Cardinal Müller in the Netherlands – On forced retirement (of sorts), the Church’s response to secularism and criticising the Pope

“I am now simply a cardinal without a specific assignment. That is somewhat unusual. Bishops normally remain active until they are 75. The Pope apparently has better advisors than me at his disposal. As priest, bishop and cardinal I can keep serving the Church as usual. I give lectures and write books.”

Words from Cardinal Gerhard Müller in a recent interview for Dutch newspaper Trouw. The 70-year-old German prelate has been Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for almost 18 months now, but still looks with mild amazement at his letting go as the head of the premier Curia dicastery. He assumes that some of the pope’s “so-called friends” made him believe certain things, which let to his early retirement. Perhaps, the cardinal, wonders, his “attempts at interpreting the document Amoris laetitia in an orthodox way was not well received either”.

But Cardinal Müller is not a bitter man.

“My sense of self-worth and my identity do not depend on an office in the Church. I have achieved a few things theologically. Forty students received their doctorates with me. In total, 120 students graduated under me. I have written books. I don’t think that is all insignificant.”

CRK-dag_2018_Katholiek_Nieuwsblad_Jan_Peeters08Early last week, Cardinal Müller was in the Netherlands to speak at a congress about recently canonised Pope Paul VI and Vatican II. Katholiek Nieuwsblad (which, as an aside, has recently been expanding its media work abroad, providing translated articles to Crux) has published excerpts from the cardinal’s comments. One snippet, which was shared on social media, was taken by some as a critique on Pope Francis’ focus on certain issues. Reality is a but more nuanced, although Cardinal Müller, in the aforementioned Trouw interview, did not shy away from such criticism.

At the conference, organised in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the CRK (Contact Rooms Katholieken), Cardinal Müller said:

“We can not make the mistake that, as the world becomes more secular, we only provide such answers. The Church is not just important because of her answers to social and environmental problems. Those are secondary matters. The first and foremost task of the Church is to bring people to God. He who is with God can contribute to the development of society from there. We can not replace the Church of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, with a social organisation.

And later:

“We can not make the mistake of responding to the secularisation  of the world with a secularisation of the Church. The Church must be a visible sign of a higher reality, and bear witness that man has a higher calling, to see God amidst the community of saints. That is the greatest calling of man.”

Returning to the issue of criticism, in the Trouw interview reporter Stijn Fens asked Cardinal Müller about the accusation, from among others Cardinal Wim Eijk, that the pope is causing confusion by refusing to offer clarity in the case of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful. Cardinal Müller answered:

“Yes, there is a great confusion in the Church at this time. The reason is that the relationship between the doctrine of the Church and the pastoral care for people in difficult situations is not clear. You can’t accompany and help faithful when you start from the wrong basis. We all know that there are people who are in a bad marriage through no fault of their own.

You see, a priest is like a doctor who cares for souls in the name of Jesus Christ. But a good doctor can only offer help when he prescribes the correct medication. You can’t comfort a patient and say, “Listen, you have broken a bone, so I’ll slap a band-aid on it.” You must use the right medication. That means, then, that a priest must explain doctrine in a clear way, whether people accept it or not.

What happens now is that those who are out to “improve” Catholic doctrine and partly falsify it, are not being disciplined. While others, who are clearly loyal to the Word of Christ, are being disregarded as “rigid” and “Pharisaic”. Is that a way to lead a Church?”

Whatever one may think of Pope Francis and his actions – and I do not consider myself to be among his detractors – it is hard to deny that the confusion described by Cardinal Müller – and others with him – exists. But, I wonder, is it up to the Pope alone to resolve this? Of course, when people are confused by his statements, it is not unreasonable to ask for clarification. But, as Cardinal Müller has asserted in the past, we must read papal statements in continuity with the teachings that came before. In that respect, it becomes an obligation to read them in an orthodox way, as the cardinal has tried with Amoris laetitia. Past doctrine does not suddenly become invalid just because the pope who promulgated it is no longer alive. So when we are faced with questions regarding communion, divorce, marriage or whatever matter of doctrine or pastoral care we like, we do ourselves and the persons involved a disservice if we look no further than one document or statement. The Code of Canon law, the social teachings of the Church, even, dare I say it, the Gospels (to name but a few sources) offer clarity and explanations and indications on how to interpret what we may not understand immediately. That is a duty for all Catholics, not just the Pope. 

In a more lengthy interview that was published in the printed version of Katholiek Nieuwsblad on Friday, Cardinal Müller also shared some thoughts about the Netherlands and the state of the Church there. Asked about the reasons for the extreme and rapid secularisation here, he said:

“The Netherlands is one of the countries which has understood the Council as a sort of liberalisation or secularisation of the Church. But in reality the Council had a further Christianisation of society as its goal.”

