More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.

An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

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^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

Looking ahead to Amoris laetitia

Today will see the publication of the long-awaited Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, on love in the family. It will undoubtedly tackle all the hot-button topics discussed during and in between the two Synod of Bishops gatherings in 2014 and 2015: the question of divoreced and remarried faithful, certainly, but in the first place it will deal with the family and its role in society. As the title suggests, the starting point of Pope Francis’ tome will be love.

The text aims to collect and summarise all the disparate contributions from the Synod fathers and other participants from across the globe. Their thoughts and concerns vary with the places they come from, and what is a chief concern in Europe may be insignificant in Asia, or vice versa. The Exhortation will not and can not provide clear cut solutions that can be applied the same way in every country and community.

So what can we expect from Amoris laetitia? It will be in continuity with established Catholic doctrine. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is said to have been a major influence. Pope Francis will not change any teachings about marriage, family and the sacraments, and this should be no surprise, really. The Holy Father has been quite clear on those topics. While doctrine will be featured in the text, it will play second fiddle to pastoral care. That is what drives Pope Francis and his ministry in the Church. While the two are equally needed and supplement one another, doctrine must be at the service of pastoral care: without the solid ground of doctrine, pastoral care is inherently dishonest and therefore the opposite of mercy (to link to the Holy Year of Mercy – it is no accident that Amoris laetitia sees the light of day in this year). This is the open Church that Pope Francis wants: a Church that goes out into the streets and gets dirty.

The Exhortation will be lengthy, and Pope Francis has drafted specific reading suggestions for the bishops of the world, as well as a guideline on how they should present the text, asking for press conferences to be called at noon, as the text becomes officially available. This already indicates that the real work of the Exhortation, after the Synods and the drafting, must take place in the dioceses and faith communities. Pastoral care, so emphasised by Pope Francis, has its home there, and from there it must find its way into society.

There will be criticism, in part fueled by the image people have of Pope Francis and his supposed agenda. Such motivation is nothing but a dead end: let’s read Amoris laetitia with an open mind, aware of its roots in the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church, in the person of Jesus Christ, and with an eye on the future and the world we live in. That is where we must make the faith bloom, through our families and our witness of the love that comes from the Lord, and reflects His divine and truine love.

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

Last month, the Dioceses of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Rotterdam marked the 60th anniversary of their foundation. A week ago, the website of the latter diocese published the text of the Bishop Hans van den Hende’s homily for the festive Mass on 6 February. In it, the bishop puts the sixty years that the diocese has existed in perspective, and goes on the describe the diocese not as a territory, but as a part of the people of God, as the Second Vatican Council calls it in the decree Christus Dominus. Following Blessed Pope Paul VI, Bishop van den Hende explains that a diocese is a network of love. following the commandment of Jesus to remain in His love. This network starts in the hearts of people and as such it contributes to building a society of love and mercy.

20160206_Rotterdam_60JaarBisdom_WEB_©RamonMangold_08_348pix“Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we mark the sixtieth year of the existence of the Diocese of Rotterdam. “Sixty years, is that worth celebrating?”, some initially wondered. “We celebrated fifty years in a major way. One hundred years would be something.”

In the history of the Church, sixty years is not a long period of time. But sixty years is a long time when you consider it in relation to a human life. Many people do not reach the age of sixty because of hunger and thirst, war and violence. There are major areas where there hasn’t been peace for sixty years. Sixty years is long enough to contain a First and a Second World War.

Every year that the Lord gives us has its ups and downs, can have disappointments, great sorrow and joy. Sixty years we began as a diocese. In 1955, Pope Pius XII had announced that there would be two new dioceses in the Netherlands. The north of the country received the Diocese of Groningen. And here the Diocese of Rotterdam was created from the Diocese of Haarlem.

In 1956, on 2 February, both dioceses began. The new bishops came later. The bishops of the older dioceses of Utrecht and Haarlem initially were the administrators of the new dioceses. But in May of 1956 the first shepherds of the two new dioceses were consecrated (the consecration of Msgr. Jansen as bishop of Rotterdam was on 8 May 1956).

