Love, trust and Jacob – Archbishop Koch’s homily

In an almost 2,000-word long homily during his installation Mass as archbishop of Berlin, Archbishop Heiner Koch took the figure of Jacob as a starting point to delve into what the love of and for God is. Love is not an emotion, he explained, but a decision, and it is based on trust. And that is the key to experiencing God, as even Jacob, on the run and forced to sleep under the naked sky with a stone for a pillow, discovered.

In my experience, the Old Testament patriarchs, with the possible exception of Moses, rarely feature in homilies. That alone makes this one worth a read. Besides that, it may also help some in thinking about their own relation with God.

koch installation

“Jacob, the supplanter, that is what they called him (cf. Gen. 27:36), and from him we hear in today’s reading. With a lie he had taken the rights of the first born from his brother Esau, and so provoked his vengeance. He had to flee and already on the first night of his flight he had to spend the night under the open sky. Night surrounded him: the night of those who have no home, of those who are guilty, of those who disappointed and alienated others. In that night he took a stone, but not only to rest his head on. He and his contemporaries attributed  a special power to stones, a divine connection: That is why they expected security and shelter from such a stone. In the middle of his night, Jacob trusts on the nearness of God through the power of the stone under his head: “I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I am with you. I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this country, for I shall never desert you” (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). In the middle of the night of his life, a dream reveals to him the closeness of God: In the middle of his homelessness he finds himself at home with God: “This is the abode of God, here God gives him, the refugee, home and security (cf. Gen. 28:17). A second dream breaks the hopelessness of his life: A ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12). Heaven is open for him, despite all his guilt and with all his desperation, powerlessness and homelessness.For him, night becomes a time of awakening is, from all seclusion and darkness.

In the middle of the night Jacob experiences what Christ proclaimed and lived: I, God, love you, man, so much, beyond all boundaries and conditions, I will not leave you. I am and will remain with you. I will be at your side:

If the powerful consider you nothing but a number, I was also a number to the powerful at the time of my birth. I am with you, refugee, as I also had to flee when I was a child. I am with you when people laugh at you, as they laughed at me. I am with you when the strike and make you bleed, as they made me bleed. I am with you, when people think your life is worthless as they did mine. I am with you when there is no room for you in the city, as there was no room for me. Neither do I come down from the Cross and leave the thief there to die. My love is without limits, my love will not leave you, man, alone: not you, Jacob, the supplanter, not the thief on the Cross and not the people and not you today.

That is the heart of the good new that we Christian far and wide vouch for: Christ the Saviour is here! You can rely on Him. He is the fundamental reason for our joy: “Gaudete semper! Dominus prope. Always be joyful! The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:4,5). I took these words from Saint Paul as the motto of my episcopal service. God doesn’t come sometimes, He is here: here and now, in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Köpenick, in Potsdam and Greifswald, Brandenburg an der Havel or Frankfurt an der Oder, always and forever, in peace and suffering, in joy and need, when I am aware of His closeness and when He seems far from me, in life and in death: He is and remains near to us.  Setting no limits to human life! That is what we Christians must stand for, also when we are not supported from all sides.

This message changes everything: what perspective on life it opens, far beyond the limits of the tangible world and beyond death. Christians are people of a wide horizon, who will not be bound by circumstances of the here and now. What hope and confidence, especially in the dark times of life, may break forth from this experience of God’s closeness!

Such commitment is there, but also challenge: Leave no one ever alone: neither the unborn child, nor the homeless, the failed, the sick, the disabled, the powerless nor the dying! Set no limits for human life!

Everything, in Berlin, in Brandenburg, in Vorpommern, now depends on learning to see HIM, to discover HIM, to find HIM especially in the darkness of our lives. That is why we are here as Church: to help people discover God in their lives, sometimes in a long struggle, a long process of searching – that is what we are here for as Christians and as Church.

But: is there really such a God? Can I experience Him as a reality or does He prove to be just an empty phrase or ideological superstructure? In answering this question all people, without exception, are believers. Man does not have the choice to be a believer or not. In the decisive questions of life, and especially in the crucial question of God, man encounters his quintessential decision of faith: one believes that there is nothing beyond the visible and understandable world, and the other believes that there is a God beyond our thinking and seeing. One believes that it all ends with death, and the other that death is the portal to eternal life. One believes that God exists and the other that He does not. Everyone lives in faith. In the de facto pursuit of life man can not be indecisive about the question of God: Either he prays to God or he doesn’t. He either struiggles with God or not, either God means something in his life, or He does not. His concrete, practical life provides the answer to the question of his faith: “Do you believe that there is a God, or do you believe that there is no God?”

