The cardinal’s testament

On a day in March 2009, Cardinal Karl Lehmann sat down and looked ahead at the day he would pass from this life into the eternal life. Almost nine years to the day later, his successor would lead his funeral Mass and share the spiritual testament with the world.

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In a requiem Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf (who also marked his 51st birthday) and five other bishops*, and in the presence of almost the entire German episcopacy (as well as Cardinals Adrianus Simonis from the Netherlands and Walter Kasper from Rome), Cardinal Karl Lehmann was interred in Mainz’s Cathedral of St. Martin of Tours and St. Stephen today. After the Mass was concluded, the text of the cardinal’s spiritual testament was published on the diocese’s Facebook page. Below, I share my translation.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My testament as bishop

I thank God for all gifts, especially the people He has given me, especially also my parents, teachers and my homeland. I am greatly thankful for the many full-time and voluntary sisters and brothers with whom I was allowed to work and who have supported me.

Theology and Church have been the breath of my life. I would choose thusly again! We all , especially in the time after 1945, have buried ourselves deeply in the world and the times, also in the Church. This is also true for me. I pray God and the people for forgiveness. Renewal must come deeply from faith, hope and love. Hence I remind all of the words of my motto, which come from Saint Paul, and which have become ever more important for me: “Stand firm in the faith!”

With gratitude and a request for prayer for me, I greet the Holy Father, the bishops, priest and deacons, all coworkers and all sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Mainz, in my home Diocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as friends in our Church and in ecumenism, and the Catholics of our country, for whom I gladly was chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years. I was always concerned with the unity in faith in the diversity of our lives, without blinkers and uniformity.

I leave the arrangement of the requiem Mass and the burial to the cathedral chapter and the auxiliary bishops. We have many good customs!

There are two things under which I have suffered time and again, and ever more: In many ways, our earth and, to a large extent, our lives are wonderful, beautiful and fascinating, but they are also profoundly ambiguous, destructive and terrible. Lately, the frightfulness of power and how man deals with it has dawned on me more and more. Brutal thought and the reckless pursuit of power are to me among the harshest expressions of unbelief and sin. Resist their beginnings! I increasingly keep Jesus’ words from Luke in mind:”When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Choose a good successor! Pray for him and for me! Goodbye!”

Mainz, 15 March 2009

+ Karl Cardinal Lehmann

Bishop of Mainz

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In his homily, Bishop Kohlgraf fondly remembered the popularity of Cardinal Lehmann, something that was proven in the days after his death by what people shared on social media:

“One shared that Bishop Lehmann had confirmed him and how much that meant to him. Others shared everyday encounters in the street and small conversations. I know of others for whom the cardinal was a true pastor and guide on he search for a personal faith. Not without reason do the people of the Diocese of Mainz call him “our Karl”. He was able to converse with everyone: with the so-called simple folk and with those with social, ecclesiastical and political influence.”

Bishop Kohlgraf referred to the cardinal’s spiritual testament several times. About the comment that the Church had  ‘buried’ itself in society in the last decades, the bishop said:

“A Church burying itself in the times: in its brevity and poignancy this sentence seems to me to be prophetic. The temptation to plan and create everything, as if administration, planning, material possession is the decisive factor, does not grow smaller. In this way our late cardinal warns us to live according to faith, hope and love, before starting to “create”. The source, which gives us true life, must not be forgotten.”

Cardinal Lehmann instead insisted that the search for God lay in the heart of people: something that is innate to all human beings. This search leads to a God who has a name, who can be addressed.

“The God of the Bible is a God who enters into history, a good of liberation, who accompanies people, “God with us”. He ultimately reveals Himself unparalleled in Jesus Christ. The cardinal’s coat of arms contains an open Bible, a reference to this God who speaks to people and joins them on the way: on the coffin today, likewise, there lies an open Bible. Today, God is also “God with us”. Since this God is so great and has numerous ways of speaking, there is an endless number of ways to come to Him, as numerous as the people and their means of expressing themselves. Theology must be diverse, faith experiences must be possible for different people, faith is not narrow, not uniform”.

