An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

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^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

Network of love – Bishop van den Hende on what makes a diocese

Last month, the Dioceses of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Rotterdam marked the 60th anniversary of their foundation. A week ago, the website of the latter diocese published the text of the Bishop Hans van den Hende’s homily for the festive Mass on 6 February. In it, the bishop puts the sixty years that the diocese has existed in perspective, and goes on the describe the diocese not as a territory, but as a part of the people of God, as the Second Vatican Council calls it in the decree Christus Dominus. Following Blessed Pope Paul VI, Bishop van den Hende explains that a diocese is a network of love. following the commandment of Jesus to remain in His love. This network starts in the hearts of people and as such it contributes to building a society of love and mercy.

20160206_Rotterdam_60JaarBisdom_WEB_©RamonMangold_08_348pix“Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we mark the sixtieth year of the existence of the Diocese of Rotterdam. “Sixty years, is that worth celebrating?”, some initially wondered. “We celebrated fifty years in a major way. One hundred years would be something.”

In the history of the Church, sixty years is not a long period of time. But sixty years is a long time when you consider it in relation to a human life. Many people do not reach the age of sixty because of hunger and thirst, war and violence. There are major areas where there hasn’t been peace for sixty years. Sixty years is long enough to contain a First and a Second World War.

Every year that the Lord gives us has its ups and downs, can have disappointments, great sorrow and joy. Sixty years we began as a diocese. In 1955, Pope Pius XII had announced that there would be two new dioceses in the Netherlands. The north of the country received the Diocese of Groningen. And here the Diocese of Rotterdam was created from the Diocese of Haarlem.

In 1956, on 2 February, both dioceses began. The new bishops came later. The bishops of the older dioceses of Utrecht and Haarlem initially were the administrators of the new dioceses. But in May of 1956 the first shepherds of the two new dioceses were consecrated (the consecration of Msgr. Jansen as bishop of Rotterdam was on 8 May 1956).

Describing the division of dioceses in provinces and areas, I could give you the impression that a diocese is in the first place a territory that can be pointed out geographically. But a diocese is not primarily a firmly defined area or a specific culture. The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese in the first place as a part of the people of God: “portio populi Dei” (CD, 11). The Vatican Council avoids here the word “pars”, that is to say, a physical piece.

A diocese is a part of the people of God. And that automatically makes a diocese a network of people united in faith around the one Lord. A network in the heart of society, connected to people that they may travel with. Pope Paul VI characterised the Church as a “network of love”, with the mission to contribute to a society of love in the entire world.

A network of love in unity with Jesus, who tells His disciples in the Gospel (John 15: 9-17), “Remain in my love”. Now that we are marking sixty years, we must recognise that things can go wrong in those sixty years, that there are things which do not witness to the love of Christ. How we treat each other, how parishes sometimes compete with each other, and also the sin of sexual abuse of minors and how we deal with that, these are part of our history.

Should we then say that this network of love is too difficult a goal to achieve? If we think that, we should remember what St. Paul says in the first reading (1 Cor. 1:3-9). He says: the network of love does not just belong to people, but is united with Jesus Christ, who helps us persevere until the end. Jesus is God’s only Son who has lived love to the fullest, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead and who made no reproaches but said, “Peace be with you” (cf. John 20:21).

The network of love is inspired by the Holy Spirit whose efficacy becomes visible where there is unity, where forgiveness is achieved, where people can bow to each other and serve one another.

To be a network of love is a duty that we must accept ever anew as a mission from the Lord. We are a diocese according to God’s heart, insofar as the witness to Christ has taken root in us (1 Cor. 1:5-6). When we do not consider the disposition of His heart we do not go His way. And when we do not store and keep His life in our hearts (cf. Luke 2:51), we are not able to proclaim His word and remain in His love.

