A just and merciful God – Cardinal Danneels’ intervention at the Synod

It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.

danneels synod

^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).

“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.

It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.

I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?

I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?

In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.

The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.

How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.

Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.

It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.

Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”

The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,

Rome, 8 October 2014

Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR

“Unreserved faith” – Archbishop Léonard on St. Joseph and Pope Francis

It’s been a while since this blog featured some words by the great archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard. Below is my translation of his homily on the occasion of Pope Francis’ installation, yesterday.

The cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, where the Mass was held, could not house all the faithful who had come. Among them was Queen Fabiola. Archbishop Léonard concelebrated with the other Belgian bishops – except for Ghent’s Bishop Van Looy, who was in Rome – Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, and Archbishop Alain Lebeaupin, Nuncio to the European Union.

The archbishop speaks about the unreserved faith of St. Joseph, and also paints a picture of Pope Francis which shows him as a continuation of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in his modesty and humility.

léonard“Providence decided that the inthronisation of Pope Francis would take place on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, but also patron saint of Belgium. Allow me to consider that a small wink in our direction…

This morning the bishop of Ghent, Monsignor Luc Van Looy, represented the bishops of Belgium at the installation in Rome. I am grateful to him for that, as well as to our voting cardinal, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who stayed in Rome for the occasion. In the spirit of simplicity that already characterises our new Holy Father, and since the Belgian representation in Rome was already assured, I thought it better to stay in Belgium to thank God with you all and with my fellow bishops for the gift of Pope Francis.

Saint Joseph played a major part in our salvation history. Eve though he is only the foster father, not the biological father of Jesus, it is yet he who, within the framework of Jewish law, assures that Jesus – the Messiah (in Hebrew) or the Christ (in Greek) – descends from David, of whom we heard in the first reading of this liturgy.

The second reading was chosen to illustrate the faith of Saint Joseph, which may be compared to that of Abraham. For Abraham had faith without reservations in the word of God, which proclaimed that he, despite his and his wife’s advanced age, would be the father of many peoples. And he kept believing in that, even if the apparent death of Isaac, his only son, seemed to rob him of any hope of offspring. Abraham had faith in God, without any reservations. And because of that God recognised him as righteous.

But Joseph as well, he too, had to believe – almost blindly, in a complete surrender – that what had happened with his wife Mary came from God and not from man. He had to efface himself in a radical faith, for an act of God which transcends any understanding; an act which makes us say in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”

And the Gospel of today shows us what it cost Joseph, but Mary as well, to make themselves so very small for that mysterious work in Jesus. “Son,” Mary says to Jesus, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And then that shocking answer of Jesus! The answer of a child who is only twelve years old, but who already knows that he came from God, who knows, deep inside, what we express in the Nicean Creed, that He is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” Hence His confusing answer: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary had spoken about “Your father and I”, but Jesus quietly corrects His mother’s words: He speaks of “My Father” when He refers to the God of Israel, who resides in the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus has stayed behind in Jerusalem, that is not the flight of a teenager, but because He – in the innocence of twelve-year-old child – wanted to stay in the House of Him who is His true Father: “In my Father’s house is where I had to be”. And Luke acutely says about Joseph and Mary, “they did not understand what he said to them”.  But they will understand later. After they had kept the events in their hearts and considered them for a long time.

Saint Joseph, then, played a major role in the life of the Church. Through him, because of his role as foster father, Jesus discovered in His human conscience the father figure of God, His sole and unique Father.

Our previous Pope, Benedict XVI, whose baptismal name is Joseph, was also characterised by humility and a great modesty. We don’t know a lot yet about his successor, the Bishop of Rome, Francis. But the first signs which he has given in only a few days clearly indicate that the patronage of Saint Francis of Assisi is not just empty words for him. He will be humble, like Benedict XVI, not just in his personality, but also in the outward signs of his mission as successor of Peter. Like Saint Joseph he will consider himself merely a foster father – if I may say it like that – knowing that we are all children of the one true Father, our heavenly Father, and that the Church, the Bride of Christ, is not here just for herself, but only to lead to truth, goodness and the beauty of her only love: the Christ, her bridegroom.