With that also comes the questions: “Can I perceive, see, recognise God today? Can I experience and learn to see Him like Jacob did?”

The story of Jacob provides the answer: You will see Him when you build on Him, when you trust on Him. Trust broadens the outlook, mistrust on the other hand blinds. That is just as true in politics as in personal life. When two people meet, recognise each other, as Scripture has it, they must trust one another. Precisely that is the leap of faith, it is the leap of my trust. Without such trust there can be no experiencing God. You must dare to live in trust with God, and you will experience that God exists. That is the key to God: your trust.

The theory of science describes this when she says that the object to be studied always defines the method of investigation. A scientific object must be studied with scientific methods and a historical event with historical methods. Carrying this thought over to the knowledge of God: If God is love, He can only be known through love. We see God at the cost of our hearts, our trust. There is no easier way! There can be no knowledge of God outside of my trust.

And then, love is much more than just a feeling, but rather a decision. Especially in difficult times this becomes profoundly clear in terms of God’s love: When I no longer hear antyhing from God, when I can no longer understand Him, no longer grasp Him in my own terms,, when I feel that God is greater than my thoughts and feelings, when I no longer see His path in my hour of need, then precisely these hours become a question to me: Can God rely on my love, even when I don’t see Him? Is the decision of my love for Him so strong that it proves itself in such hours? Do I trust in God even then, and can He rely on me under such a burden? I am always touched when I consider that Christ asked Peter, before he entrust him with his great office, three times, “Do you love me?”(cf. John 21: 15-23). He does not ask, “Do you believe this and do that?” but enquires three times about his love. “Do you love me?” This questions becomes also for us the decisive question about our knowledge of God: “Do you love me?” I am convinced that most people do not know God, as they are unwilling to trust God, to give Him their hearts, their love. But precisely this path is the only path to experience that I am not alone in the days and nights of my life and that my night is therefore thrown open to Easter morning. Give God a chance! Give Him your trust!

And what if we can answer Christ’s question to us, about our love, just as hesitantly as Peter or perhaps even poorer and more pathetic? Let’s look once again at Jakob, the supplanter, with this question. His path with God is not ended, he must continue on, considerably further. Love is never done, love is always searching. I also ask you, the unbaptised, and you, who have another religion, to go with us on this search. We are grateful for your life experiences. You are a great wealth for us with your searching and your meaningful questions about life and faith. We are probably much closer to each other than we think, and perhaps we will discover on our common path not only we are searching for God, but God has already been searching for us, not only that we are looking for God, but that He is looking for us. Perhaps we can help each other in this way to discover this God, who in Paradise already asked man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).

How good it is to recall at such times that our love for God is not the decisive factor,  but God’s love for us, that His love stands firm and is reliable, that He serves us and washes our feet and not we His. Perhaps a small and quick prayer can then also help, such as, “Dear God, do not let me go!”

My dear sisters and brothers! Learning to love God together and through and in Him our sisters and brothers and all people whom God entrusts to us: to proclaim this – as the Gospel tells us today – to be seeds in the hearts of men. That is the great project of our diocese in all its effects on our parishes, communities and institutions! It is the fullness of life and the love of God, from which we all live and which carries us, also with our fractures, which we can often no longer heal. Should we not address these concerns in our time in completely new ways, with new emphases, consequences and focus? The future of the Church is not a carbon copy!

Is this not also the ecumenical path, which I would join and build up consciously and decidedly? Learning to love God, how important is this mutual way for us and our society!

Does this path of love not lead directly to the weak, the poor and disadvantaged of our society, in whom God challenges us and our love? The current need of refugees and their families is for us not just a burning and challenging social question, it becomes question of our faith. Without people in need, awaiting our love, we can not find God, who is love, and we remain blind for his closeness. He is close to us in them!

Dear sisters and brothers, from my heart I want to go this path of learning to love with you. Please come with me on our common path!

+ Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch”

 Photo credit: KNA

“Praised be” – Encyclical day is here

LaudatoSi-255x397So today is the big day. I’ve not seen such excitement for the launch of an encyclical, but, then again, I’ve only been around as a Catholic for four of them. But this time around, everyone has an opinion, in part because they’ve seen the leaked early draft of Laudato Si’*, but mostly because the encyclical’s topic is such a heavily politicised one. Especially on the American side of the Atlantic, I notice that the question of the environment, and especially global warming, is seen as inherently connected and opposed to questions of population control and, more often than not, economic concerns. The issue of the scientific validity of what Pope Francis is a distant third element of the opposition.

Are these concerns warranted? Will Laudato Si’ suddenly advocate population control to protect the environment? That would be highly unlikely, considering that Pope Francis has time and again spoken against such things as abortion, euthanasia and curtailing the rights of people, which would all be means to the end of population control. Will Pope Francis speak against economic concerns as the driving force in our lives and actions? That seems almost certain, at least if these concerns plunge others in poverty and destroy their environment. Pope Francis’ chief concerns do not lie with western multinationals or millionaires, but with the poor and marginalised of the world. He is all for the common good, but not at the expense of others, or of the environment in which we all live. And that is also the Catholic attitude,and not without reason has Pope Francis said that Laudato Si’ will lie fully within the whole of Catholic social teaching.

In the end, it all boils down to the Creation stories of Genesis, in which we learn that man’s place in Creation is that of a steward. Yes, he can make use of what the world offers, but also has a duty to maintain it and not exploit or destroy it. Man is a part of Creation. He is not separate. If we destroy or exploit the world around us, we ultimately destroy ourselves. God has given us a world to live in and care for.

Are the concerns we hear against a major focus on the environment without any basis then? Not if our environmental concerns overshadow the care we must have for the people in our society and in other societies across the world. We must balance these concerns.

In the end, Laudato Si’ will be a document that needs to be read positively. It wants to invite us to act towards the betterment of ourselves and all of creation,not force us to stop and change what is good about our use of the environment.

*As an aside, this encyclical will be the first one since 1937 not to have an official Latin title. Encyclicals are titled after their opening words,which in this case happen to come from Saint Francis’ Caticle of the Sun,which was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian. In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in German, as it was directed against the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.

Road signs – how changing the teaching of the Church leads us nowhere

In Germany the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, has been calling for pastoral and doctrinal changes to the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Conference of Dutch Religious, the KNR, was following suit.

Towards the end of April, the KNR, through its commission for women, was involved in the organisation of a symposium on relationships and family, with a special focus on divorce, homosexuality and migration, in the light of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies about the same topic. The symposium’s closing statement, which appeared on the KNR website on the 20th of May, summarises the conclusions and outlines what the participants – some 70 priests, religious and laity in all – think the bishops should decide and promote at the upcoming general assembly. Some of their points, such as simplifying the process of nullification of marriages or increasing pastoral sensitivity towards the divorced – are already being investigated and developed in the Church. Others are rather problematic and clash with the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, and thus ultimately with the sacrament of marriage and the order of Creation as has been given to us by God.

The symposium suggest the following in addition to the non-problematic points I already mentioned. I have added my comments in [red].

  • More respect for the decisions and the conscience of remarried faithful. [There is  a difference between respecting decisions and conscience and allowing things. One can respect a decision and still point out the consequences. The reverse is also true: the person making a decision must be aware and respect the consequences of it. Of course, no one should be forcing anyone towards or away from a decision, but the Church does have a duty of honesty towards people. In the end, we are free people, free to make informed choices, but that is not the be-all and end-all.]
  • Finding a new word for “annulment” as many people do not want to deny the relationship that existed. [To me this sounds like a superficial nicety. Sure “annulment” is a legalistic term that does not sound nice, but the end of a marriage is not nice. It should be remembered that an annulment does not mark the end of a marriage, but the conclusion that there never was a sacramental marriage to begin with. Nothing is ended, since there was nothing to begin with. Is that denial of a relationship? Of course not. Everyone, and the couple involved certainly, will see that there most certainly was a relationship. We should not need to change words to realise that.]
  • Reconsidering doctrine and practice regarding divorce, using the Orthodox Churches as an example. [This is problematic in a way that I know little about, but Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, explains in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church that there is no single Orthodox understanding or praxis regarding these issues, in addition to other problems. Taking the Orthodox example may not be as straightforward or desirable as it seems.]
  • Marking the end of a marriage with some sort of ritual [This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with. What sort of ritual? Is it one of celebration or mourning? A ritual for people or for God? Is there even something to mark the ending of?]