As a diocese (as a local Church around the bishop) we are not just a part of the worldwide Church of Christ, but a part in which everything can happen which makes us Church in the power of the Holy Spirit: in the first place the celebration of the Eucharist as source and summit, and the other sacraments: liturgy. Communicating the faith in the proclamation of the Gospel: kerygma, which – in catechesis, for example – must be coupled with solidarity between the generations. And thirdly, that we, as a network of love, show our faith in acts of love: charity (cf. Deus caritas est, n. 23).

We celebrate this anniversary in a year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis. It is a holy year of mercy. Mercy means on the one hand to continue trusting in God’s love, asking for forgiveness for what’s not right, for what is a sin. Allowing Him into our hearts. On the other hand it means that we make mercy a mission in our lives and show it in our service to our neighbours, in acts of love, in works of mercy. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus summarises this for us: I was thristy and you gave me to drink, I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked, I was homeless and alone. Did you care for me? Jesus does not isolate people in need, but identifies Himself with them: You help me when you approach a person in need (vg. Matt. 25:40).

Characterising the diocese and the entire Church as a network of love is not a recent invention from our first bishop, Msgr. Jansen, but is an answer to Christ’s own mission for His Church. And many saints went before us on that path with that mission. Saint Lawrence was a deacon in third-century Rome (225-258), who helped the people where he could. And when the emperor wanted to take all the Church’s treasure, which wasn’t even in the form of church buildings, as the Christians did not have those yet, Lawrence did not come to him with the riches, but with the people in need. And he said, “These are the treasures of the Church”. These treasures don’t take the form of bank accounts or the wax candles the emperor loved so much, but people, who are images of God. Jesus looking into our hearts also asks us to see in the hearts of people. In this way we continue to celebrate Lawrence and his witness.

And what about Saint Elisabeth (1207-1231) who went out to give bread to people and help the sick? She was of noble birth and was expected not to do this, but she went out from her castle and helped people in need. In this way she was a face of God’s mercy. And consider Blessed Mother Teresa (1910-1997), of whom there is a statue in this church. She saw people collapsing in misery, lying in the gutter, and she saw in their hearts. And also in our city of Rotterdam we are happy to have sisters of Mother Teresa realising mercy in our time.

A network of love and building a society of love. What more can we do in love and mercy? Marking sixty years of our diocese, it is a good time to ask ourselves: has the witness of Christ, has His love properly entered our hearts? And then we should say, and I am answering on behalf of all of us: we could do better. We need mercy and are to communicate God’s merciful love. In this city and elsewhere we are to contribute to a civilisation of love, contribute to a community which builds up instead of tearing down. It is clear that neither the Kingdom of God nor a diocese can be found on a map, because it starts in the hearts of people.

I pray that we celebrate this anniversary today in the knowledge that God’s mercy accompanies us and that we may accept his mission of solicitude, compassion and mercy. This is more than enough work for us, but it is only possible when it fills our hearts. Amen.”

The question of being human – Bishop Neymeyr’s message for Lent

In his message for Lent, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt tackles a difficult question – “what does it mean to be human?” – and arrives at a twofold answer. In the process he also discusses the humanity of refugees, something we must always endeavour to recognise, especially when confronted with the problems and challenges that come with accepting and sheltering people from different cultures.

The Holy Year of Mercy also gets a look in, as do the works of mercy.
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“My dear sisters and brothers,

“What is being human?” At the start of Lent I invite you to reflect on this question, as it leads us to the current challenges of this year. “What is being human?” We think of other concepts, such as understanding, kindness, helpfulness. Someone who is human, sees needs and tries to alleviate them. The countless people who have come to us as refugees in recent months, experience such humanity. Many people in Thuringia consider it important not to describe or treat the refugees as a stream, flood or mass, but as people who fled out of necessity. Even when our country has to send people back when there is no danger for life and limb in their homeland, they are people, who should be treated humanely. We can not be indifferent to what happens to them at home. This striving for compassion – also with refugees – unites us with most people in Thuringia. As Christians we are bound to be more than compassionate, namely charitable. Jesus identifies Himself with people in need: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matt. 25,35). In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity!” (N. 15). Charity can also be stirred by the fate of people far away, especially when they come from the distance of the news as refugees to our neighbourhood.