Of course, there were some in the media – which have the valuable task to inform us – who immediately tried to paint our new shepherd in a negative light. But just as fast there were voices, normally not too inclined to speak positively about the Vatican, which, supported by documents, pointed out the baselessness of these accusations. Let us, for our part, thank God for the gift He gives us: not just a new Pope, but also a shepherd with a totally new style. And let us – like he asked us so touchingly on the night of his election – pray intensely for him, for the universal Church for which he has responsibility, and for this world of which he is the foremost spiritual and moral guide. Amen.”

Photo credit: Phk/Kerknet

“An instrument of peace” – St. Francis’ prayer

Today we mark the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (and, yes, also World Animal Day), so let’s star with a prayer.

The prayer’s background would indicate that it has nothing to do with St. Francis, but it has been attributed to him over the course of the past century. And the thoughts it expresses are worthy of consideration, no less so on today’s feast.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
 Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
 grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
 to be understood, as to understand;
 to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
 It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Below the first time I came across the prayer:

Photo credit: Scenes from the life of St. Francis, is depicted in a steel gate in the convent church of the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Martyr St. George in Thuine, Germany.

Why I am not against Assisi

Pope Benedict XVI disembarks the train that brought him to Assisi

I haven’t paid much, if any, attention on the blog to today’s interreligious meeting at Assisi, hosted by the pope. The main reason is that I am somewhat taken aback by the onslaught of negative comments about this meeting, even after the program and the intentions have been made public. Even now, as the religious leaders are gathering in the town of Saint Francis, I read tweets warning of dark clouds gathering. And, I’m sorry top say, it’s mostly the ultra-orthodox among us who are so against the whole affair that they are seemingly unable to have some faith in the intelligence and intentions of our Holy Father. From the announcement of the meeting, given during the Angelus of 1 January:

“It will aim to commemorate the historical action desired by my Predecessor and to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace. Those journeying to God cannot but transmit peace, those who are building peace cannot but draw close to God. I ask you, from this moment, to accompany this project with your prayers.”

Now, I do understand some of the concerns that people may have. The 1986 meeting at Assisi did see a mingling of religious traditions, which is at least inconsiderate and at worst a blasphemy. But that is a concern that the Holy Father shares! That is why, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he did not attend the 1986 meeting. But these concerns do not merit an all-out boycott of today’s meeting.

In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate, the Church declared that:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (Cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-19).” [2]

Buddhist dignitaries arrive at the Assisi train station

Although they are different and contain less than the full truth, the Church nonetheless recognises that other religions and faiths can contain glimmers of that truth. God, after all, is not limited, and He can reveal Himself to all men of good will, regardless of nationality, affiliation or faith. This does not diminish the fact that He has given the Church as the way to His eternal love, but nor does it doom people who have been unable to come in contact with the Church to eternal damnation.

Other faiths and religions exist. That is a fact of life. All people, and believers especially so, are called to promote peace and justice in the world. What power, what enormous grace must a committed meeting to pray for that peace and strengthen one another in our commitment to it have!

So, no, I am not against Assisi. Its goal is a worthy one, and I have full confidence in our Holy Father that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. That confidence is confirmed by the program of the meeting: there will gatherings of all kinds of religions, people of different faiths speaking to and with one another. There will be no denying, as mixing them up does, the uniqueness and identity of each faith or religion, least of the Catholic Christian faith.

Photo credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Four days before Germany, Holy Father poses the question of God

Paving the way for his first state visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI recorded a message for German tv program Wort am Sonntag yesterday. The Holy Father will travel to Germany on Thursday. In his address, which can be read in German here and in English here, the pope looks forward to his visit, emphasising especially his visit to the monastery “where Luther began his journey”. He also emphases that the visit is not religious tourism or a show. For the pope, his visit is about God, of whom we have such dire need, returning to our world. He closes his address with words which touch upon the basic crisis of faith in the west: the question of God’s existence. I’ll simply share it here.

