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.”


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.”

The last big step – the German language group’s third commentary

The last big contribution of the German language group, their commentary on the third part of the Instrumentum laboris. There are several interesting elements in it, to begin with the first paragraph in which the Synod fathers strongly criticise the comments of some of their colleagues about what happens in the deliberations. They also criticise a too-strict application of the rules, and especially the language used in doing so.

Despite the expectations of some, the group also comes out strong in defence of the family and magisterial documents sich as Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio.

The most difficult topic is left until last: the question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried faithful access to the sacraments? The German language group seems to be in favour of it, but also emphasises that this is a decision that needs to be made in the internal forum, in conversation between the people concerned and the priest accompanying them, and it involves some tough questions.

The German original is here, and my translation follows:

We have witnessed with great concern and regret the public statements from certain Synod fathers about persons, content and course of the Synod. These contradict the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its fundamental rules. The imagery and comparisons used are not simplistic and false, but also hurtful. We firmly distance ourselves from these.

It is a joint desire of the German language group to complement the title of the Relatio finalis, “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World”, with the subtitle “Considerations and suggestion for the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in order to better express the classification of the text, which is not a decisive document. We recommend for the introduction a mention of the global questionnaire and an expression of gratitude and esteem.

Regarding a clearer emphasis on the family as subject of pastoral care it should be specified that Christian families are call to witness of the Gospel of marriage which has been entrusted to them. The Christian spouses and families are part of a new family of Christ, His Church. In that way the spouses can be a sacrament for the world. The “new family of Jesus Christ”, the Church, should encourage, strengthen and enable  the spouses to be such witnesses. This allows, after all, the Church to always learn from the spouses’ and families’ experiences of life and faith.

Here, a confession was important to us: wrongly understood efforts to uphold the Church’s  teachings time and again led to hard and merciless attitudes, which hurt people, especially single mothers and children born out of wedlock, people living together before or in place of marriage, homosexually oriented people and divorced and remarried people. As bishops of our Church we ask these people for forgiveness.

We have also spoken extensively about the relation between speech, thought and action, especially regarding a humane understanding of human sexuality. A suitable and renewable language is is crucial, in the first place for the introduction of adolescent children and youth to a mature human sexuality. This is in the first place the task of the parent and can not be left to education at school or media and social media alone. Many parents and pastoral workers find it difficult to find an appropriate and at the same respectful language which places biological  sexuality in the overall context of friendship, love, enriching complementarity and the mutual commitment of woman and man.

The working group found it important to emphasise that the Christian conviction in its basis assumes that God has created humanity as man and woman and has blessed them so that they become one flesh and fruitful (cf. Gen. 1:27 onwards; 2:24). In their equal personal dignity, as in their distinctiveness, man and woman are Gods good creation. Although, according to the Christian understanding of the unity of body of soul, biological gender (“sex”) and social-cultural gender roles (“gender”) are analytically different from one another, they can not be fundamentally or arbitrarily separated. All theories that regard human sexes as a subsequent construct and encourage an arbitrary social interchangeability, are te be rejected as ideologies. The unity of body of soul includes that the concrete social self-image and social role of men and women in cultures are different and subject to pronounced change. Therefore, the awareness of the full personal dignity and the public responsibility of women is a positive sign of the times that the Church values and encourages (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 22).

We have spoken about the connection between the sacraments of baptism and marriage and the necessity of faith.

The Catholic confession about marriage is based on the word of the Lord in Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition and is faithfully retained in its substance through the magisterium. Nevertheless, there are tensions between the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical approaches in the theological development, which can lead to difficulties in pastoral practice.

For example, the axiom “every marriage contract between Christian is a sacrament per se” must be reconsidered. In societies that are no longer homogeneous Christian, or countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds, a Christian understanding of marriage can no longer be readily assumed, even among Catholics. A Catholic without faith in God and His revelation in Jesus Christ can not automatically enter into a sacramental marriage without or even against his knowledge or will. He lacks the intention to at least want what the Church understands as marriage. Although the sacraments are not effective through the faith of the recipient, they, but also not without or regardless of him; At the least, the grace remains fruitless, when it is not received freely and willingly with faith determined by love.

The question also arises among our fellow Christians whose religious convictions deny the sacramentality of marriage (with its essential properties), if a sacramental marriage has occurred despite this. This does not mean that the validity of non-Catholic marriages is denied by the Church, or that the the work of God’s  mercy in non-sacramental marriages is questioned. We acknowledged the variety of studies about this question and recommend and deeper study of these questions with the goal of a new magisterial reappraisal and a greater coherence of the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical statements about marriage with pastoral practice.