The requiem and funeral Mass for Cardinal Lehmann was witnessed by thousands of people along the route of the funeral procession, in the cathedral and on the square in front of it, where faithful could watch the proceedings on big screens. Among the guests were the prime ministers of the federal states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, on whose territory the Diocese of Mainz is located. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived under police escort when the procession had entered the cathedral. Chancellor Angela Merkel had wanted to be there, but had duties in Berlin. She is expected to attend tomorrow’s requiem service in Berlin’s St. Hedwig cathedral.

*Concelebrating with Bishop Kohlgraf were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany; Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference; Gerhard Cardinal Müller, former priest of the Diocese of Mainz; Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg Stuttgart, representing the Oberrhein Church Province, from which Cardinal Lehmann hails; Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt, former priest and auxiliary bishop of Mainz; and Bishop Udo Bentz, auxiliary bishop of Mainz.

Photo credit: [1] Arne Dedert (dpa), [2] Boris Roessler (dpa)

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Consistory dawning – Amid controversy, one cardinal-to-be stays at home

collegeofcardinalsTomorrow, Pope Francis will create his fourth batch of cardinals. A small group of five this time (the smallest since Blessed Paul VI’s creation of four cardinals in 1977), but one unique in its variety, both in the places the new cardinals call home and in their hierarchical positions among the world’s bishops: One is an archbishop of a major metropolitan see, the other an auxiliary bishop; one runs a diocese covering an entire country, the other a sparsely-populated stretch of mountains and jungle, while another resides in a mostly Muslim society.

Jean_ZerboThis consistory, like others before it, comes with its own developments. This time, it is Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, Mali, who is at the centre of attention. Yesterday, the news broke that he will skip tomorrow’s ceremony because of health reasons, it is claimed. A valid reason for a 73-year-old man, certainly, but one made all the more interesting by the recent discovery of several Swiss bank accounts in the name of the bishops’ conference of Mali, totalling some 12 million euros in 2007. The bishops deny any misappropriation and claim full transparency about the existence of this extensive funds. Regardless of this, questions remain about the origin and purpose of this money, as journalist Marco Politi outlines, and Archbishop Zerbo, being one of three men with access to these accounts, is the subject of scrutiny, especially now that he is to be a cardinal.

Archbishop Zerbo’s absence from the consistory also influences the ceremony. Being the first-named among the new cardinals, it was his task to address a few words of gratitude to the Pope on behalf of himself and the other cardinals. It would be logical to assume that this now falls to the second name on the list, that of Archbishop Juan Omella Omella of Barcelona.

All in all, the consistory will be an intimate affair, with the four cardinals-elect, Juan Omella Omella, Anders Arborelius, Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun and Gregorio Rosa Chavéz, seated before the Holy Father, dressed in the cardinal red that signifies the servitude unto death as described by Jesus to his disciples in the reading from the Gospel of Mark, always used in consistories: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:43-45)

palliumOn Thursday, the traditional first Mass of the new cardinals with the Pope will be combined with the Mass for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, after which the pallia for the past year’s new metropolitan archbishops will be distributed. Under Pope Francis’ new rules, the actual imposition of the pallia will take place in the archbishops home dioceses. It is not mandatory for the new archbishops to attend and collect their pallia themselves, but it is expected that most of this year’s 34 will do so.

EDIT: Yesterday, it was revealed that Cardinal-designate Jean Zerbo will attend the consistory, having recovered enough from a stomach ailment that would have prevented his travelling to Rome.

60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

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Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

“Precious in His eyes” – Cardinal de Kesel’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Aerts of Bruges

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTSTaking a cue from the new bishop’s episcopal motto, Cardinal Jozef de Kesel spoke in his homily for the consecration of Bishop Lode Aerts of Bruges about the love of God, but also about the conversion needed to open ourselves for that love. And, with St. Augustine as an example, the newly-created cardinal emphasised that a bishop needs a second conversion.

“Dear friends, it is noteworthy that no Gospel begins with Jesus. It starts with John as a prophet in the desert. No Gospel comes straight to the point. Apparently, one can’t begin immediately. One has to be prepared. The terrain must be made made smooth. A inner transformation, a conversion, has to have taken place beforehand. And that is what John does: he calls for conversion. He calls people to the desert, which is traditionally the place of conversion. That is where everything began. That is where Israel found its vocation. There it became the People of God. There they found how valuable they were in God’s eyes. So that is where they have to return to. There is no way to Jesus than through that voice calling in the desert. Without that conversion, we won’t be able to hear Him.

