God wants to break through our loneliness – Bishop de Korte’s letter for Advent

Like previous years, Bishop Gerard de Korte is among the first to publish his Advent letter to the faithful of his diocese. Below my translation. In the letter, the bishop tackles the issue of loneliness, and thus creates a coincidental link with Pope Francis’ speech at the European Parliament today, in which he identified loneliness as “one of the most common diseases in Europe today”. More about that speech later. First, the bishop:

mgr_de_Korte3“Late last year the media reported a macabre find in a house in Rotterdam. The remains of a woman were found. She had been dead for more than ten years and no one had missed her. Her daughter had rung the doorbell once or twice on Mother’s Day. But no one opened the door, and the daughter concluded that the closed door meant that she was still not welcome. Ten years dead in a house and no one notices. Symbol of groundless loneliness.

Of course, this is an extreme example. But we all know that loneliness is a major problem in our society. Many elderly people lead a lonely existence. When I was a parish priest in Utrecht, I visited elderly people who received visitors twice a week. They were home alone for the rest of the time. In Nestor, the magazine for the Catholic Union of the Elderly, I read last year that 200,000 elderly spent the Christmas days alone.

But loneliness is not only an issue for elderly people in our society. More than a few young people also struggle with loneliness. And there are plenty of couples who are physically together but spiritually lonely because they can no longer share the most essential things of life. In the end, many a philosopher states, every person is lonely to a certain extent. At heart, everyone remains hidden for the other. At the same time people try to break through that existential loneliness by searching mutual commitment, friendship and love.

God looks for us

In the coming weeks of Advent we prepare for the feast of Christmas. Christmas is a feast of connection; of light and desire for peace. The Christmas tree is decorated and good food is purchased. Family and friends are invited, perhaps also to chase away our loneliness. Because as human beings we realise that we can only be happy in connection with others.

Many Catholic families also have a nativity scene. Christmas is, after all, about the birth of Christ. Christmas makes clear that God wants to break through our loneliness. That is told clearly in Luke’s Gospel of Christmas, with singing angels and worshipping shepherds. The Gospel of John is a bit more abstract and theological: the Word has become flesh and has lived among us. But both evangelists say the same thing with different words: In Jesus, God comes looking for us. In Jesus, God reveals His love for us and He shows us that that love is the meaning of our lives.

Is Christ welcome?

The big question for each of us is: do I accept God’s offer? Can Christ really come into my life? Is there room for Jesus in my inn? Do I really want to life in friendship with Jesus? Several Christian thinkers have been said to have made this remark: “If Christ had been born a Thousand times in the stable in Bethlehem, but not in our heart, His birth was pointless”. In these words I hear the statement of John the Baptist: “He (=Christ) must increase; I must decrease”. And I also think of the nearly mystical words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not live, but Christ lives in me”.

Here we touch upon the core of our Christian existence. Christian life requires conversion, a transformation. My own “I” must become increasingly like Christ. In other words: I must become more like a Christophorus, a Christ-bearer. When we truly follow Christ, we will be praying people who place God in the heart of our lives. We will not remain imprisoned in self-interest but manifest charity. In the case of an argument, we will not harden ourselves, but really choose forgiveness and reconciliation. We will be mild and merciful for each other and thus reflect God’s mildness and mercy. I wish you a fruitful time of Advent on the road to Christmas.

Groningen, 25 November 2014

+ Msgr. Gerard de Korte”

Lenten reflection – First Friday

“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’

Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Matthew 9:14-15

ringsThe image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.

Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.

Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.

The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.

Holy curiosity – entering the faith

Twice in recent days I cam across a term which I found rather compelling. Both times I found it in writing by the pope: his address to the Curia (still featured in this blog’s top post) and his homily at the midnight Mass on Christmas eve (translation here).I am referring to the words ‘holy curiosity’, and I think this is a concept which may well have to play an important role in the ongoing Year of Faith and in the new evangelisation in general.

It speaks to the basic nature of man, the desire to know and understand. This drives people to act and speak, not only in religion and faith, but also in science, work, career, personal relations, and so on.

shepherdsIn the midnight Mass homily, Pope Benedict XVI gives one of the clearest examples of this holy curiosity: the shepherds who come to Bethlehem to find the newborn saviour. He writes, “A holy curiosity impelled them to see this child in a manger, who the angel had said was the Saviour, Christ the Lord. The great joy of which the angel spoke had touched their hearts and given them wings.” And later, “Why should we not also be moved by curiosity to see more closely and to know what God has said to us?”

Holy curiosity, as the wording implies, is more than mere curiosity. As the shepherds show, it is triggered by something. In their case it was the announcement of the angels, but other encounters can have the same effect. In the address to the Curia, the Holy Father said, “The word of proclamation is effective in situations where man is listening in readiness for God to draw near, where man is inwardly searching and thus on the way towards the Lord. His heart is touched when Jesus turns towards him, and then his encounter with the proclamation becomes a holy curiosity to come to know Jesus better.”