We have an addition to interfaith marriages: In view of the topic of interfaith marriage the positive aspects and the special vocation of such a marriage must be mentioned in the first place, as the non-Catholic Christians are in no way outside the one Church, but are a part of it through Baptism and a certain, if imperfect, communion (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Interfaith marriages may also be considered as house churches and have a specific vocation and mission, consisting in the exchange of gifts in the ecumenism of life.

In view of the importance of the family in society and state, the working group underlines as starting point, that marriage and family precede the state. They are basis and “vital cell of society” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 11). There can be no common life without family. The political community is therefore obliged to do everything to enable and permanently promote this “vital cell”. The repeatedly bemoaned “structural disregard” for the family must be overcome. The means for that are in the first place access to housing and work, the facilitation of education and childcare, as well as fairer benefits for families in tax legislation which acknowledges in equitable manner what families give to society. It should ne clear: not the family must be subordinate to economic interests, but vice versa. The family is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, which is an indispensable part of the Church’s proclamation and evangelisation. All Christians are called to be engaged in the field of  the political design of social coexistence and so to help families live better lives and flourish. Additionally, politicians must especially observe the principle of subsidiarity and not restrict the rights of families. Here, the “Charter of the Rights of the Family” must be noted. The Church as a whole must play an active and exemplary part with her engagement in the realm of family education, child care, schools, counseling centers and institutions for family aid.

In view of marriage preparation it was a concern of the working group to point out that a short conversation or a brief introduction do not suffice. Since many couples are unable to build upon an education marked by faith, the introduction of a marriage catechumenate is strongly recommended, taking at least several months, to really come to a mature “yes”, carried by faith, that is aware of the finality of the marriage covenant and trusts in God’s  faithfulness.

The aspect of responsible parenthood was one of the central discussion topics in the working group. According to the order of God’s creation, the marital love of husband and wife and the transmission of human life are ordered towards one another. God has called man and woman to participate in his work of creation and at the same time as interpreters of His love and placed the future of mankind in their hands. Husband and wife should realise this mission of creation in responsible parenthood. Before the face of God, and with consideration of their medical, economic, psychological and social situation, their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of this children, as well as the wellbeing of the greater family and society, they will decide the number and spacing in time of their children (Gaudium et spes, 50). According to the integral personal and human character of conjugal love the right way of family planning is the consensual call of the spouses, the consideration of the rhythm and the respect for the dignity of the partner. In this sense the Encyclical Humanae vitae (10-12) and the Apostolic Letter Familiaris consortio (14, 28-35) should be redeveloped and the willingness to have children be awakened, contrary to a mentality that is often hostile to life and partly to children.

Young spouses should be encouraged time and again to give life to children. This will make the openness to life in family, Church and society grow. The Church, with her numerous facilities for children contribute to a greater childfriendliness for children in society, but also in the Church. Observing responsible parenthood requires the formation of conscience. Conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16). The more spouses set out to listen to God in conscience, and the more they allow themselves to be guided spiritually, the more their decisions will be inwardly free from affective inclinations and the adaptation of their behaviour to society. For the sake of this freedom of conscience the Church strongly rejects forced government measures in favour of contraception, sterilisation or even abortion.

We have also debated extensively about the integration of divorced and civilly remarried people in the Church community.

It is known that there has been strong struggle, in  both sessions of the Synod of Bishops, about the questions of whether and to what extent divorced and remarried, faithful, when they want to take part in the life of the Church, can, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The discussions have shown that there are no simple and general solutions to this question. We bishops have experienced the tensions connected to this question as many of our faithful, their concerns and hopes, warnings and expectations have accompanied us in our deliberations.

The discussions clearly show that some clarification and explanation to further develop the complexity of these questions in the light of the Gospel, the doctrine of the Church and with the gift of discernment. We can freely mention some criteria which may help in our discernment. The first criterium is given by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 84, when he invites us: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid”. It is therefore the duty of the pastors to travel this path of discernment together with those concerned. It would be helpful to take, in an honest examination of conscience, the step of contemplation and penance together. The divorced and remarried should then ask themselves how they dealt with their children when their marital Union fell into crisis? Where there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the partner left behind? What is the effect of the new relationship on the greater family and the community of faithful? What is the example for the young who are discerning marriage? An honest contemplation can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which He refuses no one who brings their failures and needs before Him.

Such a path of contemplation and penance can, in the forum internum, with an eye on the objective situation in conversation with the confessor, lead to personal development of conscience and to clarification, to what extent access to the sacrament is possible. Every individual must examine himself according to the word of the Apostle Paul, which applies to all who come to the table of the Lord:  “Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned” (1 Cor. 11:28-31).