Precisely for that reason, Jesus is so harsh for some Pharisees and certain Saducees. It is more about more about a mentality than about person. This mentality has lead to the conflict that made Jesus its victim. It is the mentality of those who do not conversion. Who are content with themselves and thank God that they are not like the others. The mentality of those who say, “There is nothing wrong with us, we have Abraham as our father!”

John’s call is also directed at us and the Church of today. We need conversion. We must get rid of self-assurance. It is a grace to us that Pope Francis continuously appeals to us for this. We must not fall back on ourselves. We must acknowledge our poverty and smallness. As long as we do not acknowledge this poverty, also in ourselves, Jesus has nothing to offer to us. They will also be Jesus’ first words: “Blessed are the poor of spirit!” It is the Spirit of the Messiah of which Isaiah speaks today. The Messiah, who is inspired by a spirit of deep humanity and sympathy. “He shall judge the poor with justice … strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth”. We must get rid of all complacency. Not a Church who is only occupied by herself, as Pope Francis requests. We have received the Gospel. It is our greatest treasure. But we did not earn it. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”.

As long as you accept it is normal that another loves you, you do not know what love is. As long as you think that you have earned and have a right to that love, you do not know what you mean to another. Only when you have dropped all pretense and know you are being loved undeservedly, only then you know how valuable you are in the eyes of those who love you. That is what God asks of His Church and of us today, this conversion, this emptying and this poverty. It is what Charles de Foucauld searched for. Last Thursday it was one hundred years ago that he died. And Augustine also experienced it in his life. He searched God with all his heart. It took a long time. He had to give up certainties before being able to surrender himself. “Too late have I loved you, but then You called and shouted (!); You have broken through my deafness and touched my heart.” So he became a Christian and a great bishop.

But oddly enough, in order to become a bishop, Augustine had to convert also. A second time! He had to soul of a monk. Becoming a priest was not something he sought at all. When he finally was one, his fame spread. In one of his homilies he said to have had so much fear of becoming a bishop that he avoided going soemwhere where the seat was vacant. But in Hippo, which he passed, he did not take into account that Bishop Valerius was old and people were looking for a successor. There was no avoiding anymore: he became a bishop.

You are familiar with his writings. You know that, when he wrote or preached about being Christian, he always did so with great inspiration and enthusiasm. But when he discussed the office of the bishop, he was always somewhat more muted. He writes about very lively: about the burden and the weight and the pressure of that office. I am not telling you this to frighten you. It can also encourage and comfort you to know that Augustine also knew and experienced it. But most of all to tell you that these two can not be separated: being a Christian and being a bishop. One needs conversion for both. But they do spring from the same source: the faith that we are loved by God, “precious in His eyes”.

Christian and bishop. The latter can sometimes be a great burden. But the former always turns it into a great grace. For yourself and for the entire faith community of which you are now the shepherd. You will, as Pope Francis says, sometimes walk ahead, sometimes among the sheep, sometimes after them. But always together and united with them in love and suffering. Knowing that there are no rulers and servants, but that we are all brothers and sisters, friends of Jesus, children with God our Father. Paul says it today: “Accept each other as members of one community”. For you are called with your entire church community to proclaim God’s love. We will soon hear it on Christmas Eve: how God’s charity appeared when he shared our existence in Christ, man among men. He loved us so much. So precious in His eyes.”

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTS

Bishop Aerts was consecrated on Sunday afternoon by Cardinal de Kesel in Bruges’ San Salvator Cathedral. Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy and emeritus Bishop Arthur Luysterman served as co-consecrators, a logical choice as Bishop Aerts was a priest of that diocese (and dean of Ghent for a month until his appointment to Bruges.

ceremonieel_wapen_website_internet%202Bishop Aerts’ motto is featured in his coat of arms and comes from the Book of Isaiah (a fitting choice for Advent, by the way). About it, the bishop writes:

“We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Everyone, believing or non-believing, exemplary or not, everyone is precious in the eyes of God. It comes from Isaiah, a passage about a people in exile. Somewhat comparable to today’s circumstances. A time of crisis, there is fear and insecurity. And there aren’t very many of them left, either. And precisely then God say, the prophet tells us, that they are precious in His eyes.”

