Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

After the Ad Limina, Bishop Schwaderlapp on the “erosion of faith”

In his homily for the second Sunday of Advent in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary of that diocese, looked back on the recent Ad Limina visit of the German bishops. The full text of his homily can be found, in the original German, here, and below I present a translation of the relevant section concerning the Ad Limina. It touches upon some of the most frequent criticism against the German episcopate and church, and succeeds, in my opinion, in indicating where the solution lies.

schwaderlapp“Everywhere he went, John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That promise that John proclaimed can only enter into our hearts when we are willing to repent and begin anew. Repentance is painless when we want and demand it from others. It only becomes real when it is about me personally. Where do we need to repent? Where do I need to repent? When about two weeks ago we German bishops were in Rome for the Ad Limina visit, the Holy Father gave us a speech to take with us, one peppered with warnings: Clear words! In it, he speaks about the “erosion of faith” in our country. I once looked up on Wikipedia what erosion means: Improper land use removing especially fertile soil.

Dear sisters and brothers, the Church in Germany is certainly the best financed and best organised in the entire world. But what do we actually do? How can it be that – with all the means at our disposal – we must conclude that knowledge of and belief in the faith are ever more decreasing?

Are we really taking our mission to proclaim the faith seriously? We do it in other areas. For example: in our archdiocese, in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, hundreds of thousands, who are working with young people, are being trained. They must follow a set curriculum. Is there a similarly compulsory curriculum about questions of faith? No! Pope Francis has said, “New structures are continuously being created, but there are not faithful to fill them.” Are we obsessed with structures? In short, a word that is a warning for us as bishops and the Church in Germany.

And the Holy Father continues with what the erosion of faith means to him concretely. He discusses the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Holy Mass – the gift of God’s presence par excellence! Fewer than 10% of Catholics in our archdiocese attend it on Sunday. And when, because of decreasing numbers of priests, Mass times change or even, in some places, a Mass is no longer possible on every Sunday, a whole range of people stays away from Holy Mass. Has the Holy Eucharist become a sort of folklore in our lives, to embellish our Sundays? Our is it the foundation of our lives?

We are talking about new beginnings needed in our Church. Indeed, that is needed. But one thing is clear: When we do not make the first call of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, our own, when we do not make the call of John the Baptist our own, when we do not rediscover Confession as a place of God’s  mercy, there will be no new beginning! We can not make a new beginning by ourselves, but only implore God’s mercy for it.

Let us also ask ourselves: what does my faith look like? How seriously do I take it? How seriously do I take the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance? Do I try to deepen my attitude, my practice, to really experience this great gift of the mercy of God?”

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.