch translation of this Letter available here.

Below I present an English translation of the relevant text describing the new dioceses, as well as the other territorial changes. It is a translation of the Dutch translation, which was written in rather official words which may even seem archaic to modern ears. But my translation will hopefully get the message across.

“From the territory of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we separate that part containing those areas which are commonly called Groningen, Friesland and Drente, plus the Noordoostpolder, and we will make that territory a new diocese which we will name the Diocese of Groningen, after the city of Groningen, which will be the head and seat of the new diocese. In this city the bishop will reside and have his seat, namely in the church of the Holy Bishop and Confessor Martin, which we will therefore elevate to the dignity of cathedral.

Additionally, we seperate from the Diocese of Haarlem that province called Zuid-Holland, and make it another diocese, namely Rotterdam, to be called such after the city of the same name. This renowned city, which we will make the residence of this new diocese, where the episcopal seat will be established by the bishop in the church of the Holy Martyr Lawrence and the Holy Confessor Ignatius, self-evidently with the rights and dignities befitting a cathedral.

Lastly, we separate from the Archdiocese of Utrecht that part, which in Dutch is called the Gooiland and add it for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Haarlem.

From the Diocese of Haarlem we separate the part which includes most of the province of Zeeland, and from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch the entire strip of the deanery of St. Geertruidenberg, and we join both areas for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Breda.”

The reasons for the creation of the new dioceses are given as the growth in number and activities of the Catholics in the Netherlands, as well as the perceived need to redistribute the means and possibilities according to the needs present, to safeguard the divine truth and to promote the social environment. The size of the dioceses was also an obstacle for the bishops to conduct regular visitations to all parts of their sees. Haarlem stretched all along the western coast of the country, and by detaching Rotterdam and adding Zeeland to Breda it was roughly halved in size. The same is true for Utrecht, which stretched from the great rivers in the south to the islands of the northern coasts, and from the major cities in the west to the rural areas along the German border. The creation of the Diocese of Groningen meant that it now stretched only half as far north.

niermanFinding bishops for the new dioceses did not take overly long. Both were appointed on the same day, 10 March 1956. In Groningen,  it was the  dean of the city of Groningen, Pieter Antoon Nierman (pictured at left, in a photo from 1969). He was consecrated in May by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Bernard Alfrink. Fr. Jan Alferink, a retired priest of the diocese, recalls those days, when he was studying philosophy in seminary:

“There were about eight or nine students from the north. We did not go to the installation of Bishop Nierman in Groningen. We simply had classes. Today you’d go there with a bus. Bishop Nierman later came to us to get acquainted. The new diocese was a completely new experience. The Archdiocese of Utrecht was very big, of course. Those who worked in and around Groningen did regret the split, as it made their work area smaller. We did not experience it to be a disappointment.”

SFA007005231In Rotterdam the choice fell on the dean of Leyden, Martien Antoon Jansen (pictured at right in a photo from around 1960). He was consecrated on 8 May by Bishop Johannes Huibers, the bishop of Haarlem.

Since 1956, Groningen has had four bishops and Rotterdam five. Both have given an archbishop and cardinal to the Dutch Church: Wim Eijk (bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2007, cardinal since 2012) and Adrianus Simonis (bishop of Rotterdam from 1970 to 1983, cardinal since 1985).

The bishops of Groningen:

  • Pieter Antoon Nierman, bishop from 1956 to 1969.
  • Johann Bernard Wilhelm Maria Möller, bishop from 1969 to 1999.
  • Willem Jacobus Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2007.
  • Gerard Johannes Nicolaas de Korte, bishop since 2007.

The bishops of Rotterdam:

  • Martien Antoon Jansen, bishop from 1956 to 1970.
  • Adrianus Johannes Simonis, bishop from 1970 to 1983.
  • Ronald Philippe Bär, bishop from 1983 to 1993.
  • Adrianus Herman van Luyn, bisschop from 1993 to 2011.
  • Johannes Harmannes Jozefus van den Hende, bishop since 2011.