Perhaps you will ask me: “But does God exist? And if he exists, does he care about us? Can we reach him?” It is true of course that we cannot put God on the table, we cannot touch him like a utensil or take him in hand like any object. We must again develop the capacity to perceive God, a capacity that exists in us. We can intuit something of God’s grandeur in the grandeur of the cosmos. We can use the world through technology because it is made in a rational manner. In the great rationality of the world we can intuit the creator spirit from which it comes, and in the beauty of creation we can intuit something of the beauty, of the grandeur and also the goodness of God. In the Word of sacred Scriptures we can hear the words of eternal life that do not come merely from men, but that come from him, and in them we hear his voice. And, finally, we glimpse God too in encounters with persons who are touched by him. I am not thinking only of the great ones: from Paul to Francis of Assisi to Mother Teresa; but I am thinking of the many simple people of whom no one speaks. And yet, when we meet them, there emanates something of goodness, sincerity, joy, and we know that God is there and that he touches us too. So, in these days we want to try to return to seeing God, to return to being persons through whom the light of hope might enter the world, a light that comes from God and helps us to live.

Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

A very special church

During the school Christmas break we take the opportunity to go and visit places. Last week, my girlfriend and I spent a few days in a hotel in the south of the country, from which we visited various cities and towns. The stop for our first day was the town of Valkenburg, in the far south of the Diocese of Roermond (and therefore of the country as a whole).

There, to my surprise, a visit to a Christmas market in a former mine complex revealed a very special former church. During the reign of Napoleon, the Netherlands was annexed to the French Empire, and the Catholic priests were required to make an oath of allegiance to that empire and its ruler. Many refused to do so, and were either imprisoned or exiled for that. Many priests had to offer their Masses in secret, and the priests of Valkenburg and surroundings chose what is now called the ‘Velvet cave’ to use for a makeshift chapel. Baptismal fonts, altars and other requirements were cut out of the soft chalk of the mine and carefully decorated. The masonry and artwork is still preserved, as are memorials to priests who were imprisoned and exiled.

In later decades, more artwork and graffiti appeared, not least from American soldiers who used the caves to fight the German oppressors during the later stages of World War 2.

A photo impression:

Memorial for Father Servaas Widdershoven, parish priest in the area during Napoleonic times.
Saints Francis and Clara, perhaps?
A baptismal font that may still be used upon request. The text reads: "They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" from Acts 19, 5
The sanctuary, with the former location of the tabernacle still very visible.
"And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles and in the communication of the breaking of bread and in prayers." Acts 2, 42
Saint Servatius, bishop of the first diocese in the Low Countries (Tongres) in the 4th century

 

Another popular saint from these parts is Saint Gerlac, a devout hermit who was fond of his pilgrimages.
"And on the first day of the week, when we were assembled to break bread ... He continued his speech until midnight. And there were a great number of lamps in the upper chamber where we were assembled." Acts 20, 7-8
List of priest of 'the canton of Valkenburg' who refused to swear the oath of loyalty to the French regime. Fr. Sewrvatius Widdershoven was imprisoned, while Fr. Joan Mathijs van den Eerdewegh was exiled to the Island of Ré, off the French coast near La Rochelle.

The difference the Church makes

In his blog, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, writes about his recent visit to Haiti. On behalf of the Church, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops coordinates the relief efforts in that country, and Cardinal O’Malley is a member of a 5-person committee that is to assess the needs of the Church there.

There is still a lot of need for aid in Haiti. As the cardinal writes: “Port-au-Prince is a disaster area. There’s no water, electricity, or basic services.” Many people still live outside in tents, cars or other temporary shelters.

It is good to see that the Catholic Church, together with the international community, makes such a difference in a country on the edge of chaos, and continuing to do so.

Cardinal Seán, as he refers to himself in his blog, offers a great example of social media use by a prelate of the Church. He very regularly updates his blog – usually every Friday – with very simple reports of what he has been doing in the week preceding. It’s at the same time local (concerning the Archdiocese of Boston) and international (not just because of the cardinal’s work in Haiti and his many contacts in Latin America, but also because he is a Franciscan, usually walking around in the simple brown habit of his order. Even in his office of archbishop and as a cardinal, he manages to personify the simple spirituality of St. Francis). A simple and effective way of reaching out to people.