Cardinal Müller in the Netherlands – On forced retirement (of sorts), the Church’s response to secularism and criticising the Pope

“I am now simply a cardinal without a specific assignment. That is somewhat unusual. Bishops normally remain active until they are 75. The Pope apparently has better advisors than me at his disposal. As priest, bishop and cardinal I can keep serving the Church as usual. I give lectures and write books.”

Words from Cardinal Gerhard Müller in a recent interview for Dutch newspaper Trouw. The 70-year-old German prelate has been Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for almost 18 months now, but still looks with mild amazement at his letting go as the head of the premier Curia dicastery. He assumes that some of the pope’s “so-called friends” made him believe certain things, which let to his early retirement. Perhaps, the cardinal, wonders, his “attempts at interpreting the document Amoris laetitia in an orthodox way was not well received either”.

But Cardinal Müller is not a bitter man.

“My sense of self-worth and my identity do not depend on an office in the Church. I have achieved a few things theologically. Forty students received their doctorates with me. In total, 120 students graduated under me. I have written books. I don’t think that is all insignificant.”

CRK-dag_2018_Katholiek_Nieuwsblad_Jan_Peeters08Early last week, Cardinal Müller was in the Netherlands to speak at a congress about recently canonised Pope Paul VI and Vatican II. Katholiek Nieuwsblad (which, as an aside, has recently been expanding its media work abroad, providing translated articles to Crux) has published excerpts from the cardinal’s comments. One snippet, which was shared on social media, was taken by some as a critique on Pope Francis’ focus on certain issues. Reality is a but more nuanced, although Cardinal Müller, in the aforementioned Trouw interview, did not shy away from such criticism.

At the conference, organised in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the CRK (Contact Rooms Katholieken), Cardinal Müller said:

“We can not make the mistake that, as the world becomes more secular, we only provide such answers. The Church is not just important because of her answers to social and environmental problems. Those are secondary matters. The first and foremost task of the Church is to bring people to God. He who is with God can contribute to the development of society from there. We can not replace the Church of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, with a social organisation.

And later:

“We can not make the mistake of responding to the secularisation  of the world with a secularisation of the Church. The Church must be a visible sign of a higher reality, and bear witness that man has a higher calling, to see God amidst the community of saints. That is the greatest calling of man.”

Returning to the issue of criticism, in the Trouw interview reporter Stijn Fens asked Cardinal Müller about the accusation, from among others Cardinal Wim Eijk, that the pope is causing confusion by refusing to offer clarity in the case of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful. Cardinal Müller answered:

“Yes, there is a great confusion in the Church at this time. The reason is that the relationship between the doctrine of the Church and the pastoral care for people in difficult situations is not clear. You can’t accompany and help faithful when you start from the wrong basis. We all know that there are people who are in a bad marriage through no fault of their own.

You see, a priest is like a doctor who cares for souls in the name of Jesus Christ. But a good doctor can only offer help when he prescribes the correct medication. You can’t comfort a patient and say, “Listen, you have broken a bone, so I’ll slap a band-aid on it.” You must use the right medication. That means, then, that a priest must explain doctrine in a clear way, whether people accept it or not.

What happens now is that those who are out to “improve” Catholic doctrine and partly falsify it, are not being disciplined. While others, who are clearly loyal to the Word of Christ, are being disregarded as “rigid” and “Pharisaic”. Is that a way to lead a Church?”

Whatever one may think of Pope Francis and his actions – and I do not consider myself to be among his detractors – it is hard to deny that the confusion described by Cardinal Müller – and others with him – exists. But, I wonder, is it up to the Pope alone to resolve this? Of course, when people are confused by his statements, it is not unreasonable to ask for clarification. But, as Cardinal Müller has asserted in the past, we must read papal statements in continuity with the teachings that came before. In that respect, it becomes an obligation to read them in an orthodox way, as the cardinal has tried with Amoris laetitia. Past doctrine does not suddenly become invalid just because the pope who promulgated it is no longer alive. So when we are faced with questions regarding communion, divorce, marriage or whatever matter of doctrine or pastoral care we like, we do ourselves and the persons involved a disservice if we look no further than one document or statement. The Code of Canon law, the social teachings of the Church, even, dare I say it, the Gospels (to name but a few sources) offer clarity and explanations and indications on how to interpret what we may not understand immediately. That is a duty for all Catholics, not just the Pope. 