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgIn their 60 years of existence, both dioceses have struggled with the challenge of being Catholic in a secular world. Rotterdam became even more urbanised and multicultural, while Groningen had its own blend of Protestantism, atheism and even communism, with a few Catholic ‘islands’. For the northern diocese the course of choice was ecumenism and social activism, making the Church visible in society, while trying to maintain the Catholic identity where it could be found. Church attendance, while low like in the Netherlands as whole, remains the highest among the Dutch dioceses. The diocese will celebrate the anniversary today, with a Mass offered by the bishop at the cathedral, followed by a reception.

Wapen_bisdom_Rotterdam_svgThe Diocese of Rotterdam also has a taste of Groningen, as its current bishop hails from that province and was vicar general of Groningen-Leeuwarden before he became a bishop (first of Breda and in 2011 of Rotterdam). His predecessor, Bishop van Luyn, was also born in Groningen. Ecumenism and an international outlook have marked the diocese, as well as its proximity to the world of politics. The royal family lives within its boundaries, parliament is located there, as are many diplomatic missions, including that of the Holy See in the form of Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli. The 60th birthday of the diocese will be marked on 6 February, with a Mass at the cathedral.

Cardinal concerns – 13 cardinals write to the Pope

Note: This story is developing as many questions have arisen about the contents of the letter and the names of the cardinals who signed it. Treat it with much care.

First there was the 5 Cardinals Book and the 11 Cardinals Book, and now we have the 13 Cardinals Letter. Via Sandro Magister comes a letter that 13 cardinals sent to Pope Francis on the eve of the Synod, on 5 October. In it, they express their concerns and questions about the revised processes of the Synod.


The cardinals, among them Cardinal Eijk, claim that the Instrumentum laboris is flawed in parts and has an excessive influence on the discussions and the final document (if there is even going to be one). The fact that debate is limited to the small language groups and that there is no voting on propositions or the composition of the drafting committee of the reworked Instrumentum are also points of concern. The cardinals also say that anyone tasked with drafting anything should be elected, not appointed. The new procedures, they say, are not true to the spirit of the Synod and their reason for having been made remains unclear.

Their concern that the deliberations of the Synod on a pastoral topic will become dominated by the theological/doctrinal question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried has in part proven to be unwarranted. Many Synod fathers, not least from the west, have insisted that the Synod is about much more than that question. But as this issue continues to make headlines and dominate the reports and opinion pieces, the letter’s final paragraph remains interesting to read:

“If [the question of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful dominates the deliberations], this will inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.  The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”

The letter has been signed by the following cardinals:

  • Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna
  • Thomas Cardinal Collins, archbishop of Toronto
  • Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York
  • Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht
  • Péter Cardinal Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and relator general of the Synod
  • Gerhard Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod
  • George Cardinal Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy
  • Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, Major Penitentiary
  • Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Angelo Cardinal Scola, archbishop of Milan
  • Jorge Cardinal Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas
  • André Cardinal Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod

Some have chosen to see this letter as an act of opposition to Pope Francis by overly orthodox prelate who don’t much like the Pope anyway, which, in my opinion is overly simplistic. While a number of the thirteen also contributed to the aforementioned 5 an 11 Cardinals Books and are know to be more conservative in theological and doctrinal matters, others (such as Cardinals Dolan, Collins and Vingt-Trois) are at least less vocally so. Their presence on the list of authors may reflect the more universal nature of the concerns.

These concerns over the Instrumentum laboris are hardly limited to these 13, judging by the commentary by, to name but one, Archbishop Mark Coleridge in his delightful blog posts from the Synod. Another prelate, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, hardly a mean old orthodox reactionary, has also said that the Instrumentum is flawed, but that its purpose is to be sacrificed.

The Synod is a venue of discussion, and that is exactly what we’re getting. Not only about the topic at hand, but also about the best ways of running these affairs. This is all the more prudent as rumours have begun to circulate that the Synod of Bishops will become an even more permanent and regular fixture of Church governance.

Edit: four of the alleged signatories of the letter, Cardinals Angelo Scola, André Vingt-Trois, Mauro Piacenza and Wilfrid Napier have now denied signing this letter. It remains to be seen what this means for the reliability of the letter and other cardinals on the list.