Photo credit: [1, 2] Kurt Desplenter, [3] Bisdom Brugge

No fear in violent times – Bishop Wiertz’s letter for Advent

Bishop Frans Wiertz digs into the topic of fear and evil in his letter for Advent. His opinion of modern society is not overly positive, but he finds the antidote in the promise of the angel to the shepherds: “Be not afraid”.

Mgr. F.J.M. Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

We are preparing ourselves for Christmas. At the heart of the celebration of this feast is of course the story of the birth of Jesus. Every time, we discover new facets in it which are worth reflecting on. This year, our attention is especially drawn to a verse from the song of the angel. The angel heartens the shepherds in their alarm and their fear: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy…” (Luke 2:10).

“Do not be afraid”. This encouragement appears frequently in Holy Scripture, in all kinds of variations. A zealous reader once counted how frequently. He made the surprising discovery that it was no less than 365 times! So you could say that the Word of God encourages us every day: “Have no fear. Do not be afraid”.

Perhaps this appeal is especially necessary in our time. Our society is contradictory. Never before did people have it this good. But still, many have a sense of great discontent. Research has established the presence of this discontent before. Many people individually call themselves happy, but as a society we are unsatisfied and insecure. Our lives are even permeated by a “culture of fear”. People have become afraid of each other.

The brutal violence of terrorism scares us. Our peaceful coexistence is threatened by it. We are worried about the coarseness and hardness of modern life. Normal social contact is disrupted by it. We are even starting to distrust each other. We lock our houses down with security systems and padlocks. “Who can I still trust?” is often heard.

We are undeniably at a crossroads in history. The core values of our coexistence have thoroughly changed in a very short time. Growing individualism is paralysing our common solidarity. Our common bond has become fleeting, loyalty a difficult task.

Does this make us feel good? Young people are looking for a handhold in all sorts of ways. The elderly are worried about their future. For young and old existence has become confusing. Uncertainty takes hold over us.

This uncertainty ultimately comes from the weakening or even the disappearance of the faith in God. God, revealed in Jesus Christ, the power of His Holy Spirit. Many hardly know what to do with it. People are trying to live without God in our time. Without any awareness of His care. Without sense for His love.

By extension, also often enough: without any concern for him or her who remains our neighbour. If God is no longer our Father, we are also no longer each other’s brothers and sisters.  This absence of God and neightbour, that frightens me.

Should we, as Christians, resign ourselves to this culture of fear? The call to ‘watchfulness’ resounds in many texts in the liturgy of Advent. As faithful we must not ignore the problems of this time. We must be on our guard, watch for the power of evil not conquering us.

With all people of good will, we are searching for a peaceful society. The Gospel asks for solidarity in fighting everything that stands in the way of a humane society. The faith in Jesus Christ is at odds with any form of indifference. Pope Francis continuously warns against what he calls a ‘global indifference’.

The frightening situation of a violent world wakes us up. We often close our eyes for the power of evil in our superficial world. Let us open our hearts for the many who have fled the misery of their destroyed homes.

The fear of people in our time is really not unfounded. We can not deny that an evil power is working among us. This should be fought with all virtuous means. Saint Paul still presents us with a very simple and very effective measure: “Conquer evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

We must not allow ourselves to be paralysed by fear. Fear is, after all, a poor counselor. That is why the angel of Christmas warns us, “Do not be afraid.” And he adds, “For behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy… For today … a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2,10-11).

God did not remain a stranger to us. No distant absentee. From the silence of His mystery He came intimately close to us in Jesus. He broke through His silence. Opened heaven that was closed. The Word of God became man and lives among us.

Faith in the Christ child always gives us new confidence and hope in our sometimes frightening situation. It has become a hard task to give these virtues a stable place in our lives. In order to break the spiral of our fear, we need courage. The courage of a persevering witness of faith. As the Reverend Martin Luther King said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”. May the birth of Christ give us that strength of His peace and salvation!

+ Franz Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”