Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

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Ad Limina Thursday: Legislation and Religious, Saints and Popes, and a Sinterklaas surprise

With the ad limina officially over (although one meeting has been moved to today for those bishops remaining in Rome), it’s time to take a look back at what took place on Thursday. Friday activities will follow in due course.

Thursday morning was filled with the usual meetings, this time to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the Congregation for Religious, in sort). Bishop Hendriks, in his daily blog, reports that these were “not boring, despite what some might think”. The meeting with Cardinal Coccopalmerio at the Pontifical Council, the bishop writes, was very fruitful and revealed that many cases of church closings and the merger of parishes, all very current affairs in the Dutch Church, need further study.

Not all bishops attended these meetings, as some were at the Pontifical Council for Culture. Bishop Gerard de Korte, one of these, expressed specific admiration for Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Council’s president, and his project of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, which aims to foster dialogue between faithful and non-faithful.

cappuccino break ad liminaIn the afternoon, after a lunch and cappuccino break (at left), Cardinal Angelo Amato received the bishops at the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (pictured below), a meeting with some consequences for current Dutch causes. Top of the list were the martyrs of Alkmaar, murdered for the faith in 1572, and Fr. Johannes Roothaan, the second founder of the Jesuit Order. Both causes were dormant for decades, but may now become active again.

causes of saints meeting ad liminaBishop Frans Wiertz presented Dutch-born Bishop Frans Schraven as a possible patron saint for victims of sexual abuse. The case of Bishop Schraven, killed in China by Japanese soldiers in 1931 for not submitting the women and girls under his protection to be used as sex slaves, was opened earlier this year.

Mass on Thursday was offered at the church of the German College in Rome, the Santa Maria dell’Anima, which is also home to the grave of the only Dutch pope, Pope Adrian VI. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans was the homilist, and he spoke, among other things, about the mystery of the Church:

“The Church is a mystery because, although she is human, she is especially divine. We are the people of God. It is easy to recognise the human and the too human in the Church. The divine is harder to see, and can’t be caught in questionnaires. This depends on faith. In Jesus the human and the divine go together harmoniously. God is visible in the power of His words, in the signs He gives. The Apostle Thomas confesses, when He sees the signs of His wounds upon seeing Christ: “My Lord and My God”.

On another level, the Church carries God. God calls His people together. He is present in the faithful, in Holy Scripture, in the Sacraments, among others in men whom God calls to make Christ present in the Church as priests.”

Bishop Hurkmans also spoke about those who were the first to be called, the Apostles.

“Consider Peter. He is among us in his successor, Pope Francis. In a unique way he calls us to faith and gives hope to many. He speaks about Gods mercy. He touches, embraces, the hurt. His aim is to return to the Church the glory of her divine soul. He emphasises the mission of he Church: to restore hurt people in Christ. He explains, as we heard in the first reading, that there is no place in Gods plan for high fortresses. For pride, arrogance, selfish wealth. In the end times the gates of heaven will be opened for the just nation who remained loyal to God. Every Pope presents heavenly Jerusalem to the world. May our faith remain standing amid the storms and danger which leave destructive traces in Church and world. To continue expecting everything from God, in humility and simplicity.

hurkmans ad limina

He then likened the current Pope to his predecessor, Pope Adrian VI, who saw his own attempts to reform the Church stopped by an early death. “Adrian, a simple, humble Apostle who gave Christ a central place in the concrete life of the Church”.

“Brothers, brothers and sisters, in our time marked by a cultural break, Popes are part of a Church and world marked by secularisation, by a gap between rich and poor, by the need to clear the past, by major ethical questions because of the strides of science and digital means. There is so much around us. Today, Jesus calls us, as we heard in the Gospel, to continue searching for the basis. Christ continues inviting us to place ourselves under God, to do His will. Christ leads. He is the way, the truth and the life. It is Advent. Christ is coming among us. Let us, following the example of Peter, Adrian and our Pope Francis, make the mystery of the Church visible. By a simple and poor life. By meeting our neighbours one by one and come together with them around Christ. He comes to us, let us go to Him in gratitude. From our meeting with Him the reform that our time needs will flower. May God reign in our hearts. Amen.”