The religious basis of the Relief of Groningen, or why bishops should not be princes

Tomorrow he city where I live, Groningen, marks the end of the siege of 1672, when the bishop of Münster had to give up his attempts to defeat the protestant inhabitants of the city and so reconquer those parts of his diocese that he had lost in the Dutch revolt against the Habsburgs. On his side, if not in the form of pratical support, he knew France and England, as well as the bishop of Cologne, who also had territorial interests around Groningen.

bommen berendMany people are no longer aware of what it exactly is that is being celebrated, or even that the colloquial name of the day, Bommen Berend (Berend of the Bombs) (pictured), refers to the city’s enemy, Bishop Christoph Bernhard von Galen. That bishop was not only the spiritual head of the Diocese of Münster, but also the worldly ruler of the Prince-Bishopric of Münster (not the same thing), which until shortly before 1672 had included the eastern parts of the province of Groningen. He wanted those parts back and saw the presence of Protestant rebels in the sole major city in that area of the Dutch republic as a threat. The siege of the city was the final act of a successful campaign across Drenthe to the south and the eastern parts of the province of Groningen. But this success would prove to be temporary as Bishop Bernhard could not take Groningen.

There is still some evidence of the siege and subsequent victory visible in the city. City commander Carl von Rabenhaupt has a modest statue on the main square, and the best-known café in the city is named after the cannon that, legend has it, was so accurate that it shot a plate of cabbage and bacon away from Bishop von Galen, as he sat down for dinner at a convent south of the city. Said convent is long gone (I was at its location a few days ago), the city has long since expanded to where the bishop’s troops had their trenches (as I am typing this, I may be sitting not too far from them), but the celebration of the victory over the foreign prince-bishop has continued.

Today, the Relief of Groningen is a cultural and secular day, but it marks an event with deeply rooted religious undertones, even if that was often overshadowed by secular concerns of power. Thje inevitable consequence of having men be both bishops and princes.

In Utrecht, a statue for a Pope

Pope Adrian VIAlmost 500 years after his death, the only Dutch Pope will be getting a statue in his native city of Utrecht. Out of an initial sixty, three sculptors will be invited to make a design that will eventually be turned into a full scale statue. As a possible location the Pausdam in the old centre of the city is being considered, although the sculptor will have a say in that.

Pope Adrian VI was Pope for less than two years, in 1522 and 1523. Although he was born in Utrecht, there is some debate about whether he can be considered a Dutchman. The city was the heart of the Prince-Bishopric of Utrecht, part of the Burgundian Netherlands in the Holy Roman Empire. There was no sovereign Dutch state to speak of at the time, so Adrian VI can also be considered a German Pope. Whatever his nationality, he was the last non-Italian Pope until Pope St. John Paul II.

Before becoming Pope. Adriaan Florensz, as his birth name was, worked his way up in the world. Vice-chancellor of Louvain University, personal advisor to the governess of the Habsburg Netherlands, tutor to the future Emperor Charles V. Heading to Spain in 1515, he was made Bishop of Tortosa  and Inquisitor General of Aragon in 1516. He was created a cardinal in 1517. During Emperor Charles’ minority, Cardinal Adriaan was co-regent of Spain, and regent when the adult Charles was in the Netherlands in 1520.

In 1522, Adriaan was elected to the papacy as a compromise to break the deadlock between Spanish and French candidates. The new Pope arrived in Rome in August of 1522, more than seven months after his election. Wanting to be a peacemaker  to unity the European princes against the Turks, Pope Adrian VI is perhaps most notable today for seeing the need to reform the Curia, which he privately considered part of the reason for the Protestant revolt. He died in September 1523 and is buried in the Santa Maria dell’Anima church in Rome.

paushuizeIn Utrecht there are few reminders of Pope Adrian, but most visible is the house he had built there for his retirement when he was still a cardinal. Of course, he never lived there because of his election to the papacy. The house is used today as a presentation space for the King’s  Commissioner and the provincial government. In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II visited the house.

A statue commemorating the only pontiff to hail from what would one day become the Netherlands would certainly be a fitting addition to the city where he was born. A further valuable addition would be a renewed recognition of the role Pope Adrian VI played in Europe and in the Church.