The motto of the Katholikentag, which will take place from 25 to 29 May 2016 in Leipzig, leads us to another dimension of being compassionate. It is “Here is the man!”, in Latin: “Ecce homo!”. They are the famous words with which Pontius Pilate introduces Jesus to the crowd after He was brutally tortured, i.e. scourged (John 19:5). The man Jesus becomes a sacrifice for injustice and self-interest, of fanaticism and political circumstances. Someone who is human, who sees people, also sees the inhuman structures and can not stay out of politics. We lament the fate of our fellow Christians who are exposed to discrimination and persecution in Muslim and communist countries. No faith group is persecuted so much globally as Christians. In a free country we can and must raise our voices against intolerance and repression. We must also ask critically if Germany, shaped as it is by Christianity, is committed enough to the rights of our persecuted fellow Christians. The use of our freedom can not fall victim to political or economical interests. The Katholikentag in Leipzig should be a forum where the political consequences of the Gospel will be struggled with. I gladly invite you to participate. It is worth travelling to Leipzig for, even for one day.

You may perhaps have thought of a very different answer to the question, “What is being human?”, namely, “To err is human”. Another word for being human is ‘imperfect’. The wellknown sentence “To err is human” comes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus. From the Irish author Oscar Wilde comes the sentence: Everyone has a weakness and that only makes him human.” Both quotes remind us of the human characteristic of making mistakes, to not abide by the rules, even violating own principles. The Apostle Paul describes this human behaviour briefly and concisely in his Letter to the Romans: “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). Paul calls this the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). In the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis calls us to entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, with our tendencies and sins. In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis writes, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands” (N. 17). Dear sisters and brothers, I want to encourage you to receive the sacrament of Confession. I know that it is not easy to look at our own humanity and sins. There is also much that we can’t simply change from one day to the next. But when we accept our weaknesses and ignore our sins, nothing will change. When we, however, take a good look at them and express them in Confession, we hold them towards the mercy of the heavenly Father. We find that we have been accepted by God, we experience the liberation of a new beginning – and who knows: the mercy of Jesus transformed the greedy tax collector Zacchaeus, and he freely returned what he took unjustly.

“What is being human?” The answers to this question are twofold: imperfect and charitable. Our language indicates an inner connection: When we are and remain aware of our own imperfection, our understanding for and charity towards other people increases. As we rely on the mercy of God, we are prompted to show mercy towards other people. Especially in the land of Saint Elisabeth, the wish of the Holy Father, which he directs at all in his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, should find fertile ground: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead” (N. 15). You may find the works of mercy in Gotteslob, under number 29,3.

In the Elisabeth Year of 2007 the works of mercy were reformulated for us today in Thuringia:

  • You belong.
  • I listen to you.
  • I speak well about you.
  • I am travelling with you a while.
  • I share with you.
  • I visit you.
  • I pray for you.

Dear sisters and brothers, I wish you a blessed Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy and invoke over you all the blessing of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Your bishop, Ulrich Neymeyr”

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″

God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:

korte

“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).

At St. John Lateran, the real Ad Limina

The feast day of the dedication of the basilica of St. John Lateran is already a week ago, but on the occasion of their Ad Limina visit, the German bishops celebrated Mass at the papal basilica yesterday, and Archbishop Ludwig Schick gave the homily, in which he emphasised the significance of this particular church.

Here is my translation.

archbishop ludwig schick“Dear brothers!