Finally, the bishops did not let the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas go by unnoticed, as Bishop Hurkmans surprised them all with a little present from the saint. “They can say a lot about bishops, but they all worked very hard,” he said as the reason for the presents. “Sinterklaas has asked me to respond to that and be his Zwarte Piet,”the bishop joked. “I have made a reminder to Pope Francis and Rome, and I have a print on which I wrote: “Ad Limina 2013. It is Francis! Faith, hope and love” with ‘hope’ underlined twice.”

Fr. Roderick Vonhögen made the video below for RKK. It is delightful to see our bishops in lighthearted moments like these.

Photo credit: [1] [2] Bishop Jan Hendriks, [3] Ramon Mangold

A basilica for the capital

As accidentally announced on twitter yesterday, the news may now be revealed properly. Amsterdam’s “cathedral on the IJ” – the strikingly domed St. Nicholas church that greets visitors arriving in the nation’s capital as they exit the central train station – has been elevated to the status of basilica minor. The actual elevation is set for Vespers on the eve of 9 December, the day on which the festivities marking the 125th anniversary of the new basilica’s dedication will be rounded off. Archbishop André Dupuy, the apostolic nuncio will then read the official document in which the decision is outlined.

Haarlem-Amsterdam’s Bishop, Msgr. Jos Punt, together with the parish council of Amsterdam’s St. Nicholas parish, made the official request to the Congregation for Divine Worship in July. This congregation motivates her decision to grant the request with two arguments: the veneration of Saint Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of the city of Amsterdam; and the devotion to the Miracle of Amsterdam, which is still remembered annually by a night-time silent procession through the city’s heart.

Bishop Jan van Burgsteden, the retired auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam who is responsible for the pastoral care in the parish, said: “This is the witness of a inspirational and missionary parish community. We hope that the Church and community may grow and flourish further in the years to come.” He referred to the many volunteers who kept the St. Nicholas alive and  thriving, even when secularisation forced the closure of many churches.

The elevation of the St. Nicholas raises the number of Dutch basilicas to 24, of which three are in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. The Archdiocese of Utrecht has eight, the Diocese of Breda three, Roermond six, Rotterdam one, and ‘s Hertogenbosch three. In the Caribbean Netherlands, the Diocese of Willemstad has one basilica.

The title of minor basilica is an honourific, a recognition of the import of a church building and of its value for the Catholic value using it. It also means that the church in question plays an exemplary role when it comes to pastoral care and liturgy.

The Catholic tradition that everyone enjoys

It’s the 6th of December, the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra, but for many people in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Germany and central Europe, his celebration is already over. The old tradition of giving gifts on the eve of the saint’s feast day still exists, and despite heavy secularisation and commercialisation, his imagery is still enormously Catholic. Depicted as a bishop with mitre, staff, alb and something approaching a chasuble, the heavily-bearded saint still makes an official arrival in the Netherlands in mid- to late-November, when he is welcomed in a different city or town each year, with members of the local authorities and the royal family in attendance. Well-choreographed children shows and tv-programs are centered around St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas in Dutch, as he promises presents to children who have been good and, now less frequently, punishment for bad children (often in the form of being taken to Spain, where tradition tells us St. Nicholas lives during the year).

In reality, the person of St. Nicholas of Myra, in modern Turkey, lies at the foundation of the tradition of Sinterklaas. The abbot and bishop may have been an important player at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he defended Catholic teaching in the face of heresy, and victim of persecution under Emperor Diocletian: first and foremost a Christian, a Catholic shepherd and example then.