Like those of the first two parts, the modi to the third part of the Instrumentum laboris were worked upon in a good synodal spirit and adopted unanimously.

Corpus Christi – The Eucharist as source and summit

While it is celebrated in the Netherlands next Sunday, today is the actual day of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, the feast day devoted to one of the most mysterious truths of our faith: the Real Presence of Our Lord in the consecrated bread and wine.

My parish priest asked my to translate his homily for the feast day for use in the English-language Mass on Saturday, and I was given his permission to share it here in my blog (in a slightly edited form).

eucharist“”What is the Holy Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist?”, was the question asked in a Catholic group. Silence. “We come together to pray”, someone eventually mumbled. “To honour God”, someone added, “and to ask for His assistance”.

That is all true, but we always do that when we pray, in Vespers or Adoration or whatever communal prayer we have. But what is the unique element of a Mass? Why is Holy Mass the central and most characteristic celebration of the Catholic Church and, by the way, also of the Orthodox Churches of the East? Because in it we remember the Easter of Jesus – His death and resurrection – and make it present in the signs of bread and wine. It is the celebration of the heart of our faith.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, they come together in the Eucharist. The one sacrifice on the Cross of Good Friday remains present among us in the signs of bread and wine, as at the Last Supper Jesus said about the bread: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you”, and about the chalice of wine: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.  And so, the next day He gave up His Body and Blood for us on the Cross. And at the Last Supper, Jesus added: “Do this in memory of me.”

He wanted the one sacrifice on the Cross – literally the crucial moment in the history of God with people – to remain among us in this way, sacramentally, which means in signs but also real, as each sacrament achieves in signs (for example, the water at Baptism) what it indicates.

All sacraments, the entire sacramental life of the Church, is contained in the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, in the Eucharistic sacrifice that our Saviour established in the night that He was betrayed, to let the sacrifice continue through all the ages, until He comes again.

That is why the Eucharist is source and summit of all the sacraments, of all of Christian life. Everything flows from it and everything leads back to it. It is supper and  sacrifice. Bread and wine are at the heart of creation. They contain what the earth has to offer. Bread gives life and existence to man, wine gives him joy. Gifts of creation, work of our hands and from them we offer to God – a sacrifice, but the true sacrifice is the gift of self.

At the multiplication of loaves it already became clear how Jesus saves all from distress and gives in abundance. At the wedding at Cana it was the same: abundance and the best – the new, second creation already shows itself. All lines come together at the Last Supper: the lines of bread and wine, of supper and sacrifice, of gift and gift of self, of creation and salvation, of past, present and future – until He comes again.

Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, through the power of His word and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit is continuously implored, and especially through the laying on of hands to bring to life, in the Eucharist, and at ordinations. Of course Christ is present in the Church in many ways: in His word, in her prayer (“where two or three are gathered in My name…”), also in the poor, the sick and prisoners (“what you have done for the least of Mine…”), in the sacraments, in the person of the priest.  But nowhere in that intense way as in bread and wine. In bread and wine Christ himself is completely present. That is why we kneel at the Eucharistic prayer, and the priest kneels after the words of consecration: not for bread and wine, but for Christ in the signs of bread and wine – through Christ’s own words.

When we have received Him like this in Holy Communion, we abide with Him in a silent and intimate conversation. Yes, we believe in the continuing presence of Jesus in the Blessed Hosts that remain and which have traditionally been given to the sick and which are again given at the next Mass. Since the 13th century that was expanded into the adoration of the Eucharistic Lord in the monstrance. We will conclude this Eucharist with a short time of silent adoration and a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.


Father Rolf Wagenaar is parish priest of St. Martin’s parish in Groningen and cathedral administrator of the Cathedral of Saints Joseph and Martin, Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

From a Hildesheim pub, Dresden’s Bishop Koch on marriage, divorce and sacraments

In Germany, the bishops are on the eve of their spring plenary in Hildesheim, and as I announced earlier, six of them spent that eve in the pub. One of these six was Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meißen who has recently been in the news for comments in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. He was asked about this same topic tonight in an at times emotional conversation, as the hosting Diocese of Hildesheim reports.


When it comes to relating to faithful who have divorced and later married another partner, Bishop Koch said that the Church should proceed according to the principle of subsidiarity.

“With that I do not mean different local uses of the sacrament of marriage, but how we relate to people who are suffering as divorced or remarried.”