Describing the division of dioceses in provinces and areas, I could give you the impression that a diocese is in the first place a territory that can be pointed out geographically. But a diocese is not primarily a firmly defined area or a specific culture. The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese in the first place as a part of the people of God: “portio populi Dei” (CD, 11). The Vatican Council avoids here the word “pars”, that is to say, a physical piece.

A diocese is a part of the people of God. And that automatically makes a diocese a network of people united in faith around the one Lord. A network in the heart of society, connected to people that they may travel with. Pope Paul VI characterised the Church as a “network of love”, with the mission to contribute to a society of love in the entire world.

A network of love in unity with Jesus, who tells His disciples in the Gospel (John 15: 9-17), “Remain in my love”. Now that we are marking sixty years, we must recognise that things can go wrong in those sixty years, that there are things which do not witness to the love of Christ. How we treat each other, how parishes sometimes compete with each other, and also the sin of sexual abuse of minors and how we deal with that, these are part of our history.

Should we then say that this network of love is too difficult a goal to achieve? If we think that, we should remember what St. Paul says in the first reading (1 Cor. 1:3-9). He says: the network of love does not just belong to people, but is united with Jesus Christ, who helps us persevere until the end. Jesus is God’s only Son who has lived love to the fullest, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead and who made no reproaches but said, “Peace be with you” (cf. John 20:21).

The network of love is inspired by the Holy Spirit whose efficacy becomes visible where there is unity, where forgiveness is achieved, where people can bow to each other and serve one another.

To be a network of love is a duty that we must accept ever anew as a mission from the Lord. We are a diocese according to God’s heart, insofar as the witness to Christ has taken root in us (1 Cor. 1:5-6). When we do not consider the disposition of His heart we do not go His way. And when we do not store and keep His life in our hearts (cf. Luke 2:51), we are not able to proclaim His word and remain in His love.

As a diocese (as a local Church around the bishop) we are not just a part of the worldwide Church of Christ, but a part in which everything can happen which makes us Church in the power of the Holy Spirit: in the first place the celebration of the Eucharist as source and summit, and the other sacraments: liturgy. Communicating the faith in the proclamation of the Gospel: kerygma, which – in catechesis, for example – must be coupled with solidarity between the generations. And thirdly, that we, as a network of love, show our faith in acts of love: charity (cf. Deus caritas est, n. 23).

We celebrate this anniversary in a year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis. It is a holy year of mercy. Mercy means on the one hand to continue trusting in God’s love, asking for forgiveness for what’s not right, for what is a sin. Allowing Him into our hearts. On the other hand it means that we make mercy a mission in our lives and show it in our service to our neighbours, in acts of love, in works of mercy. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus summarises this for us: I was thristy and you gave me to drink, I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked, I was homeless and alone. Did you care for me? Jesus does not isolate people in need, but identifies Himself with them: You help me when you approach a person in need (vg. Matt. 25:40).

Characterising the diocese and the entire Church as a network of love is not a recent invention from our first bishop, Msgr. Jansen, but is an answer to Christ’s own mission for His Church. And many saints went before us on that path with that mission. Saint Lawrence was a deacon in third-century Rome (225-258), who helped the people where he could. And when the emperor wanted to take all the Church’s treasure, which wasn’t even in the form of church buildings, as the Christians did not have those yet, Lawrence did not come to him with the riches, but with the people in need. And he said, “These are the treasures of the Church”. These treasures don’t take the form of bank accounts or the wax candles the emperor loved so much, but people, who are images of God. Jesus looking into our hearts also asks us to see in the hearts of people. In this way we continue to celebrate Lawrence and his witness.

And what about Saint Elisabeth (1207-1231) who went out to give bread to people and help the sick? She was of noble birth and was expected not to do this, but she went out from her castle and helped people in need. In this way she was a face of God’s mercy. And consider Blessed Mother Teresa (1910-1997), of whom there is a statue in this church. She saw people collapsing in misery, lying in the gutter, and she saw in their hearts. And also in our city of Rotterdam we are happy to have sisters of Mother Teresa realising mercy in our time.

A network of love and building a society of love. What more can we do in love and mercy? Marking sixty years of our diocese, it is a good time to ask ourselves: has the witness of Christ, has His love properly entered our hearts? And then we should say, and I am answering on behalf of all of us: we could do better. We need mercy and are to communicate God’s merciful love. In this city and elsewhere we are to contribute to a civilisation of love, contribute to a community which builds up instead of tearing down. It is clear that neither the Kingdom of God nor a diocese can be found on a map, because it starts in the hearts of people.