But hope always remains:

“There may still be a new flourishing. We must pray for it and bear good witness. I hope and pray that a new spring for the Church may perhaps begin in the Netherlands.”

Photo credit: Jan Peeters/Katholiek Nieuwsblad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

A pleasant meeting, criticism allowed – Scandinavian bishops on Ad Limina

The bishops of Scandinavia are wrapping up their ad limina visit to Rome these days. Tomorrow will be the last of their six-day program, which included an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday. It is the first time the entire conference met with Pope Francis to discuss the state of affairs in their countries.

The Nordic Bishops’ Conference is made up of the bishops of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, and has six members: Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, Bishop Anders Cardinal Arborelius of Stockholm, Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo and Trondheim, Bishop Berislav Grgic of Troms∅, Bishop David Tencer of Reykjavik and Bishop Teemu Sippo of Helsinki. This ad limina is the first time that they have a cardinal among them: Stockholm’s Cardinal Arborelius, and one of the daily Masses celebrated by the bishops took place in the cardinal’s title church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In an interview with Domradio, Cardinal Arborelius commented:

“One could say that that is my home in Rome. As cardinal one is connected in a special way to Rome, to Peter, the Holy See. And that is why every cardinal has the privilege of a church of his own in Rome. I feel somehow at home here, which is a strange but beautiful experience.

[…]

[In this church] they really try and bring the social teachings of the Church to life. People in need are helped here, and that is a prophetic message for the entire Church. We should be concerned more about those in need.”

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The bishops visited most of the dicasteries of the curia, starting with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (pictured above). Prefect Cardinal Robert Sarah encouraged them to use the liturgy as an instrument of evangelisation and to promote its appreciation. Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary, lauded the high standards of the translations of the liturgical texts into the various Scandinavian languages.

On Thursday the bishops met with Pope Francis for ninety minutes in an informal setting. Joining them was Bishop Peter Bürcher, emeritus bishop of Reykjavik. Cardinal Arborelius:

“[Pope Francis] was very personable and said, “You may speak very openly with me and even be critical. It is allowed to criticise the pope here, but not beyond the walls of this room. But he said so in jest. It was a very open and also pleasant conversation.”

Some of the topics discussed were the question of youth and how they may be integrated in the life of the Church, with an eye on the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation; but also the situation of migrants, which is especially noteworthy for the Church in Scandinavia, as she grows there thanks to immigrants. Pope Francis also asked about the celebration of the sacraments, vocations, ecumenism and the life of priests in Scandinavia. The bishops and the pope also looked back on the papal visit to Lund, which, the bishops said, left a great impression, among both Catholics and Lutherans.

Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, and also president of the bishops’ conference, summarised a part of the audience with the pope in this video from Vatican News:

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^On the first day of their ad limina visit, the Nordic bishops celebrated Mass above the tomb of St. Peter, underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

With a new voice, CDF revisits old teachings – Cardinal-designate Ladaria on the ordination of women

After several years in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was conspicuously silent, perhaps kept silent as Pope Francis tried to decrease its importance among the curial dicasteries, a new leadership brings new sounds. Or old sounds repeated, perhaps.

Prefecto_Mons._LadariaArchbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, soon to be a cardinal, took over the reins at the CDF after Cardinal Gerhard Müller was let go about a year ago.  And since then, the Congregation published two major texts: Placuit Deo on Christian salvation, in February, and Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones on ethics in economy (published jointly with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development), in May. In comparison, that is the same number of documents released during the entire period that Cardinal Müller headed the CDF, from 2012 to 2017.

And this week, another document was released, not by the CDF itself, but by its prefect, who, it may be safely assumed, is given much more freedom to function as Pope Francis’ personal choice to head the CDF. But that does not mean that something entirely new now comes from the offices of the Congregation. Archbishop Ladaria’s recent article focusses on an issue that has been debated for decades and it is firmly rooted in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.

On the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, Archbishop Ladaria once more confirms that that is not something the Catholic Church has the authority for. He writes the article in response to “voices heard in several countries which call into doubt” this doctrine, which was so clearly declared by Pope St. John Paul II, and confirmed by his successors. The archbishop stresses that what John Paul II stated in the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis was definitive then, and remains so now.

Below I present my translation of the article, based on the German text found here.

“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).  Only because of her roots in Jesus Christ, her founder, can the Church give life and salvation to the entire world. These roots are in the first place to be found in the sacraments, at the heart of which is the Eucharist. Established by Christ, the sacraments are the pillars of the Church, who is continuously built up by them as His body and His bride. The sacrament of ordination is deeply connected to the Eucharist, through which Christ makes Himself present as the source of her life and action. Priests are “conformed to Christ”,  so that “they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2).