This seems to be something different than what many accuse the German bishops as a whole of: being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics access to the sacraments.  By referring to the principle of subsidiarity, Bishop Koch points out the problem must be resolved not in the higher echelons of the Church, be it the bishops’ offices or Rome, but on the ground, involving the people directly affected by the problem.

In this case it would seem to mean that Bishop Koch is not so much in favour of changing the Church’s teaching on marriage and sacraments (as, he says, life is too varied to be caught in rules anyway), but is mainly concerned with how we relate to divorced and remarried Catholics, who are most directly affected by their problem.

How this would work in practice remains to be seen, I think, although individually tailored approaches to people are always to be preferred over standardised ways of dealing with situations.

For Lent, the cardinal once more on church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIn his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.

In the letter, the cardinal writes:

“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”

Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:

“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”

This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.

Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.

From the front row – new interview with Archbishop Gänswein

An interesting interview in Christ & Welt, a weekly supplement to Die Zeit in Germany, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein yesterday. It sheds some interesting lights on recent developments in the Vatican, such as Pope Francis’ Christmas talk to the Curia, the Pope’s relationship with the media, the Synod and also retired Pope Benedict XVI and some personal touches. Worth a read:

Cgänswein&W: At Christmas Pope Francis caused some furore with his talk about fifteen diseases of the Roman Curia. You were seated directly next to the Pope. At what point did you stop counting?

Georg Gänswein: As Prefect of the Papal Household I sat, as ever on such occasions, at the Pope’s right. And as ever I had a copy of the talk in my briefcase, but I hadn’t had the time to read it beforehand. When the list of diseases began I thought to myself, “Now it’s going to be interesting”, and it became ever more interesting. I counted until the ninth disease…

What went through your head?

Normally the Pope uses the Christmas reception for the Curia to look back on the past year and look ahead to the coming one. It was different this time. Pope Francis preferred to hold up a mirror of conscience to the cardinals and bishops, among them a few who were retired…

Did you feel like it appealed to you?

Of course I asked myself, “Who does this concern? What disease affects you? What needs to be corrected?” At one point I had to think of my many moving boxes.

Do you mean the anecdote about the moving of a Jesuit with countless possessions? Francis had said that moving was a sign of the “disease of hoarding”.

Exactly. Since leaving the Apostolic Palace after the retirement of Pope Benedict in February of 2013 more than a few of my things are still in boxes in a storeroom. But I can’t see a sign of disease in that.

What did Pope Francis intend with this act of flagellation? It could be demotivating.

That is a question that many of my colleagues also asked. Pope Francis has been in office for almost two years now and knows the Curia pretty well. He obviously thought it necessary to speak clearly and to cause an examination of conscience.

What were the reactions?

It was a treat for the media, of course. During the talk I could already see the headlines: Pope castigates Curia prelates; Pope reads his coworkers the law! Sadly, outwardly it gave the impression that there was a rift between the Pope and the Curia. That impression is deceiving, and does not coincide with reality. But the address drowned that out.

Was the talk criticised internally?

The reactions ranged from surprise to shock and incomprehension.

Perhaps with Francis, the Curia needs to adjust to permanent spiritual exercises?

It has long been adjusted to that. Pope Francis makes no secret of his religious formation. He is a Jesuit, shaped through and through by the spirituality of the founder of his order, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

What are your thoughts about Francis, two years after his election?

Pope Francis is a man who has made it clear from the outset that he deals differently with things that he sees differently. That is true for his choice of living, the car he drives, the entire process of audiences in general and especially for protocol. One could think that he was getting used to things in the beginning and wanted a significant degree of flexibility. By now it has become standard. The Holy Father is a man of extraordinary creativity and Latin American zest.

Many still ask where we are going?

If you listen attentively to the words of the Pope, you will hear a clear message in them. Nevertheless, the question continuously arises of where Francis wants to lead the Church, what is his goal?

One year ago you said, “We are still waiting for substantial standards.” Can these now be seen?

Yes, much more clearly than a year ago. Consider the Apostolic Letter  Evangelii gaudium. In it he has presented a compass for his pontificate. In addition he has published important documents and given major addresses over the course of the year, such as in Strasbourg for the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Contours have become clearly visible and clear priorities were set.

Such as?

The most important priority is mission, evangelisation. This aspect is like a red thread. No internal navelgazing, no self-reference, but sharing the Gospel with the world. That is the motto.

Do you understand Francis George, the retired archbishop of Chicago, who criticised the fact that the words of the Pope are often ambivalent?

There have indeed been cases in which the Vatican spokesman had to clarify matters after specific publications. Corrections are necessary when certain statements lead to misunderstandings which can be collected from certain sites.