I pray that we celebrate this anniversary today in the knowledge that God’s mercy accompanies us and that we may accept his mission of solicitude, compassion and mercy. This is more than enough work for us, but it is only possible when it fills our hearts. Amen.”

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

To the German bishops, Pope Francis speaks plainly

In a very straightforward address, Pope Francis today spoke to the German bishops, in Rome for their Ad Limina visit. His blunt summary of the faith in Germany: “[O]ne  can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.”

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The 67 German bishops had already met in smaller groups with the Pope in two meetings yesterday, but today they wrapped up their Ad Limina visit with a final audience with the Holy Father, in which Pope Francis not only discussed the issues facing the Church in Germany, but also the path towards solutions.

Like his words to the Dutch bishops in 2013, he once again warned against resignation and an exclusive focus on institutionalisation. “It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which puts its trust in administrative structures, in perfect organizations. Excessive centralization, rather than helping, complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamics,”Pope Francis said.

What is the solution then? First of all, a focus on people instead of inanimate objects and institutions, but also a  renewal of the sacraments of Confession, marriage, Eucharist and the priesthood. In that context, he said, “the precious collaboration of the laity, especially in those places where vocations are missing, cannot become a surrogate for the ministerial priesthood, or give it the semblance of being simply optional.”

Bishops, he added, must also never tire of protecting life “unconditionally from conception to natural death”. To fail in doing so, Pope Francis explained, makes one guilty of being part of a throw-away culture.

We may gather from these words that the very solution to the problem of dwindling knowledge of and participation in the faith lies exactly in that faith itself: in its sacraments, its teachings and the fullness of life it leads us to.

Pope Francis expressed his appreciation for the German Church’s efforts on behalf of refugees. “In the spirit of Christ, we must continue to meet the challenge of the great number of people in need,” he said.

The translation of the full remarks of Pope Francis follows:

“Dear brothers,

It is a joy for me to be able to greet you here at the Vatican on the occasion of your Ad Limina visit. The pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles is an important moment in the life of any bishop. It represents a renewal of the bond with the universal Church, which progresses through time and space as the pilgrim People of God, by carrying the heritage of faith through the centuries and to all peoples. I warmly thank the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for his kind words of greeting. At the same I want to express my gratitude to you for supporting my Petrine ministry with your prayer and your work. I especially thank you also for the great support that the Church in Germany offers, through your many aid organisations, to people all over the world.

We are currently living in an extraordinary period of time. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have come or are on their way to Europe, looking for shelter from war and persecution. The Christian churches and many individual citizens of your country are making an enormous effort to take these people in and give them support and human closeness. In the spirit of Christ we constantly want to face the challenge posed by the large number of those seeking help. At the same time we support all humanitarian initiatives to make the situation of life in the countries of origin tolerable again.

The Catholic communities in Germany clearly differ between east and west, but also between north and south. Everywhere the Church is professionally engaged in the social and charitable field, and she is also very active in education. It is important to ensure that the Catholic profile is maintained in these areas. In that way they are a not to be underestimated positive factor for the building of a sustainable society. On the other hand, precisely in the traditionally Catholic areas a strong decline in Sunday church attendance and sacramental life can be seen. Whereas in the 1960s every second believer generally went to Holy Mass on Sunday, today this number is often less than 10 percent. The sacraments are increasingly less used. Confession is often disappeared. Fewer and fewer Catholics let themselves be confirmed or enter into the sacrament of marriage. The number of vocations to the service of the priesthood and to religious life has drastically decreased. In the face of these facts, we can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.