In a more lengthy interview that was published in the printed version of Katholiek Nieuwsblad on Friday, Cardinal Müller also shared some thoughts about the Netherlands and the state of the Church there. Asked about the reasons for the extreme and rapid secularisation here, he said:

“The Netherlands is one of the countries which has understood the Council as a sort of liberalisation or secularisation of the Church. But in reality the Council had a further Christianisation of society as its goal.”

But hope always remains:

“There may still be a new flourishing. We must pray for it and bear good witness. I hope and pray that a new spring for the Church may perhaps begin in the Netherlands.”

Photo credit: Jan Peeters/Katholiek Nieuwsblad

On Corpus Christi, Cardinal Woelki returns to the debate

The Church celebrated the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, today. She reflects on and celebrates the wondrous presence of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament He has given to the Church. In Germany on this day, it is hard not to think of the recent debates surrounding that sacrament, and especially the question of who can receive it. In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, spoke about the situation at the end of the Mass he celebrated in the square in front of the city’s cathedral. He revealed what lies at the basis of his difficulties with the proposal to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion:

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“Some think, “What’s the point? That’s nonsense.” Others even think, “It’s a puppet show.” I think: This is about life and death. This is about death and resurrection. This is about eternal life, this is about Christ. This is about His Church and hence this is about the essence. And that is why we must fight for it and find the right way. Not just any way, but the way of the Lord, which He shows us, since He alone is the way and the truth and the life.”

We often, sometimes as a matter of course, say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of the Church. But when you really think about what that means, about what the Church teaches and professes about the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the cardinal’s passionate words make a lot of sense.

In his homily, Cardinal Woelki called the Eucharist the greatest mystery of our faith, except for the Holy Trinity. He reminded the faithful in Roncalli Square that by receiving Communion they say “Yes and amen” to the Pope and to the bishop, to the sacramental structure of the Church and to the saints and their veneration. This makes Holy Mass not just “some event” which can be replaced by a Word and Communion service, “no matter how beautiful”. Also worth remembering, especially in the current debate, is this:

“In the first place, what matters is that, in the celebration of the Mass, we have something to give – namely ourselves to God – surrendering ourselves to Him.”

Looking back on the letter sent to Rome by him and six other bishops, Cardinal Woelki said:

“Much has been written and claimed. Among other things, I was said to have secretly turned to Rome, to have secretly written something. In the words of Holy Scripture, I say: I acted openly and freely and have written and said what had to be written and said, in all openness. I say once again: We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church. All our German dioceses are incorporated in the great globe. We are all united with all other Catholic Churches around the world, united under the leadership of the Holy Father. That is why we approach Christ in unity with all other particular churches. In fidelity to the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles.”

Another bishop who mentioned the Communion issue was Essen’s Franz-Josef Overbeck. He said that a “theologically responsible solution” had to be found, but also emphasised that when the salvation of souls in an interdenominational marriage is at stake, Communion must be allowed for both spouses. The question then remains, of course, when this would be the case, and if this isn’t yet covered by the options allowed under the current Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Ottersbach (DR)

The protective hand of the mother – Dutch dioceses consecrated to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart

On Saturday afternoon the Dutch bishops consecrated their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, coinciding with the centenary of the first apparition of Mary in Fatima and the tail-end of Pope Francis’ visit to that pilgrimage site in Portugal. The bishops did so at the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady in Maastricht. All the active Dutch ordinaries and auxiliary bishops were present, as was Cardinal Ad Simonis, archbishop emeritus of Utrecht. From Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is expecting their new bishop on 3 June, diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen was present.

Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, led the consecration during a Vespers, and gave the following homily:

“After the downfall of the Portuguese royal house as the result of a revolution in 1910, a very anticlerical government came to power in which freemasons dictated the tone. This government issued various measures against the Church: the wearing of priestly clothing was forbidden, as was taking religious vows; monasteries and religious orders and congregation were abolished by law and their possessions confiscated; Jesuits were forced to renounce their Portuguese citizenship; religious education in schools was abolished and the government gave themselves the right to appoint professors to seminaries. The brain behind these measures, Alfonso Costa, had the goal of eradicating Catholicism in Portugal in two generations.

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He did not succeed in this for various reasons. The faith of the Portuguese people was too strong en the Holy See resisted successfully. But a very important factor was the apparitions of Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima: Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. These apparitions greatly impacted Portugal, as well as, by the way, the rest of the Catholic world. After an angel appeared to them in 1916, Mary first appeared to them om 13 May 1917. She would do so six times in the period between 1 May and 13 October 2017.