Regarding homosexuality, the closing statement lists three points:

  • Considering the relationships of people of the same sex, who love each other and take care of each other, as equal to heterosexual relationships and respecting them as such. [This is a difficult one. A distinction must be made between people and relationships. People are always equal, with the same human diginity that God has given all of us. And this should be the basis of how we interact with each other. Relationships, a vague enough term to encompass everything from being neighbours, colleagues at work, up to and including marriage, are not equal. There may be similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, but there are also differences. When we start to consider them as fully equal we disregard the differences, which are not inconsequential. Sure, we can respect the love and responsibility in all relationships (these are inherently good things), but at the same time we acknowledge a fullness that we are called to strive for as far as we can. When we say that all relationships are the same, we deny this, and thus deny God].
  • Re-assessing the anthropology of the Church on the basis of modern insights from psychology, biology and philosophy. [While the Church must always be open to what we learn of the world and humanity through science, this must never be a reason to close the door to revelation. God has taught us about ourselves, and continues to do so through Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. The Church must remain careful to not be swept away with the winds of time. The teaching, including that about sexuality, marriage and family, can not be subject to the whims of the times. Besides, discovering new facts about human nature and sexuality is not in itself reason to change doctrine and practice, but an invitation to work out how both are compatible and can be understood through each other. The Church does not teach primarily because she discovers things (although she does that too), but because she has been given a teaching.]
  • If so desired to bless unions other than the classical marriage between man and woman. [There are two things to consider here. First, there is the blessing itself: in order to bless something, the Church must be in favour of it, and consider it something that must benefit from the blessing in order to flourish. Same-sex relationships (or, if we keep to the language of the statement, any relationship one can think of – even including between adult and minors, people and their pets, with multiple spouses and so on) do not in themselves meet these criteria, regardless of the good they can manifest, such as love and care. Secondly, the Church blesses publicly, not in secret. Assuming a way was found to bless the love and care in a relationship, but not the relationship itself, the Church must take care to show that this is what it is doing. Today, there is a high risk that any such blessing is seen as a sacramental marriage, something which the Church cannot support].

This will sound like a whole bunch of negatives, and that is in itself problematic too. The message of the Church is not a negative one, but it is different to what comes to us in society. The whole of love, family, sexuality and everything connected to it, the Church teaches, is more than just the desires of individual people. That is what it begins with, of course, but it can become so much more. That is what God has called us to from the very beginning, and that is what the Church continues to uphold.

It is exceedingly important for the Church to look at how she presents this, which is why, I believe, Pope Francis called the Synod to begin with: not to change doctrine, but to revitalise the pastoral work of the Church in this field. In order to so, the Church must be honest and open, truthful and welcoming, even when her conversational partners are not. She must speak, but also listen, for the feelings, desires and questions of people are very real, and they deserve acknowledgement and answers.

By changing teachings, the Church shows she does not take herself seriously. So why should anyone else? Listening and acknowledging is not automatically the same as accepting, although society would often have us believe it is. Not agreeing is the same as disrespecting or opposing, we so often hear or read, sometimes bluntly, sometimes between the lines. Instead, we should always look to Jesus, who did not agree with the Pharisees, tax collectors and other sinners, but who nevertheless sat down and ate with them and listened to their stories. He took them seriously enough to listen and then correct them when necessary. And we know that that approach worked, far better than bluntly pointing fingers and calling someone a sinner.

We are people called to great things, to fully become ourselves in love. None of us is perfect, and we all have our particular challenges on the road towards the fullness in God. We are not called to sit down and give up, or to walk past those who have sat down (or worse, encourage them to sit down and give up), but to continue, to help those who struggle and can’t see where to go anymore. And to do that, we need clear signs along the road, not arrows towards side roads that lead nowhere.

The eyes of the Virgin

our_lady_of_guadalupe_4x6Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas and celebrated there extensively today. The story of her image (pictured) on the tilma of St. Juan Diego, to whom she appeared in Mexico in 1531, is amazing enough (I recommend reading up on it), but personally I find the story of her eyes simply astounding.