It is not an obligatory part of the program of an Ad Limina visit to visit the Lateran basilica and celebrate Holy Mass here. But it makes a lot of sense to make a pilgrimage to this place, to give the Ad Limina visit its actual meaning and enrich the purpose of it. In the end it is about uniting ourselves closer to Christ, the saviour of the world. Here in the Lateran basilica this can be sensed and achieved most profoundly.

Why and how?

In the ciborium over the main altar of the Lateran basilica the heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul are venerated. Ad Limina Apostolorum – here at the Lateran we find them both. Here, like nowhere else, they both point towards Him for whom they gave their lives – towards Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world. Here Saint Paul reminds us, “Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain” (Phil. 1:21). And Peter invites us to confess with and like him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). We come to the limina – the thresholds – of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and they lead us to Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, “the bishop and shepherd of our souls”. Christ is what the Church is about. He is the heart.

This church is consecrated to the Saviour, and is called “mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum urbis et orbis“. All churches, the buildings and the local churches are to service the saviour. This Ad Limina visit intends to renew us in the conviction and duty of serving Christ, HIM and His Kingdom of justice, of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (cf. Letter to the Romans).

Here at the Lateran we also symbolically meet the Pope, sign and instrument of unity. The original papal see is here. The most important task of the Pope to maintain the unity of the Church is to root that unity in Jesus Christ and serve HIM in unity. In this respect I recall the words of Pope Benedict XVI from the Encyclical Deus caritas est, words that have become proverbial and which have often been quoted by Pope Francis: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

saint john lateran

Today we celebrate a German mystic: Gertrud of Helfta. With Saint Mechthild of Hakeborn and Saint Mechthild of Magdeburg she is one of the great holy women of the Church. Her mysticism was directed at Christ, concretely the Heart of Jesus. Christ became man, the “Saviour of man”, not to atone for the debt of sin (satisfaction theory of atonement), but to re-establish the bond of love between people and God. In the bond of love with God in Jesus Christ, man turns to his neighbours, especially the poor and needy!

Dear brothers!

Ad limina apostolorum! To come, with the Apostles, to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Ad limina apostolorum! To understand with them the Church, which is built on the foundation of the Apostles, which is much more than an institution, the Body of Christ, People of God, House that provides, promotes and guarantees communion with God and each other.

Ad limina apostolorum! To serve the people of God with them and like them, to proclaim and advance the Kingdom of God with a new zeal.”

German bishops on Ad Limina

dbk logoThe German bishops have announced the dates for their Ad Limina visit to Rome, later this month. The five-day pilgrimage to the graves of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as meetings with the Curia and several audiences with the Pope, will take place from 16 to 20 November. The last time the German Bishops’ Conference made an Ad Limina visit was in 2006, almost a  decade ago, almost double the time that should theoretically separate visits.

With 67 members, the Conference is so large that there will be three audiences with Pope Francis, with a final joint meeting on the 20th.

There are four Masses planned, one in each of the Papal Basilicas:

  • Tuesday 17 November, 4pm, in Saint John Lateran
  • Wednesday 18 November, 4pm, in Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls
  • Thursday 19 November, 7:30am, in Saint Mary Major.

The Mass at the tomb of St. Peter, presumably on the 20th. is not open to the faithful because of limited space. The other Masses are open for attendance.

A press conference will be held on the final day, with Cardinal Reinhard Marx as president of the conference, in the Collegio Teutonico.

While the meetings with the Curia and the audiences with the Pope are private, the texts of the Pope’s addresses will undoubtedly be made public (whether he actually gives them or not – with the Dutch bishops in 2013 he did not give his planned address, after all). Pope Francis will find the German bishops firmly on his side in the refugee crisis, and he is not unfamiliar with some of the bishops – first of all Cardinal Marx, who is a member of the Council of Cardinals advising him about the reforms in the Curia – or their schools of thought. But as the German dioceses are among the world’s richest (and among the greatest financial donors as well), and the German state’s church tax causes unique and sometimes troublesome situations, Pope Francis may also have a thing or two to about income and expenses.