The apparitions of Mary at Fatima are part of a string of important Marian apparitions: in La Salette in 1946, Lourdes in 1858 and Castepetroso in 1888. At all these apparitions, Mary’s message was that we should return to Christ, the Son of God and her son, do penance to gain forgiveness for our own sins and those of others and devote ourselves intensively to prayer, especially the Rosary. But of all these apparitions, those at Fatima were the most prophetic.

This had to do with the content of the three secrets that Mary entrusted there to the shepherd children. The first concerned a vision of hell and a call to prayer, conversion and penance to save souls and bring them to eternal salvation. The existence of hell was (and is) denied by many Christians and is not or barely mentioned by Christian preachers and catechists. The solemn warning of Mary must, however, be taken serious.

The second secret was an announcement of the end of the First World War, but also of the Second World War if people would not stop insulting God. Mary called for prayer and penance to implore God to bring peace. She also asked to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart to prevent atheistic communism to spread from Russia to other countries. Various popes, beginning with Pius XII in a radio message on 31 October 1942, have responded to this. It is significant that communism in Russia fell in 1989.

The third secret was a vision of a bishop in white, the pope, being persecuted, falling down as if dead under the sound of gunshots amid the bodies of bishops, priests, religious and lay people, fallen like martyrs for the faith under communism and fascism. It is an image of the way of the cross that the Church, led by the popes, has gone. On 13 May 2000, Cardinal Sodano announced, during a visit of Pope John Paul II to Fatima, that this vision referred the attack on the pope in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on 13 May 1981.

How should we now look at Mary’s messages in Fatima, and what do they add to our faith in Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer? The revelation of Holy Scripture, the public revelation to all of humanity, has been completed with Jesus Christ. Nothing can be added to that.

Mary’s messages to the shepherd children in Fatima are private revelations. Private revelations do not add anything to the deposit of faith as a whole:  “It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (art. 67). The messages of Mary at Fatima helped to better understand what the faith in Christ required to hold onto under the serious threats to the Church in the twentieth century.

A specific guidance from Mary at Fatima was her call to consecrate Russia, but also other countries or persons, to her Immaculate Heart. The heart represent the interior of the person here, and also the conscience, where the heart of man’s relationship with God lies. We call Mary’s heart immaculate because God safeguarded her from the original sin from the moment of her birth, and also because she remained free from sin in the rest of her life.

The consecration to her Immaculate Heart means two things specifically. Firstly, this consecration means that we want to follow Mary in the choice that she made in her heart of hearts, when the angel asked her to be the mother of God’s Son. She expressed her yes to God with the words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we want to achieve a complete consecration of ourselves to Christ.

We realise, however, that we can’t do so on our own and need God’s grace. And this brings us to the second important meaning of the consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: it also expresses that we consecrate ourselves to her motherly care. In other words, that we entrust ourselves to her intercession with God.

Mary’s concrete message at Fatima especially concerned the critical situation of the Church in the previous century. But the message is still current. The situation of the Church has certainly not improved in our century. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Additionally, there is not only persecution from outside, but also from within.

Pope John Paul II said this his life was saved on 13 May 1981 because Mary deflected the trajectory of the bullet that could have killed him. That bullet is now incorporated in the crown of the statue of Mary in Fatima. To that protecting hand of Mary, through her intercession, the Dutch bishops entrust their dioceses in this Vespers. We pray that Mary places the path of the Church and our personal lives in the protective hands of the Risen Lord, through her constant intercession. Amen.”

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The bishops were joined by numerous priests, religious, seminarians and lay faithful, filling the medieval basilica. Following the consecration, representatives of various groups lit candles at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

As 13 May was also the feast day of St Servatius, the first bishop in what is now the Netherlands, several bishops briefly visited the crypt where his remains lie, in the Basilica of St. Servatius, also in Maastricht. While some 130 altar servers from Germany celebrated Mass in the church above, the bishops prayed at the tomb.

 Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

German bishops say yes to Communion for divorced and remarried, but not as a rule

The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference* yesterday published their thoughts about the pastoral care regarding marriage and family in light of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ the Apostolic Exhortation which was released early last year. In it, as several media have already noted, the bishops express their support for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments in certain individual cases. Below, I share my translation of the relevant passage of the text:

dbk logo“Despite all the good intentions of the spouses and in spite of all marriage preparation, it does happen that relationships fail. People find themselves faced with the debris of their relationship-based lives. They suffer because of their failure to fulfill their ideal of a livelong love and relationship. To their own doubts more than enough economic concerns are often added. Especially affected are the children of a failed relationship. In this plight, it is the Church’s duty to accompany people and support them. In many cases this service is provided by the Church’s counselling centres and single-parent ministries. But in daily pastoral care it is necessary to have an even more open ear and heart, thus “encouraging openness to grace” (AL, n. 37).

So we may also answer the question of how the Church should relate to those people who, after a divorce, are civilly remarried and wish to receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist. The indissolubility of marrage is part of the indispensable deposit of the faith of the Church. Amoris laetitia leaves as little doubt about this as about the need for a differentiated view on the respective life situations of people. “[T]here is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”” (AL, n. 296). Amoris laetita highlights the three aspects of accompanying, discerning and integrating as central guiding principles, starting from the basic assessment: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” (AL, n. 297). In life situations which are experienced more often than not as exhausting and stressful, those involved should find that their Church does not forget them. In how we treat the divorced and remarried it must become clear that they belong to the Church, that God does not deprive them of His love and that they are called to love God and their neighbour and be true witnesses of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father clearly emphasises the aspect of accompaniment when he says, “Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (Al, n. 299).

What the Pope means in this regard with accompaniment becomes clear when he maintain in Amoris laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (Al. n. 301). Amoris laetitia does not offer a general rule for this subject and does not allow for an automatic and general access to the sacraments for all divorced and civilly remarried faithful. Amoris laetitia ignores neither the grave guilt that many people in such situations of the breaking and failure of conjugal relationships carry, nor the fact that a second civil marriage denies the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage, even when the person involved was left by is or her spouse through no fault of their own. But Amoris laetitia does not stop at a categorical and irreversible exclusion from the sacraments. Footnote 336 (to AL n. 300) makes clear that the distinction which “can recognise that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” must lead to differentiated consequences, also regarding the sacraments. Footnote 351 (to AL n. 305) also points out that in a situation which is objectively irregular, someone who is subjectively, but not, or at least not completely culpable, “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL, n. 305), when one receives the help of the Church and, in certain cases, also the help of the sacraments. This also speaks in favour of the possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations.

Not all the faithful whose marriage has failed and who have civilly divorced and remarried can receive the sacraments without discernment. More differentiated solutions are needed, which do justice to the individual cases and come into play when a marriage can not be annuled. In this context we encourage all who have reasonable doubt that their marriage is invalid, to make use of the Church’s marriage courts, so that a new marriage may be possible if necessary. […]

Amoris laetitia presumes a process of decision-making accompanied by a pastor. Given this process, in which the conscience of all involved is required in the highest degree, Amoris laetitia allows for the possibility to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. In Amoris laetitia Pope Francis stresses the importance of conscious deicions, when he says, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, n. 37). As it is always about integration, such a spiritual process does not lead in every case to the receiving of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. The individual decision to not, or not yet, receive the sacraments under the given circumstances, deserves respect and attention. But a decision in favour of receiving the sacraments must also be respected. An attitude of laxity without intense attention for accompaniment, discernment and integration, as does a rigorous attitude which remains in a quick judgment of people in socalled irregular situations. Instead of such extreme attitudes, the decision (Lat. discretio) must be made in personal conversation. We see it as our mission to further develop the path of conscience formation of the faithful. For that it is necessary to enable our pastors and provide them with criteria. Such criteria for the formation of conscience are provided extensively and in an outstandign way by the Holy Father in Amoris laetitia (cv. AL, n 298-300).

Much of this text is not new and echoes what Pope Francis and other bishops have emphasised time and again: the Church must find new ways and means to stand with people whose marriage has failed for whatever reason, and the suggestion must be avoided that these people are somehow no longer part of the Church. New, if not for many bishops (and not just those from Germany) is the conclusion that Amoris laetitia allows for the reception of the sacraments in what are called irregular situations, if in certain indivudal cases. The bishops stress, and this is something that, I fear, will be too often ignored, that the decision to receive the sacraments is not the standard decision to be made in all situations. Neither must it be made by a person alone, and it can certainly not be exercised as a right (but then again, that is true for every single Catholic receiving a sacrament).

What the German bishops are saying is that in some specific cases, often revolving about the guilt, or lack thereof, of a person in an irregular situation (compare a husband who leaves his wife and children with the wife being abandoned – both are in an irregular situation, but they are not equally guilty), receving the sacraments is allowed. But, they add, a well-formed conscience and the accompaniment of a pastor are required for this, and the pastors must be equipped with the tools and criteria to be able to properly accompany the people they are pastorally responsible for.

14_09_kardinalmuellerAnother German bishop had a different focus in a recent interview. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia in an interview, of which Sandro Magister has a partial translation. Cardinal Müller is very critical about the personal interpretations which are not in line with Catholic doctrine, saying:

Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. […] I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”

A condition for interpreting what the Pope says does seem to be clarity on the latter’s part, it must be said. The lack thereof has led to the dubia presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner and is evident in the various interpretations that exist. Cardinal Müller is correct in stressing that Amoris laetitia must be “interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church”, but this is evidently not happening everywhere. The German bishops’ interpretation also relies solely on Amoris laetitia, not on earlier magisterial documents, although they do mention the indissolubility of marriage as central tenet of Catholic doctrine.

Cardinal Müller also explains how to avoid confusion about Amoris laetitia and the teachings it does or does not contain or change:

 “I urge everyone to reflect, studying the doctrine of the Church first, starting from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, which is very clear on marriage. I would also advise not entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead. These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage. The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in Amoris laetitia, but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons. It is not Amoris laetitia that has provoked a confused interpretation, but some confused interpreters of it. All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.”

Whether the German bishops are incorrectly interpreting Amoris laetitia revolves around the tension between the question of the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care for the innocent. What seems to be clear, however, is that magisterial documents such as Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Veritatis Splendor (1993) can not and should not be disregarded when reading Amoris laetitia. These earlier teachings must offer a basis and framework for understanding and realising what Amoris laetitia presents.

*The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference is made up of one representative from each diocese and consist of the following prelates:

  • Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier
  • Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen, Fulda
  • Bishop Georg Bätzing, Limburg
  • Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker, Paderborn
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Osnabrück
  • Bishop Karl Borsch, Aachen
  • Archbishop Stephan Burger, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Bishop Gerhard Feige, Magdeburg
  • Bishop Gebhard Fürst, Rottenburg-Stuttgart
  • Bishop Felix Genn, Münster
  • Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, Mainz
  • Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, Eichstätt
  • Archbishop Stefan Heße, Hamburg
  • Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann, Würzburg
  • Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, Görlitz
  • Archbishop Heiner Koch, Berlin
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, München und Freising
  • Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, Erfurt
  • Bishop Stefan Oster, Passau
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, Essen
  • Archbishop Ludwig Schick, Bamberg
  • Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, Dresden-Meißen
  • Bishop Norbert Trelle, Hildesheim
  • Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Regensburg
  • Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Speyer
  • Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Cologne
  • Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Augsburg

 

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”

Alarm over the new translation of the Lord’s Prayer? Not so much.

prayerLast Wednesday LifeSiteNews published an article, which was later also published on Aleteia, about the new Dutch translation of the Lord’s Prayer, introduced in the dioceses of the Netherlands, Flanders and Suriname on the first Sunday of Advent, 27 November. Claiming that Dutch Catholics are “raising the alarm” over an ideological adaptation of the text of the Our Father, the article gives the impression that Catholics are up in arms about it across parishes everywhere. The truth is rather different.

The LifeSiteNews article draws mainly on the opinions of Vox Populi, a fairly extremely orthodox Catholic group from Flanders, which thus does not speak for the vast majority of Catholics. The fact that they are up in arms, does not mean that the bishops have a full-scale revolt to deal with. Furthermore, the new translation is linked to developments in the Church of the Netherlands that date back to the 1960s. What it fails to acknowledge is that we no longer live in the 60s (or 70s, 80s or 90s, for that matter). Accusing the bishops of enforcing ideological changes simply does not hold up any longer. None of the Dutch bishops comfortably fits in the liberal bracket, and some are even outspoken orthodox.

What the article also overlooks is that the new translation is not the sole endeavour of the bishops of the Netherlands and Flanders. It has actually received the approval of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, so it can not be presented as something done independently from Rome. In reality, the new translation of the Lord’s Prayer is part of the long overdue project to create a new, more accurate, translation of the entire Roman Missal.

It may be appealing to present an image of ruin when it comes to the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, and it is true that in many respects, things are not good, but to ignore the positive developments that also exist is a disservice to the truth. In fact, it underlines the ideological trends at LifeSiteNews.

The issue that Vox Populi raises, and which, in itself, is an issue worth discussing, revolves around two words: “bekoring” (used in the old translation) and “beproeving” (used in the new translation). One can be translated as “temptation”, the other as “test”, but, although we are talking about one language area, these words have different connotations in different parts. In the northern half of the Netherlands “bekoring” is now generally considered positively, while in the Southern half and in Belgium it is more negative and thus draws nearer to the meaning of “beproeving”: being tempted by something can become a test. These changes in meaning and understanding have prompted the bishops to change the translation. Not to introduce a new concept which wasn’t there in the original, but to stay closer to that original meaning.

Shortly before the introduction of the new translation, then-Archbishop De Kesel, who sat on the translation committee on behalf of the Flemish bishops, wrote:

de kesel“Until now this word (temptationis) has been translated as “bekoring” [temptation]. The Greek has peirasmos. This can be translated as both “bekoring” and “beproeving” [ordeal/test]. Most often this is translated as “beproeving”. So “beproeving” is the more concordant translation of the Greek basis. Translating it as “bekoring”, furthermore, presents a theological problem. “Bekoren” means to incite to evil. In Scripture this is said of the devil, not of God. God does not try and encourage man to commit evil. In that sense it is not God who tempts us, as the Letter of James (1:13) explicitly says. James responds here to an incorrect understanding of temptation or testing. It is not God, but, “when a man is tempted, it is always because he is being drawn away by the lure of his own passions”.

Yet it is an undeniable Biblical concept that God can test someone’s faith. For example, Abraham was tested, and so Jesus was tested also. “Thereupon, the Spirit sent him out into the desert:  and in the desert he spent forty days and forty nights, tempted by the devil” (Mark 1:12-13). The wording is striking and to the point: it is the Spirit who sends Jesus to the desert to be tested for forty days by Satan. The Spirit of God does not lure us into doing evil and test us in that way, but He can bring us into situations in which our faith is being tested. These are situations in which we are presented with the unavoidable choice: for God and thus against evil, or for evil and thus against God. Only in and through the testing we know whether or not we really believe in God. Whether we, like Abraham, trust Him unconditionally, even in the darkest hour. This is also the meaning of the forty years in the desert. As Deuteronomy 8:2 says: “the Lord thy God led thee through the desert, testing thee by hard discipline, to know the dispositions of thy heart”.

Hence the meaning of the final prayer in the Our Father. We do not ask God not to tempt us. He doesn’t. But we do ask Him not to test us beyond our abilities. And this is not just any test. It is about whether or not, when it really matters, we won’t deny our vocation as Christians. That, as happened to Simon Peter, we would say, when things get dangerous, “No, I do not know Him.” That is what we ask God earnestly in the last prayer of the Our Father: do not lead us to that ordeal.””

So, no, there is no revolt brewing, and neither is there an ideological agenda being pursued. A case can certainly be made for either translation of the word ‘temptation’. But, although the Dutch language area is small, it is home to a range of cultural and linguistic differences. When drafting a translation that can be used for the entire area, some changes must be made that will be understood differently in different places. That is why proper catechesis was and remains necessary. The explanation offered by Cardinal De Kesel is not automatically understood by all Dutch-speaking faithful, so it must be explained. Not by ideological groups like Vox Populi, but by the ones who commissioned the new translation: the bishops and with them the priests in the parishes.

Lastly, change is always difficult. It will take time for the new translation to take hold. But take hold it will, and I expect sooner rather than later.

Wake up! – Bishop Oster’s letter for Advent

Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster takes St. Paul’s words as his own in his letter for Advent, urging us to wake up from sleep. We must wake up to actively pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ, in the knowledge that the most important commandment is to love Him. And we can, as the bishop says, “it is really possible to love Jesus”.

oster“Dear sisters and brothers,

It is time to rise up from sleep! So goes the urgent admonition from St. Paul to the Christians of Rome in today’s reading. It is time to get up from sleep. Paul lives in a very deep inner unity with Christ. And it is characteristic of people like Paul, throughout history, that they see their own time as broken, superficial, threatened. As lulled to sleep. This in comparison to what they themselves experience inwardly, which has grasped them within, what is to them to true, a reality: the closeness to Christ. And, like Jesus Himself in the Gospel, Paul sees the danger that we people become inwardly deaf and blind to His presence, that we no longer have any sensitivity for His being near to us, that He wants to transform us from within, every day and every hour. It is time to get up, Paul says. In the Gospel Jesus says: be watchful, be prepared. You do not known the hour at which the Son of Man comes.

Dear sisters and brothers, I would most of all like to call you and also myself and all of us in a similar way: it is time to rise up from sleep. Jesus is coming, Jesus is near. Am I willing? Is my heart open to Him, who wants to come in glory, wants to come again in the fullness of love, of truth, of light and power. And who now already wants to enter our hearts every day, so that we may truly know Him, from heart to heart, when we meet Him face to face. Or are we perhaps not also often in a situation in which we should basically fear His coming, after having forgotten Him for so long?

You know that we are occupying ourselves in the diocese with a great topic: how can we help each other to find a new faith, to deepen it anew? What does “new evangelisation” mean? How do we open our faith in such a way that it touches people of today, with their questions of today? That they sense that this is really a source of life, healing, depth, beauty and truth? I am convinced that we can only find the answers to such questions when we also ask ourselves again: Do I know Jesus? Am I really interested in Him? Do I really believe that He can touch and transform my life here and now? Has He already touched it? Have I, for example, ever been moved in my heart by what we celebrate at Easter, namely that Jesus lives?! And do I believe that He also lives in our Church, in the celebration of the sacraments? And do I also believe that He also lives in me, and wants to enable me to become like Him, to love and trust like Him?

Dear sisters and brothers, it is really possible to love Jesus. And in the Gospel Jesus tells us very clearly that we should try. And He even tells us that loving Him is the most important commandment of all. Our ability to love our fellow men, our neighbours like ourselves, but also the poor, the marginalised, this ability comes from Him, from our relationship with Him, from remaining with Him. He wants us to become more like Him. And I earnestly believe, dear sisters and brothers, that our ability to help other people come to faith also depends on our relationship with Jesus. From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks, He tells us. And all that once conquered your heart will make you act differently than before this conquest. Does our behaviour show that Jesus has conquered our hearts? Do we rightly bear His name, when we call ourselves Christians?

I am well aware that these questions are challenging for all of us. For me as well, of course. And of course, a relationship with Jesus is also a path, a process, a maturing and ripening, often with highs and lows. It is never cut and dry. Often one feels like a beginner. But my question to us is this: have we already begun the journey? Have we understood how important this relationship is for our lives, for our salvation? Or don’t we believe too often: being a Christian means not doing anything to anyone, and trying to be reasonably nice?! This would be a great misunderstanding, because being a Christian is in the first place a relationship, a relationship that transforms. New evangelisation is therefore, for example: learning to pray anew, alone and together. Look for people with whom you can regularly come together, to pray together; to read Scripture together – and to tell each other what role Jesus plays in your lives. And when you think that you would have nothing to say, let yourself be strengthened by the stories of others. In this way you will learn to become more sensitive to Jesus’ presence in your life. Dear sisters, dear brothers, Jesus is looking for people who will passionately live with and for Him, regardless of where and how old they are. He is looking for people who can speak, who can speak about their faith and their lives with the Lord. The Church therefore needs individuals, but also groups and communities, to put this into practice – and also help other people to find words – to speak of our faith anew.

What do you think, dear sisters and brothers, is it not time to get up? And, as Paul says, to rise from sleep? Form a sleep which wants to convince us that the faith is self-perpetuating? From the inertia which wants us to consider everything else more important than the most important relationship of our lives! Is it not time to return to Jesus again and ask Him to recoginise us? The time of Advent before is a good opportunity for that! We prepare ourselves for His coming. We celebrate the greatest event in world history. And we Christians have the privilege to believe that it is and remains true, and that it happens also today! In and among us! Do we believe it? Or do we rather remain in bed? I am in favour of waking up and allowing ourselves to be touched anew by His love, who is for me personally, who knows me, who wants to come to my heart and who is eternal. I very much wish, dear sisters and brothers, that you will be touched anew by it in this Advent. And I am grateful for all who help to introduce others to this mysteries. God bless you all.

Given on the first Sunday of Advent 2016

Dr. Stefan Oster SDB, Bishop of Passau.”