The media attention to Sinterklaas will now lie dormant for another year, but how fantastic would it be if this regal person with all his Catholic regalia and symbolism were officially welcomed by the bishops of the Netherlands next year? Sure, he may be the great friend of children and giver of gifts, but in the end he is the abbot and bishop who is an example to us all in his Christianity. Maybe it’s time we all get to know him as such again.

Saturday’s ordination

Vatican flags are out at the entrance of the cathedral of St. Catherine in Utrecht

On Saturday I had the pleasure of being present at the presbyteral ordination of Father Anton ten Klooster and Father Wouter de Paepe in Utrecht. Travelling down there with a friend meant getting up quite early, but I always think that an occasion of such value for the Church in the Netherlands is worth getting up early for. New priests were also ordained in Haarlem, Den Bosch and Roermond. 

Archbishop Eijk lays his hands on Anton ten Klooster, ordaining him to the priesthood

It was a long Mass, as is usual for such occasions, celebrated by Archbishop Wim Eijk in concelebration with Father Patrick Kuipers and Father Norbert Schnell, the current and former rectors of the Ariënskonvikt, as well as the priests working in the parishes where both new priests also already work. Many other priests of the archdiocese, as well as the two auxiliary bishops, were also present in the sanctuary. 

The congregation was large, filling up the entire cathedral. That is sadly a rare occurrence, but it was comforting to see that many people had come to witness the ordination of their future pastors. 

This is just the part of the cathedral in front of us. More people were in the back half.

The magnificent cathedral choir added much to the dignity and festivity of the Mass. Their contribution was beautiful. 

Another beautiful moment in any ordination Mass happens just after the reading from the Gospel (Mark 11: 27-33 that day). Father Kuipers asked both men to come forward and declare their presence and then formally asked the archbishop to ordain them for the heavy task of the priesthood. The archbishop then asked if they are worthy, to which the reply is hat, based upon the questioning of the people and the judgement of those responsible they have been found worthy. That moment, after six years of education and formation, and many more years of discernment, is the moment a man knows that he his indeed called to the priesthood: the Church confirms it, and the bishop formally elects them for the order of the priesthood. 

After the homily, the future priests are formally asked to make the necessary vows – to shepherd the flock of the Lord, to preach the Gospel and explain the Catholic faith with dignity and wisdom, to celebrate the mysteries of Christ with dedication and loyalty, especially in the sacrifice of the Eucharist and sacrament of reconciliation, to pray for God’s mercy over the people entrusted to them by following the Lord’s commandment to ceaselessly pray, and to join closer to Christ every day – and promises – of loyalty and respect to the bishop and his successors. Then the intercession of all the saints is requested through the Litany of All Saints. During that the archbishop kneels in front of altar, while the future priests lie facedown on the ground behind him – a gesture of total submission to God. Then the bishop silently places his hands on the head of the future priests and then prays that God may ordain them in a lengthy prayer. After that, both men are dressed in stole and chasuble, the outward apparel of the priest. 

During that whole process it is so clear, through the words and the rituals, that this is more than a matter between people. The Holy Spirit is at work then, and through the consecration of the bishop the spirit descends over two men, elevating them to the priesthood, to act as alter Christus among His people. 

During this Mass, the choir sang Here I am, Lord, a song I didn’t know and the style of which is usually not really my taste, but emotionally it was perfect at that place in the liturgy. The video below is the best version I could find which was not a solo version of the song. 

 

Once in full priestly regalia and taken into the ranks of their brother priests, the two new priests’ hands are anointed and they receive the gifts which they will sacrifice to the Lord for the rest of their lives: the bread and wine which may now be consecrated through their hands. 

Mass then continues as usual with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, albeit extra solemn and festive of course. The new priests’ joy and gratitude must’ve been visible to those around them: it certainly was to everyone as they processed out: especially Father Wouter sported a large smile. 

The reception, where everyone had the chance to congratulate the new priests was in a church down the street: a protestant church which nonetheless housed an icon of St. Nicholas…