It is said (although we should be careful with things that are “being said”) that the eyes of the image are in many aspects alive, even contracting under the influence of light (!). But the eyes also feature reflections.

eyesMost visible, even with the naked eye, is what looks to be the image of a bearded man. Other images are exceedingly tiny and, in the photos (one such at right) I’ve seen of them on the Internet, I can’t make much of them. But it is said that a total of thirteen people are reflected in the Virgin’s eyes, representing the people present when St. Juan Diego showed the miraculous image on his mantle to the bishop of Mexico at the time, Juan de Zumárraga.

Devotion and enthusiasm are good things, but they can influence objectivity, leading to wishful thinking. I don’t know if the eyes of Our Lady of Guadalupe indeed feature an astounding account of what happened on that day in 1531. The image itself seems amazing enough, both in materials used and in its history since the 16th century. So I am also not saying her eyes do not reflect anything. God has been known to achieve even more miraculous things, after all.

The story is a wonderful one, that much is certain. The scientific truths found are less clear (there is an awful lot of “it is being said that…” in the story), but they certainly point towards appealing possibilities.

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.

The gift of life – Pope Francis asks, “Think hard about this”

At a recent meeting with Italian physicians, Pope Francis offered some words which, unlike many of his statements, will probably not be featured in many headlines. They are nonetheless an invaluable reminder that in our modern society, there is no greater gift and responsibility than life. This is the ultimate gift from God, granted to us but never ours to possess.

francis“The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a “false compassion”, that which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to “produce” a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs presumably to save others. Instead, the compassion of the Gospel is that which accompanies in times of need, that is, the compassion of the Good Samaritan, who “sees”, “has compassion”, approaches and provides concrete help (cf. Lk 10:33). Your mission as doctors puts you in daily contact with many forms of suffering. I encourage you to take them on as “Good Samaritans”, caring in a special way for the elderly, the infirm and the disabled. Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection. And this fidelity entails many social consequences. We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life. Be careful, because this is a sin against the Creator: against God the Creator, who created things this way. When so many times in my life as a priest I have heard objections: “But tell me, why the Church is opposed to abortion, for example? Is it a religious problem?” No, no. It is not a religious problem. “Is it a philosophical problem?” No, it is not a philosophical problem. It’s a scientific problem, because there is a human life there, and it is not lawful to take out a human life to solve a problem. “But no, modern thought…” But, listen, in ancient thought and modern thought, the word “kill” means the same thing. The same evaluation applies to euthanasia: we all know that with so many old people, in this culture of waste, there is this hidden euthanasia. But there is also the other. And this is to say to God, “No, I will accomplish the end of life, as I will.” A sin against God the Creator! Think hard about this.

A Twitter hype in the Church?

twitterFollowing the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI on Twitter, various prelates and curial bodies have followed suit. While it is a welcome development from a communication standpoint, we will have to see if all these new users will prove able to achieve and maintain their momentum. Twitter, after all, becomes useful only with regular use.

For now, let’s highlight some of the new Catholic users of the short-message service. It’s not a complete list, for I am sure I missed some, but at least they are interesting enough to follow and encourage in their use of Twitter.

In the United States, the great bishop of Madison, Robert Morlino, has tweeted three times and shows a healthy openness to listening to his followers: “I’m not on here (facebook or twitter) every day, but feel free to ask questions and I’ll answer what I can,” he tweeted today.

Archbishop-Terrence-Prendergast-Ottawa-Citizen-photoCanadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast (pictured) of Ottawa opened his account yesterday. He tweets in both French and English, the two languages he also employs on his blog.

Australia’s Bishop Anthony Fisher joined on the same day as the Holy Father, saying, “I’ve decided to take the plunge into twitter and instagram. If the Holy Father can do it, so can I!” With 31 tweets, Bishop Fisher seems to rather take to Twitter.

The first German bishop has also arrived on Twitter. He is Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg. He obviously tweets in German. His first tweet today was, translated: “Hello. I have decided to start Twittering and I wish for many followers. For now a good weekend and a good second Sunday of Advent.”

The Vatican Observatory also joined two days ago, perhaps putting to bed the silly notion that the Church doesn’t do science.


Edited to remove the link to the assumed Twitter account of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has since proven to be a parody account.