When Jesus turns to us, in whatever way or situation, His act may trigger in us this holy desire to draw nearer to the Lord. It is not magic, of course, and it requires an openness of heart, a willingness to hear. This is als illustrated in the first example from the Curial address. Pope Benedict speaks about the first encounter of the two disciples in the Gospel of John (1:35-42).

“In the account of the two disciples, the next stage is that of listening and following behind Jesus, which is not yet discipleship, but rather a holy curiosity, a movement of seeking. Both of them, after all, are seekers, men who live over and above everyday affairs in the expectation of God – in the expectation that he exists and will reveal himself. Stimulated by the proclamation, their seeking becomes concrete. They want to come to know better the man described as the Lamb of God by John the Baptist.”

Holy curiosity is a “movement of seeking” made “concrete” by the proclamation. This is also part of our task as Christians, most certainly so in the Year of Faith and in the context of the new evangelisation. If we don’t proclaim, others will not find their seeking being made concrete, their holy curiosity remaining aimless and open to distractions and false satisfactions.

I think that, as a convert, this holy curiosity certainly took place in myself. Only when I was opened to the proclamation (which can – must – be far more than mere words)did my seeking find direction. And here I am today.

“You will go before the Lord to prepare a way for Him”

Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 57 to 80:

The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had lavished on her his faithful love, they shared her joy.

Now it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. “No,” she said, “he is to be called John.”

They said to her, “But no one in your family has that name,” and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called.

The father asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. “What will this child turn out to be?” they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

zechariahBlessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited his people, he has set them free,
and he has established for us a saving power in the House of his servant David,
just as he proclaimed, by the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times,
that he would save us from our enemies and from the hands of all those who hate us,
and show faithful love to our ancestors, and so keep in mind his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
that he would grant us, free from fear, to be delivered from the hands of our enemies,
to serve him in holiness and uprightness in his presence, all our days.
And you, little child, you shall be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him,
to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the faithful love of our God in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us,
to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow dark as death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Meanwhile the child grew up and his spirit grew strong. And he lived in the desert until the day he appeared openly to Israel.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 39 to 56

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.

Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

And Mary said:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant.
Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name,
and his faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him.
He has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his faithful love
— according to the promise he made to our ancestors — of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

Mary stayed with her some three months and then went home.

Christmas meditations: “The Lord has done this for me”

In the home stretch towards Christmas, as faithful across the globe will gather for midnight Masses tonight, let’s return to the extraordinary narrative of tomorrow’s feast. Over the course of the day I will simply share passages from the Gospel of Luke. Read them think on them, and open your heart for the coming of the Son. Jesus Christ came not only those many centuries ago in Bethlehem, but every day in the hearts of those who welcome Him.

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 5 to 25:

vision of zachariasIn the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless: Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years.

Now it happened that it was the turn of his section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there.

And at the hour of incense all the people were outside, praying. Then there appeared to him the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him,

“Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. Look! Since you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb. When his time of service came to an end he returned home.

Some time later his wife Elizabeth conceived and for five months she kept to herself, saying, “The Lord has done this for me, now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered in public.”

Art credit: The Vision of Zacharias, James Tissot, 1886-1894

The return of Saint Oda

There are many saints. And by many, I do main a lot. Such a lot, in fact, that the Church has a hierarchy of saints to decide which saint’s feast day has precedence on any given day. Last Sunday, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist took precedence over everything else, for example.

At the Second Vatican Council, this hierarchy was adapted. Some saints had their feast days changed, and others lost theirs completely as their veneration was suppressed at various levels. Some saints, which in the past were venerated worldwide, are now only marked locally. Many early saints, who lived in the first centuries of Christianity, underwent this fate. Among them, many Dutch saints who had local importance, but had left no tangible mark in the larger scheme of things. One of these is Saint Oda.

The 8th-century saint, who lived as a hermit at what is now the village of Sint-Oedenrode in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, gives her name to the parish which was established in 2010, and as a consequence, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans has asked the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to reinstate her feast on the liturgical calendar. That request has now been granted. Her reinstated feast day will be on the 27th of November.

As the notification reads, “once holy, always holy”, Saint Oda’s sanctity has never been abrogated, but her veneration merely limited. Those limitations have now been removed so that the faithful of St. Oda’s parish can now mark their patron saint’s feast day again. Whether or not her veneration has been returned to universal status is unknown, but, to be honest, unlikely. The request from the bishop has been of a local nature, so it would make sense that St. Oda’s veneration is now reinstated for the diocese alone.