What can we do about that? First of all it is necessary to overcome a paralysing resignation. It is certainly not possible to build something on the flotsam and jetsam of the “good old days” that have been. But we can  certainly draw inspiration from the life of the early Christians. Let us think of Prisca and Aquila, the loyal co-workers of Saint Paul. As a married couple they proclaimed with convincing words (cf. Acts 18:26), but above all with their lives, that the truth, founded in the love of Christ for His Church, is truly believable. They opened their house for the proclamation and drew strength for their mission from the Word of God. In the face of a tendency for a progressive institutionalisation of the Church, the example of these “volunteers” may give us pause to think. New structures keep being created, but the faithful are lacking. It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which leads to us putting our trust in administration, in the perfect apparatus. But an excessive centralisation only complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic, instead of helping her (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 32). The Church is not a closed system, constantly revolving around the same questions and puzzles. The Church is alive, she responds to local people, she can make restless and stimulate. She has a face, which is not rigid. She is a Body that moves, grows and has feelings. And this belongs to Jesus Christ.

The current need is for pastoral reorientation, and also “to make [the structures of the Church] more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (Evangelii gaudium, 27). Certainly, the conditions are not necessarily favourable in modern society. A measure of worldliness still prevails. Worldliness deforms souls and stifles the awareness of reality.

A worldly person lives in a world he has created himself. He surrounds himself, so to speak, with tinted windows, so as not to have to look outside. It is difficult to reach such people. But on the other hand, our faith tells us that God is always the first to act. This certainty leads us to prayer. We pray for all men and women in our city, in our diocese, and we also pray for ourselves, that God will send a beam of His love’s light and, through the tinted windows, touch hearts and help them understand His message. We must be with the people, with the glow of those who have first accepted the Gospel. And “[w]henever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new”” (Evangelii gaudium, 11). In this way, alternative paths and forms of catechesis can arise, which can help young people and families to rediscover authentically and with joy the general faith of the Church.

In this context of the new evangelisation it is imperative that the bishop, in the various fields of his pastoral ministry, scrupulously perform his duty as teacher of the faith, the faith handed down and lived in the living community of the universal Church. Like a caring father the bishop will accompany the theological faculties and help the students to keep the ecclesial significance of their mission in mind. Faithfulness to the Church and the magisterium does not deny academic freedom, but requires an attitude of willingness towards the gifts of God. The principle of sentire cum Ecclesia must especially honour those who educate and form the younger generations. The presence of Catholic faculties at state educational institutions is therefore an opportunity to advance the dialogue with society. Utilise also the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt with its Catholic faculty and the various scientific departments. As the sole Catholic university in your country this institute is of great value for all of Germany and an appropriate application by the entire Bishops’ Conference would be desirable, to strengthen its national importance and to promote the interdisciplinary exchange of views on issues of the present and the future, in the spirit of the Gospel.

When we then take a look at the parish, the community in which the faith is most often visible and lived, so the bishop must especially keep the sacramental life close to his heart. Two points need to be emphasised here: Confession and the Eucharist. The forthcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy offers the opportunity to rediscover the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Confession is where one is given God’s forgiveness and mercy. In Confession the conversion of individual faithful and the reform of the Church begins. I am confident that in the coming Holy Year and afterwards this sacrament, so important for spiritual renewal, is taken into account more often in the pastoral plans of dioceses and parishes. Likewise, it is necessary to make the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the priesthood always clearly visible. Pastoral plans which do not attach due importance to the ordained priests in their service of directing, teaching and sanctifying in connection to the building up of the Church and sacramental life, are, according to experience, doomed to failure. The valuable assistance of lay Christians in the life of the communities, especially there where vocations are sadly lacking, can not replace the priestly service or even make it appear optional. Without priests there is no Eucharist. Pastoral care of vocations begins with the desire for priests in the hearts of the faithful. An assignment of the bishop, which can not be overestimated, is ultimately the openness to life. The Church must not tire of being an advocate for life and must make no concessions on the fact that human life must be fully protected from conception to natural death. We can not make any compromises here without ourselves becoming complicit in the sadly widespread throwaway culture. How great are the wounds that our society has suffered because of the exclusion and discarding of the weakest and most defenseless – unborn life as well as the old and sick! We are all its victims.

Dear brothers, I wish that the meetings that you are having with the Roman Curia in these days will enlighten for you the path with your particular Churches in the coming years and help you to ever better fulfill your beautiful and pastoral mission. So that, with joy and confidence you can accomplish your valued and indispensable cooperation in the mission of the universal Church. I continue to ask for your prayer, that with God’s help I can exercise my Petrine ministry, and similarly, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Blesseds and Saints of your country. I gladly give you and the faithful of your dioceses the Apostolic Blessing.”

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”