Christ wanted to confer this sacrament upon the twelve Apostles, who were all men, and they have, in time, conferred it upon other men. The Church knew herself to be bound to this decision of the Lord, which excludes validly conferring the ministerial priesthood to women. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, of 22 May 1994, John Paul II taught: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”(n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed, in response to a question regarding the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that this concerns a truth which belongs to deposit of faith (depositum fidei) of the Church.

In this light it is a great concern to me that there are voices heard in several countries which call into doubt the definitive character of the aforementioned teaching. In order to prove that this teaching is not definitive, the argument goes that is has not been defined ex cathedra and can thus be changed by a future pope or council. Spreading such doubts causes much confusion among the faithful, and not only with regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which belongs to he divine constitution of the Church, but also with regard to the ordinary Magisterium, which can infallibly pronounce Catholic doctrine.

On the first point: as for the ministerial priesthood, the Church knows that the impossibility of the ordination of women is part of the “substance” of the sacrament (cf. DH 1728). The Church lacks the authority to change this substance, as she is being built up as Church through the sacraments as established by Christ. This is not a matter of discipline, but a doctrine, as it concerns the structure of the sacraments, the first places of encounter with Christ and the transmission of faith. This is then not some obstacle which blocks the Church from fulfilling her mission in the world more effectively. When the Church can’t intervene in this question, the basis of it lies in the fact that the original love of God intervenes in it. He himself acts in the ordination of priests, so that, always and in every situation of its history, Jesus Christ is visible and active in the Church, “as the principal source of grace” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

In the awareness that she cannot change this tradition out of obedience to the Lord, the Church therefore tries to deepen its meaning. For the will of Jesus Christ, the Logos, is not without meaning. The priest acts in the person of Christ, the bridegroom of the Christ, and his being male is an indispensable aspect of this sacramental representation (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter insigniores, n. 5). To be sure, the diversity of tasks between men and women does not entail subordination, but a mutual enrichment. It must be remembered that the perfect image of the Church is Mary, the mother of the Lord, to whom was not given the apostolic ministry. This makes evident that the original language of masculinity and femininity, which the Creator has inscribed in the human body, is included in the work of our salvation. Precisely this fidelity to Christ’s plan with the ministerial priesthood allows the continuous deepening and promotion of the role of women in the Church, because “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord” (1 Cor, 11:11). This may also shine a light on our culture, which struggles to understand the meaning and beauty of the difference between man and woman, which also affects their complementary missions in society.

On the second point: the doubts raised about the definitive character of Ordinatio sacerdotalis also have a major effect on how the magisterium of the Church is to be understood. It is important to emphasise that infallibility not only refers to solemn declarations from a council or to papal definitions made ex cathedra, but also to the ordinary and general magisterium of the bishops spread throughout the world, when they declare, in unity with each other and with the pope, Catholic doctrine as ultimately binding. John Paul II based himself on this infallibility in Ordinatio sacerdotalis. He also did not declare a new dogma, but confirmed, to remove any doubts, with the authority given to him as succesor of Peter in a formal declaration, what the ordinary and general magisterium had presented as belonging to the deposit of faith throughout all of history. This very kind of statement corresponds with a style of ecclesial communion in which the pope does not wish to act alone, but as a witness in listening to an uninterrupted and living tradition. Furthermore, no one will deny that the magisterium can infallibly express truths that are necessarily connected to what was formerly revealed as good. For only in this way can it fulfill its task to keep the faith holy and interpret it faithfully.

Further proof of John Paul II’s efforts in considering this question is the prior consultation with the heads of those bishops’ conferences who most had to deal with the problem. All, without exception, declared with full confidence that the Church, out of obedience to the Lord, did not have the authority to allow women to receive the sacrament of ordination.

Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed this doctrine. In the Chrism Mass on 5 April 2012 he recalled how John Paul II had declared “irrevocably” that the Church “has received no authority from the Lord” regarding the ordination of women. With an eye on those who do not accept this teaching, Benedict XVI wonders, “But is disobedience really a way […]? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Pope Francis has likewise taken position on this question. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium he underlines: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” He also urges us not to interpret this doctrine as an expression of power, but as a service, so that the equal dignity of man and woman in one body of Christ may be better understood (n. 104). In the press conference during the return flight from the apostolic journey to Sweden on 1 November 2016 Pope Francis emphasised: “As for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”

The Church in our time is called to response to many challenges of our culture. It is essential that she remains in Christ, like the branches on the vine. The Master therefore invites us to keep His word in us: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Only being faithful to His words, which do not fade, guarantees our rootedness in Christ and in is love. Only the accepting of His wise plans, which take shape in His sacraments, strengthens the Church at her roots, so that she can bear fruit for eternal life.

Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”

Case study – Bishop Hendriks casts a canonist’s eye on the German bishops’ proposal and the Roman response

At the risk of becoming a one-topic bore, one more post about the Communion question, after another Dutch bishop comes out in, well, understanding of the German proposal.

jan_hendriksBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, studies the matter in his blog and comes to the conclusion that, yes, a bishops’ conference has the authority to draft a pastoral outreach that allows non-Catholics to receive Communion. But, he explains, there are certain specific conditions that must be applied.

The bishop, a canon lawyer who also serves as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church, first describes that a bishops’ conference has the authority to develop further norms in this matter according to the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory, but there is a framework of four conditions that must be followed:

“1. The non-Catholic person requests the sacraments out of his own desire;

2. This person has no access to a minister of his own community;

3. This person professes the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments;

4. This person has the correct disposition.”

Bishop Hendriks contends that in a wedding ceremony between a Catholic and non-Catholic person, the non-Catholic may be allowed to receive Communion, according to N. 159 of the Ecumenical Directory, which says that a bishop may allow a wedding Mass for just cause, and the decision whether or not the non-Catholic partner can be allowed to receive Communion may be made according to the above four points.

“From this the conclusion could be drawn that the condition for the availibility of a minister of one’s own community is relative, and a non-Catholic spouse who asks, has the correct disposition and shares the Catholic faith in Holy Communion, can be allowed to receive Communion in the wedding service, when the bishop gives permission for the celebration of a Mass.”

Of course, the German bishops’ proposal is not limited to wedding Masses. They claim that a non-Catholic partner may receive Communion at other occasions as well. Bishop Hendriks continues:

“In their pastoral outreach the German bishops suggest that this permission for non-Catholic partners in interdenominational marriages may also be given after the wedding ceremony, after a period of discernment and a pastoral conversation with the parish priest, when they in conscience have come to accept the Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist. In the published parts which I have read, I was unable to find anything about the receiving the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the spiritual disposition. At the same time the description of the document as a “pastoral outreach” suggest that the German bishops present no new norms, but that they operate withing the existing regulations. For new norms – a general decree – the bishops’ conference first needs a mandate from the Holy See, in other words: from the Pope (c. 455 §1). It is well understandable that not all bishops were able to go along with the thought that this is only a pastoral outreach within the existing norms and that seven of them put the case before the responsible parties in Rome.”

What then, considering all this, does the answer, or lack thereof, from the Pope mean?

“In his answer Pope Francis emphasised the unity of the bishops, who must, if possible, arrive at a text unanimously. I am not aware if it has been announced that there are conditions to this possible text, or whether it has to be presented to Rome or if a process has been agreed upon. It is, however, clear that developing such a  document – if the pastoral goal is maintained within the general conditions – is part of the authority and task of a bishops’ conference, which makes the decision of Pope in itself understandable.”

Bishop Hendriks says nothing about his agreement or disagreement with the German bishops’ proposal or the Pope’s response. He simply looks at what it possible within the norms as they exist, and from this he concludes that the German bishops have the authority to draft such a pastoral outreach, but also that they are bound to the conditions described in the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory.

[EDIT 19-5]

In a commentary published on their website yesterday, the Archdiocese of Utrecht underlines the importance of canon 844, §4 of the Code of Canon Law. The comments seem to be a direct response to Bishop Hendriks and the reception of his words in the media. The archdiocesan commentary agrees with the bishop that a bishops’ conference has the authority to establish norms for the reception of Holy Communion by non-Catholics, and repeats the four points made by Msgr. Hendriks above. However, the piece states, an important element seems to be overlooked, by the readers if not by the bishop, namely the explicitly named circumstance that there must a be a situation of need (“grave necessity”). In such a situation the four conditions must be fulfilled in order for the non-Catholic person to receive Communion.

The article quotes the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states in n. 85: “In addition, the conditions comprising can. 844 § 4, from which no dispensation can be given, cannot be separated; thus, it is necessary that all of these conditions be present together.” In other words, all four conditions must be fulfilled, not just some of them. A bishops’ conference is free to decide what it considers to be situations of grave necessity. The archdiocesan commentary contends that such a situation is not automatically present in the case of a non-Catholic married to a Catholic.

In short, the archdiocesan commentary agrees with Bishop Hendriks that the German bishops are free to establish new norms, but within the framework of establish regulations only. The archdiocese emphasises that the four conditions mentions throughout the blog post above are applicable in situations of grave necessity only, something which seems to be supported by the Ecumenical Directory, as mentioned by Bishop Hendriks, which states that a bishop can allow an interdenominational wedding Mass for “a just cause”. This is not just word play, but indicates that there has to be a very good reason indeed for such a Mass to be celebrated. This reason, it would appear, must be one of the situations of grave necessity as established by the bishops’ conference.

Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

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^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”

First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP