“Remember your leaders” – In Echternach, Cardinal Eijk on St. Willibrord

Five years ago I wrote about the annual Echternach procession in honour of Saint Willibrord. In this year’s edition, which was held on Tuesday, Cardinal Wim Eijk gave the homily for the opening celebration. As archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, he usually attends the procession, as St. Willibrord is the patron saint of the archdiocese, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (where he is buried iin Echternach abbey, which he founded in 698).

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In addition to Cardinal Eijk and Luxembourg’s Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich and his predecessor Archbishop Fernand Franck, other prelates attending included the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, Archbishop Giacinto Berloco; Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond and his auxiliary Bishop Everard de Jong; Bishop Felix Genn of Münster with his auxiliary Bishop Wilfred Theising; Bishop Jean-Christophe Lagleize of Metz, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and his auxiliary Bishop Jörg Peters; Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary of Utrecht; Bishop Franz Vorrath, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Essen, as well as the abbots of Clervaux in Luxembourg and Sankt Mathias Trier, Kornelimünster and Himmerod in Germany. In total, there were 9,383 participants in the procession, which started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 1pm.

Cardinal Eijk’s homily follows below:

DSC05172“Dear brothers and sisters,

“Remember your leaders (that is, the Christian community leaders and pastors) who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”,  we read in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:7). We do know to which community this letter was addressed. The author is similarly unknown. The background and the aim of the letter are, however, clear: the author is a pastor, who is worried as the faith in the community to whom he writes his letter is decreasing. Other ideas, which are alien to the Gospel, are being increasingly accepted: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching” (Heb. 13:9). It is not said which teachings these are.

It is notable that the faith in this still young community is already under attack. The Letter to the Hebrews was written between the 70s and 90s of the first century, some forty to sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus, the first Pentecost and the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church. When the decline has begun, it goes fast. This instinctively reminds us of the decline of the Dutch Church province in the 1960, which subsequently also became clear in other countries. This decline also took place in only a few years. We are flooded by new concepts and ideas that deny the Christian faith. In hindsight, our situation is comparable with the community to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written. The advice to remember our leaders who first spoke the word of God to us, also goes for us.

Let us follow this advice. Saint Willibrord, who is called the Aposte of the Netherlands and who established Echternach Abbey, is one of the most important leaders who first proclaimed the Christian faith to us. What do we know about him? What characterised him and what drove him? How can he inspire us today? Willibrord was born in 658 in Northumberland (in the north of England). In his twenties he entered Rathmelsighi monastery in Dublin (Ireland) to prepare for a mission in the Netherlands. For twelve years he received a thorough education there. He got to know the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks. In 690 he came to the Netherlands with his companions. A year later he received from Pope Sergius I the mission to proclaim the Gospel among the Frisians. Willibrord expressly wanted to perform his mission in union with Rome and be a part of the entire world Church. During his second visit to Rome in 685 the Pope ordained him as archbishop of the Frisians and he received the pallium.

When we really want to know the spirit of Saint Willibrord and his motives, we must know a few things about the aforementioned Hiberno-Scottish monks. These did not strive for a systematic evangelisation and did not in the first place think of the creation of great structures and the establishment of dioceses. Their motive, to proclaim the faith, had in the first place to do with their focus on their own sanctification. They fostered an ascetical-mystical ideal: Like Christ during His earthly life and like His Apostles, they wanted to have no place to rest their heads (Matt. 8:20), and like them possess nothing and endure the suffering that would be theirs through rejection, misunderstanding, resistance and violence. They wanted to be what is called in Latin peregrini, meaning strangers or pilgrims, like Jesus and the Apostles themselves. It was their ideal to spread the good news like Jesus and the Apostles, as strangers without a permanent residence, following His call: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).

Willibrord and his companions wanted to heed this call and left their homeland with its already well-developed and widespread Christian structures, to proclaim Christ and His Gospel as peregrini among us on the European mainland. Willibrord experienced what it is to go with Jesus without being able to rely on established structures. He and his companions had the same experiences as Jesus during His earthly life. They too encountered misunderstanding and persecution. They found what it means that no slave is above his master (Matt. 10:24).

Of course, Willibrord also tried to rely on structures: he saught the protection of the Frankish royal house and established monasteries to support the mission. But in the beginning there were no structures at all. And what structures he established were frequently destroyed again, for example during a rebellion of the Frisians under their King Radbod. This also provides one of the explanations for the way in which the spring procession was held until 1947: with three steps forward and two back. This reflects the evangelisation, which in general was very fruitful, but not without times of serious setbacks.

As Willibrord and his companions could, at the start of their mission, not rely on permanent Christian structures, and as the structures they built were frequently destroyed again, their Hiberno-Scottish spirituality was not just their motivation, but also the most important means of their evangelisation. The direct imitation of Christ in their way of living gave them a strong personal charisma as disciples of Jesus. This was well-received: soon they were joined by missionaries from the areas they had evangelised, aglow with the same fire – like Saint Liudger, founder of the Diocese of Münster, born in Zuilen, a village near Utrecht and today a subburb of that city.

Can we not see a comparison here with what later happened multiple times in the Church? During the French Revolution and the the time after it, for example, the Church in western Europe lost many of her structures and took several steps backwards. But over the course of the nineteenth century the Church took many steps forward again.

Sadly we have to conclude that the Church has once again taken quite a few step back in the past fifty years. In the 1950s the communication of faith happened almost automatically, carried by our strong parishes, Catholic schools and other structures which played an important role in the past. Now even more than in the past, the advice is true: remember your leaders, who first spoke the word of God to you. Willibrord and his companions are an example for us because of their determination, based on the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks, to be on the road with Jesus, even without great structures, even in the face of opposition. That enabled them to withstand misunderstanding, criticism, opposition and setbacks and gave them the charisma of the disciples of Jesus during his earthly life. This was precisely what made their evangelisation – despite the frequently necessary steps back – very fruitful.

We have now taken steps backwards and can rely on ever fewer structures. We can’t literally follow Saint Willibrord, but we can be inspired by his spirituality. It not only shows us the way towards our own sanctification, but at the same time teaches us how we can proclaim the faith without structures of any kind. His spirituality, directed towards the development of a convincing personal charisma as disciples of Jesus, is, perhaps more than we realise, groundbreaking for the new evangelisation of western Europa. I am not a prophet, but we can anticipate that our current secular culture is not for ever and will at some point in the future be replaced by another culture. And who knows, perhaps then, in regard to our Christian structures, we can take a few steps forwards again. Amen.”

Photo gallery available here.

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.””

How God left the Netherlands – or is it the other way around?

Lots of news on social media today about the latest edition of the five-yearly poll on the faith of the Dutch. In short, the trend is as expected: fewer people who call themselves Christians, who believe in the existence of God, or go to any church. At the same time, and this is perhaps surprising, fewer people call themselves generally spiritual (this despite the apparently steady popularity of vaguely spiritual magazines, websites and television programs).

Among Catholics the trend is largely similar to the overal picture: fewer people remain members of the Catholic Church, and of those who do, fewer are active in the Church. Some numbers: 13% believes in the existence of heaven, and 17% in a personal God. Only one-third of the Dutch Catholics prays every day and less than half believe that Jesus is the Son of God or was sent by Him (in comparison, among Protestants 77% believes that Christ is God). Disconcerting numbers, to be sure. These are essential elements of the Christian faith, but apparently there are many Catholics who see no apparent problem in denying them and continuing to consider themselves Christian.

Does the root of the problem lie in a serious failure of the Church to communicate the faith? Perhaps in part: the Church has become marginalised over the past decades, by forces outside of her control, but also by a creeping fear of being too visibly Christian in society. Many Catholic communities, in my opinion, are content to keep their faith indoors, and when they do make it visible, it is in the form of charitable and social activities, which are laudable in their own right, but not exclusive to churches and faith communities. Another element, I think, is the extreme individualism prevalent in Dutch society. Certainly, society is still social, but when it comes to religion, the general idea is that people have to make up their own minds, and that means figuring it all out for themselves. For those many people who call themselves atheist, agnostic or vaguely spiritual, the decision to become Christian would be a personal one and one that must not be influenced by what others say, or else the individual’s freedom becomes curtailed. Others see religion is essentially curtailing freedom, but they are often blind to the fact that any life philosophy, including their own, is equally or even more curtailing. The moment one makes a choice or a decision, other options become impossible, and so the freedom to choose it has vanished. Lastly, an increasing number of people see no need to believe in God. They get along fine in society, and even if they don’t, they do not see how faith will change any of that. The value and need for faith is invisible, and so is the distinction between the various religions. What does it matter if you are Catholic or Protestant, Jew of Buddhist, if it works for you and it all boils down to being nice to each other? Here lies perhaps the hardest challenge for us: how to show the value of faith.

There is, however, always hope. Catholics under 40 are generally more orthodox in faith and practice, and that is a new trend. New and young Catholics do not want mere general sentiments of being nice. They can get that anywhere. They want a solid body of faith and philosophy, teaching and action. And the Catholic Church has that aplenty. It’s a shame that that is too often hidden.

Should we be overly worried about these developments? Of course, we are talking about increasing numbers of people who do not know about the truth of their existence. That is a concern. But God does not depend on popularity. He does not abandon His people, not even in the Netherlands. Let these numbers be an incentive for us, as Catholics, not to hide behind the doors of our churces, to take the faith out into the Streets, show its value and invite others in.

For Groningen and Rotterdam, 60th birthdays

60 years ago today, the Dutch dioceses of Groningen and Rotterdam were officially established. This was the most recent major change in the composition of the Dutch Church province (in 2005 and 2008 respectively, Groningen and Haarlem changed their names to Groningen-Leeuwarden and Haarlem-Amsterdam, but those changes did not include any territorial modifications). In addition to the establishment of two new dioceses, which brought the total number to seven, parts of dioceses were also exchanged: Haarlem received some territory from Utrecht, and Breda was expanded with areas previously belonging to Haarlem and ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

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^Maps showing the location of the Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden. Rotterdam was formed out of territory belonging to Haarlem, located to the north and south, while Groningen was taken from Utrecht to its south.

The creation of Rotterdam and Groningen was initiated by Pope Pius XII, who entrusted the practical matters to the Internuncio to the Netherlands, Archbishop Paolo Giobbe, who went to work immediately and issued a decree on the 25th of January of the following year, coming into effect a week later, on 2 February. The Apostolic Letter commanding the changes was titled Dioecesium Imutationes, Changes in Dioceses, a rather unimaginative title which describes the purpose rather well. There is a PDF file of a Dutch translation of this Letter available here.

Below I present an English translation of the relevant text describing the new dioceses, as well as the other territorial changes. It is a translation of the Dutch translation, which was written in rather official words which may even seem archaic to modern ears. But my translation will hopefully get the message across.

“From the territory of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we separate that part containing those areas which are commonly called Groningen, Friesland and Drente, plus the Noordoostpolder, and we will make that territory a new diocese which we will name the Diocese of Groningen, after the city of Groningen, which will be the head and seat of the new diocese. In this city the bishop will reside and have his seat, namely in the church of the Holy Bishop and Confessor Martin, which we will therefore elevate to the dignity of cathedral.

Additionally, we seperate from the Diocese of Haarlem that province called Zuid-Holland, and make it another diocese, namely Rotterdam, to be called such after the city of the same name. This renowned city, which we will make the residence of this new diocese, where the episcopal seat will be established by the bishop in the church of the Holy Martyr Lawrence and the Holy Confessor Ignatius, self-evidently with the rights and dignities befitting a cathedral.

Lastly, we separate from the Archdiocese of Utrecht that part, which in Dutch is called the Gooiland and add it for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Haarlem.

From the Diocese of Haarlem we separate the part which includes most of the province of Zeeland, and from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch the entire strip of the deanery of St. Geertruidenberg, and we join both areas for all perpetuity to the Diocese of Breda.”

The reasons for the creation of the new dioceses are given as the growth in number and activities of the Catholics in the Netherlands, as well as the perceived need to redistribute the means and possibilities according to the needs present, to safeguard the divine truth and to promote the social environment. The size of the dioceses was also an obstacle for the bishops to conduct regular visitations to all parts of their sees. Haarlem stretched all along the western coast of the country, and by detaching Rotterdam and adding Zeeland to Breda it was roughly halved in size. The same is true for Utrecht, which stretched from the great rivers in the south to the islands of the northern coasts, and from the major cities in the west to the rural areas along the German border. The creation of the Diocese of Groningen meant that it now stretched only half as far north.

niermanFinding bishops for the new dioceses did not take overly long. Both were appointed on the same day, 10 March 1956. In Groningen,  it was the  dean of the city of Groningen, Pieter Antoon Nierman (pictured at left, in a photo from 1969). He was consecrated in May by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Bernard Alfrink. Fr. Jan Alferink, a retired priest of the diocese, recalls those days, when he was studying philosophy in seminary:

“There were about eight or nine students from the north. We did not go to the installation of Bishop Nierman in Groningen. We simply had classes. Today you’d go there with a bus. Bishop Nierman later came to us to get acquainted. The new diocese was a completely new experience. The Archdiocese of Utrecht was very big, of course. Those who worked in and around Groningen did regret the split, as it made their work area smaller. We did not experience it to be a disappointment.”

SFA007005231In Rotterdam the choice fell on the dean of Leyden, Martien Antoon Jansen (pictured at right in a photo from around 1960). He was consecrated on 8 May by Bishop Johannes Huibers, the bishop of Haarlem.

Since 1956, Groningen has had four bishops and Rotterdam five. Both have given an archbishop and cardinal to the Dutch Church: Wim Eijk (bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2007, cardinal since 2012) and Adrianus Simonis (bishop of Rotterdam from 1970 to 1983, cardinal since 1985).

The bishops of Groningen:

  • Pieter Antoon Nierman, bishop from 1956 to 1969.
  • Johann Bernard Wilhelm Maria Möller, bishop from 1969 to 1999.
  • Willem Jacobus Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2007.
  • Gerard Johannes Nicolaas de Korte, bishop since 2007.

The bishops of Rotterdam:

  • Martien Antoon Jansen, bishop from 1956 to 1970.
  • Adrianus Johannes Simonis, bishop from 1970 to 1983.
  • Ronald Philippe Bär, bishop from 1983 to 1993.
  • Adrianus Herman van Luyn, bisschop from 1993 to 2011.
  • Johannes Harmannes Jozefus van den Hende, bishop since 2011.

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgIn their 60 years of existence, both dioceses have struggled with the challenge of being Catholic in a secular world. Rotterdam became even more urbanised and multicultural, while Groningen had its own blend of Protestantism, atheism and even communism, with a few Catholic ‘islands’. For the northern diocese the course of choice was ecumenism and social activism, making the Church visible in society, while trying to maintain the Catholic identity where it could be found. Church attendance, while low like in the Netherlands as whole, remains the highest among the Dutch dioceses. The diocese will celebrate the anniversary today, with a Mass offered by the bishop at the cathedral, followed by a reception.

Wapen_bisdom_Rotterdam_svgThe Diocese of Rotterdam also has a taste of Groningen, as its current bishop hails from that province and was vicar general of Groningen-Leeuwarden before he became a bishop (first of Breda and in 2011 of Rotterdam). His predecessor, Bishop van Luyn, was also born in Groningen. Ecumenism and an international outlook have marked the diocese, as well as its proximity to the world of politics. The royal family lives within its boundaries, parliament is located there, as are many diplomatic missions, including that of the Holy See in the form of Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli. The 60th birthday of the diocese will be marked on 6 February, with a Mass at the cathedral.

Of conference presidents

In Belgium, the bishops, meeting at Grimbergen Abbey, have elected their new president. Unsurprisingly, it is Archbishop Jozef De Kesel. It is customary for the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels to be elected as president. In fact, since the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium was established in the late 1950s, the country’s one archbishop has aways been chosen to head the conference. As vice-president the bishops selected Bishop Guy Harpigny of Tournai and Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp. With secretary general Herman Cosijns they are the bishops’ conference’s permanent council. The conference consists of the ordinaries and auxiliary bishops of the Belgian Church province, and has eleven members.

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^Msgr. Cosijns, Bishop Harpigny, Archbishop De Kesel and Bishop Bonny.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops are also looking ahead to the election of their new president, later this year. Cardinal Wim Eijk is concluding his term, which began in June of 2011. The cardinal issued a press statement today, saying he will not be available to serve a second term. That means that, whoever the new president will be, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference will, for the second time, be headed by someone else than the archbishop of Utrecht. The first time was from 2008 to 2011, when Rotterdam’s Bishop Ad van Luyn held the office.

As reasons for his ineligibility, Cardinal Eijk gives two reasons. The first is that he has been suffering from a painful joint disorder, which sometimes causes him to have trouble walking. This is not the first time that health issues have plagued the cardinal. Shortly after his appointment as bishop of Groningen in 1999, a nervous condition affecting his face had him in recovery for several months. The second reason given in the statement is the cardinal’s desire to be able to spend more time in and for the Archdiocese of Utrecht, especially pastorally. The challenges of continuing secularisation are specifically cited as something that Cardinal Eijk wants to give as much attention to as possible. The press statement further hints at a further reason: the stress of the  past five years, when the sexual abuse crisis especially demanded much time and attention.

This is not the first time that Cardinal Eijk, as archbishop of Utrecht, is not up for election. It also happened in 2008, when he was just appointed as archbishop and wanted to spend the time on familiarising himself with his new duties.

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^The Dutch Bishops’ Conference in its current composition, photographed in Rome during their Ad Limina visit in 2013.

Photo credit: [1] IPID, [2] RKKerk.nl

Germanicus – a look at the German position

It’s safe to say that the German Synod fathers are scrutinised more heavily by Catholic media than others, and not always fairly, in my opinion. I already mentioned my own misgivings about what Archbishop Koch said in his intervention, but that’s not even remotely the same as accusing him of apostasy and heresy, as some have done. He has a clear understanding about the reality of Catholic life in Germany (which does not differ too much from that in other Protestant/secular parts of Northwestern Europe, and the picture he paints is one we should take seriously.

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^A glimpse of the small windowless room where the German circle, the smallest of all thirteen groups, was to meet initially. Cardinal Müller soon invited the group to relocate to the roomier and less stuffy offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Today, the reports from the Circoli minori, the smaller language groups in which the Synod fathers discussed the first part of the Instrumentum laboris, were published. Because of the aforementioned interest in what the German circle thinks and wants emphasised, I will focus on their report here.

The Circulus Germanicus consists of the following persons, mainly from the German-speaking countries, but also some from central Europe, Scandinavia and even the Middle East:

  • Moderator: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna
  • Relator: Archbishop Heiner Koch, archbishop of Berlin
  • Walter Cardinal Kasper, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, archbishop of München und Freising
  • Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites
  • Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský, archbishop of Bratislava
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrück
  • Bishop Benno Elbs, bishop of Feldkirch
  • Bishop Ladislav Német, bishop of Zrenjanín
  • Bishop Teemu Sippo, bishop of Helsinki
  • Bishop Antun Škvorcevic, bishop of Pozega
  • Bishop András Veres, bishop of Szombathely
  • Father Michael Sievernich, professor emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and the Hichschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt
  • Dr. Aloys Johann Buch, professor of Moral Theology at the Interdiocesan Major Seminary of St. Lambert and Permanent Deacon in Aachen
  • Mrs,. Petra Buch, diocesan family pastoral worker
  • His Eminence Andrej, Metropolitan of Austria-Switzerland of the Serbian Patriarchate
  • Very Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, President of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance

The report, which was composed by Archbishop Koch in his function as relator, in my translation:

In the German circle, led by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn O.P., we have considered and edited the first part of the Instrumentum laboris in an open and good atmosphere. The various views of the participants were enriching and were also perceived as such. In my opinion the work in this group once again shows: diversity enriches.

The general style of the text was met with approval. We also agree very much with the given order of the Instrumentum laboris, and with the arrangement in three chapters. It takes up the structure of papers from earlier Synod and conferences, which lead from seeing to judging, culminating ultimately in action.

We have, however, also added elements which we think are important. We suggest and ask that a section is added at the beginning of the first chapter, which describes the beauty of marriage and the mission of couples and families, drawing on the concerns and considerations of Pope Francis. Gratefully and with wonderment we notice that marriage is called to take part in the Creation of God and in His work of salvation. Marriage is not just a topic of Catholic faith, but proves to be in the profoundest sense a fundamental desire of man. It shows itself to be remarkably constant across cultural and religious boundaries and beyond all social changes in time. Man desires to love and be loved. Love is the comprehensive and unconditional Yes to another human being – for his own sake, without ulterior motives or reservations. It is also a basic trait of humanity, that love always wants to give itself again. So marriage unfolds in the love of the children and others in the family. So grows the family out of marriage, which radiates in society and Church. Christian marriage is in this way a slice of living Church.

We also suggest to say thanks, in these introductory thoughts, to the married couples and families for their great service to each other, to our society and to our Church. We also want to especially thank those who stayed together in difficult times and so became a visible sign of the faithfulness of God.

In these introductory words we also want to mention why we as bishops take a stand for marriage and family: We come from families, live like families and take part in the life of the family. In ouir responsibility as shepherds we bishops care for the lives of married couples and families. But we also want to hear about their situations and their challenges and accompany and strenghten them with the loving gaze of the Gospel.

In their respective cultural backgrounds family relationships beyond the nuclear family especially offer many kinds of possibilities of support in the raising of children and in family life. They are especially important where the life of the nuclear family is made more difficult, impaired or even destroyed because of migration, disasters or flight, but also because of the effects of job mobility or broken human relationships, In these situations especially the wide net of kinship proves itself as a valuable aid.

Both of these examples should indicate that we have accepted the text presented to us in a positive way, but have also wanted to develop and add to it.

I would like to suggest one comment for the perception and evaluation of different cultural realities. A Synodal document must take the current cultural realities and differences properly into account. Especially when it deals with ambivalent or in the eyes of the Church problematic elements of modern cultural reality. Here a differentiated analysis and assessment is indispensable, to contribute to a proper and nuanced ecclesiastical-intercultural exchange. I would like to explain this with an example: the first chapter talks much about individualism. As a selfish trait it is undoubtedly a great danger to the lives of people. It should however not be confused with the individuality of people. Every single human being is uniquely and wonderfully made God and deserves esteem and protection of the dignity of his person. Our text speaks frequently about individualism, but the positive signs of the times, arising from respect for the individuality of people, are little appreciated. If we do not perceive here in a differentiatied way, we also come to different assessments of our society and subsequently different pastoral recommendations. Our circle asks not to succumb to an overvaluation of the rather pessimistic perception of our society.

Lastly: There is a double problem regarding the translation, that of the literal translation of the Italian text and that of the cultural translation of the content.

The German translation is relatively true to the Italian text, but this often makes the German text difficult to understand. The reason for this may be found in the overly long sentences, where the German prefers shorter sentences. The nested style is also bothersome. Here too, shorter sentences and a better structure of the contents is to be preferred. The translation of the final text should ensure a good style, pleasant readability and clear structure. The translation should not be interlinear, but mutatis mutandis.

In creating the text, it should be ensured that the ecclesiastical and theological position are not only understood internally, but are accessible also in a secular environment. This calls for a “cultural translation”, as well as an inculturation. From this follows the question if, in editing the joint document, a negatively confining and normatively judgemental language prevails (forensic style) or a postivie language which unfolds the Christian position, which then implicitly addresses what position are incompatible with Christianity. That also presupposes the willingness (cf. Gaudium et spes) to pick up positive developments in society.  Perhaps we need a sort of “hermeneutic of evangelisation” for the overall general style, which considers the topic “in the light of the Gospel”.

We are looking forward to further fraternal labour together and thank all for the many efforts to achieve a unanimous course and conclusion to the Synod.

In short, positive language, emphasis on the beauty and value of marriage and family life, and a nuanced relation with modern society. I am very much in favour of the first two points, while the third point requires a solid basis in the faith and the doctrine of the Church. Only if the Church is true to herself can she relate properly to society.

As a final comment, many have noticed the criticism against the Instrumentum laboris, but as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said in today’s press conference, that document is intended to be sacrificed for the final document that is to be drafted out of the suggestions made by the smaller groups.

Hot topic – Archbishop Koch’s intervention

It seems that the German Synod fathers also do not feel obliged to keep their interventions at the Synod a secret. Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin spoke about a selection of points from the Instrumentum laboris, including the topic that has many extremely worried: divorce, a second marriage and Communion.

That aside, and I do see some problems with the archbishop’s presentation on that topic, he also discusses the reality of Catholic marriage, or the lack thereof, in heavily secularised urban settings, thje powerful witness of a Christian marriage, the need for a positive language and closes with a pro-life message.

The original text can be found here, and my translation follows:
Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinConcerning Point 28 of the Instrumentum laboris:

1. Until recently I was the bishop of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen and now I come to the Synod as archbishop of Berlin. In eastern Germany more than 80 per cent of the people are not baptised and have often not had any contact with the Christian faith and the Church for many generations. We Catholics are sometimes no more than 3 or 4 percent of the population. But in the cities, for example in Dresden and Leipzig, we are a young Church: the majority of Catholics is between 20 and 30 years of age. That is the age at which young people marry and start a family. Many of them, however, do not want to get married and live together unmarried. For many, that has nothing to do with a lack of commitment or a failing morality. The institution and the tradition of marriage is not considered to be of vital importance.

Concerning Point 35 of the Instrumentum laboris:

2. But when two young people marry before the Church – often one of the couples belongs to another faith or confession, and not seldomly he or she is not baptised – then this is in our society a profound and often thought-provoking witness of faith: “Why do they marry before the Church? Wat does that mean?” unbaptised friends wonder when they experience such a  Church wedding. The wedding leads them to the question of God and the faith. I am grateful to the witness of young people who are preparing for marriage. Forty percent of the marriages of Catholics in my archdiocese are marriages in which one of the partners belongs to another confession. Such marriages are ecumanically speaking a special challenge and opportunity. These families expect from us an encouraging word. In section 28 of the Instrumentum laboris they are taken into account much too weakly.

It is so important that the Holy Father, with us, sends out from this Synod the Gospel of the mystery of marriage, with a new hermeneutic, in a new language, a language of fullness, of blessing, of the richness of life, provocative and inviting for the people. What grace is offered to the people, what participation in God’s order of creation and salvation, what depths of mutual love between God and people: Marriage is for us about a life in fullness and in the love of God, even in our brokenness. This must be our message in Church and society. The Synod can not give the impression that we mainly fought over divorce and conditions for admittance to the sacraments.

However, deeply faithful young Christians also ask me, in light of experiences in their families and circles of friends, the question: “But when we divorce and later enter into a new marriage, why are we then barred from the table of the Lord? Does God refuse the people who have gone through a divorce?” I then try to explain why divorced and remarried people can not receive Communion, but the arguments of these theological statements do not silence the questions in the hearts of people: Is there no place at the Lord’s table for people who experienced  and suffered an irreversible break in their lives? How perfect and holy must one be to be allowed to the supper of the Lord? It becomes clear to me every time that the question of allowing divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist is not in the first place a question about the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage. Many people question the Church and her mercy in this regard. More than a few people concerned leave the Church with their children on the basis of what they see as rejection. Ultimately and most profoundly it is much more about the Christian faith and God and His mercy. For many, the question of admittance to the Eucharist makes them doubt God.

Concerning Point 29 of the Instrumentum laboris:

3. In Berlin alone there are more than 100,000 single parents with all their challenges and stress in their personal lives, raising their children and their work. In all that we think about: They too are families.

Concerning Points 24 to 27 of the Instrumentum laboris:

4. Families with many children, who are a blessing for us, deserve special care. In Germany their number has dropped more drastically than in other parts of the world; a true reason for our demographic concerns. Their financial security, insufficient recognition of the pedagogical benefit of the parents in our society and the difficulty of later reintegration into the work force represent great scandals. To them in particular we should  express a word of recognition and our esteem.

Concerning Point 29 of the Instrumentum laboris:

5. For one third of the Catholics in the city of Berlin, German is not their mother tongue. Berlin is home to many immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. From the first day of my service in this city I have also witnessed the drama of refugee families, separated by violence or fled together, but now far from home. We can not leave these families alone, not even at this Synod. The Holy Family fled and only had a manger for their child, but this refugee family became a blessing for us all. Does God perhaps today also want the refugee families in particular to be a blessing for us? At this Synod we must also speak about these families and we must speak about ourselves as the new family of Jesus, the family of His Church, which does not erect any walls or barbed wire.The refugee families are part of us and we of them. We are a blessing for each other.

Concerning Points 17 and 20 of the Instrumentum laboris:

6. We should be grateful to the married couples who have faithfully lived and sometimes also persevered in the life of their families in good and bad times, for their witness of faith made with their marriage, and also express this as a Synod. Family is more than young parents with their young children. Perhaps family life becomes hardest in old age and death, about which ever more pressing questions are being asked in our society. The current discussion in Europe about so-called assisted dying is even more dramatic as many elderly people find no home in their families and no place for them in their small houses and in the face of many occupational stresses. Aging, being ill and dying are topics of the family, about which we can not remain silent in this Synod, when we talk about the beauty of the family. Protecting unborn life from conception and protecting life during and at the end of life belong inseparably together.

Rome, 5 October 2015

Heiner Koch
Archbishop of Berlin