Does Francis have a better grip of the media than his predecessor Benedict?

Francis deals with the media offensively. He used them intensively and directly.

Also more skilful?

Yes, he uses them very skilfully.

Who are actually his closest advisors?

This questions always and consistently goes around. I don’t know.

With the Synods on the pastoral care for families this past and the coming autumn, Francis created a focal point. Especially the question of allowing divorced and remarried faithful access to the sacraments causes much disagreement. Some also have the impression that Francis is more concerned with pastoral care than with doctrine…

I do not share that impression. It creates an artificial opposition which does not exist. The Pope is the first guarantor and keeper of the doctrine of the Church and at the same the first shepherd, the first pastor. Doctrine and pastoral care are not in opposition, they are like twins.

Do the current and the retired Pope take opposite views in the debate about divorced and remarried Catholics?

I know of no doctrinal statements from Pope Francis which are contrary to the statements of his predecessor. That would be absurd too. It is one thing to emphasise the pastoral efforts more clearly because the situation requires it. It is something else entirely to make a change in teaching. I can only act pastorally sensitive, consistent and conscientious when I do so on the basis of full Catholic teaching. The substance of the sacraments is not left to the discretion of pastors, but has been given to the Church by the Lord. That is also and especially true for the sacrament of marriage.

Was there a visit of some cardinals to Benedict during the Synod, with the request that he intervene to rescue the dogma?

There has not been such a visit to Pope Benedict. A supposed intervention by the Pope emeritus is pure invention.

How does Benedict respond to the attempts by traditionalist circles to recognise him as an antipope?

It was not traditionalist circles who attempted that, but representatives of the theological profession and some journalists. Speaking of an antipope is simply stupid, and also irresponsible.  That goes in the direction of theological arson.

Recently there was excitement surrounding a contribution in the recently published fourth volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger. The author changed some conclusions to the topic of the divorced and remarried in a stricter sense. Does Benedict want to involve himself with this in the Synod debate?

Not at all. The revision of said article from 1972 was completed and sent to the publisher long before the Synod. It must be remembered that every author has the right to make changes in his writings. Every informed person knows that Pope Benedict has not shared the conclusions of said contribution since 1981, which is more than 30 years! As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he has expressed this clearly in various comments.

The timing of the publication of the new edition to coincide with the Synod was then anything but happy…

The fourth volume of the Collected Works, in which the article is printed, was supposed to be published in 2013. The publication was delayed for various reasons and happened only in 2014. That a Synod on the topic of the family would take place at that time, was absolutely unforeseen when the planning of the publication of the separate volumes was made.

Upon his retirement, Benedict XVI said that he would be living “hidden from the world”. He continues to make appearances, however. Why?

When he is present at important Church events, it is because he is personally invited by Pope Francis, for example when he took part in the consistory of last February, the canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII in April and also the beatification of Paul VI in October. He has also written a greeting for the inauguration of the Auditorium Maximum of the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, which was named after him. Pope Benedict was invited for that, but did not accept that invitation.

In the greeting, which you read out on his behalf at the time, he however makes clear theological statements. “The elimination of truth is lethal for the faith,” he wrote.

The greeting was an impressive contribution to the topic of “Truth and Mission”. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet during the reading in the crowded auditorium. Content-wise, it was a theological classic. Pope Francis, who had received the text from Benedict beforehand, was much impressed and had thanked him for it.

Does Benedict sometimes speak about his retirement? Is he relieved?

He is at peace with himself and convinced that the decision was right and necessary. It was a decision of conscience that was well prayed and suffered over, and in that man stands alone before God.

You struggled with Benedict’s historical retirement in February of 2013. How do you look back on this step now?

It is true that the decision was difficult for me. It was not easy to accept it internally. I struggled to cope. The fight is now long since over.

You swore to be loyal to Benedict to the death. Does that also mean that you’ll remain at his side, and also in the Vatican?

On the day of his election as Pope I promised to help him in vita et in morte. Of course I did not take a retirement into account at that time. But the promise is still true and remains valid.

Bishops should be shepherds. As archbishop in the Roman Curia, do you sometimes feel like a shepherd without a flock?

Yes, sometimes. But I am getting more and more invitations for confirmations, anniversary Masses and other celebrations. Initially I responded somewhat defensive to those and accepted only a few. But that has changed lately. Direct contact with the faithful is very important. That is why I accept pastoral duties whenever it is possible and compatible with my other obligations. That is both good and necessary. And it is also the best medication against one of the diseases of the Curia mentioned by Pope Francis: the danger of becoming a bureaucrat.