Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

In the Vortex, empty parishes and poor priests? Some nuances

A recent episode of Michael Voris’ The Vortex about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands has led to some questions about whether it is really true that more than 1,000 parishes will close  in the coming decade and Dutch priests will have to find jobs in the secular world, or even become tenants of the few remaining faithful in a secular wasteland. Or so the tone of the piece comes across.

As ever, there is some truth in the matter, but the situation is somewhat more nuanced than suggested. In this post I want to  highlight some ofhe intricacies of the situations.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIt is true that the number of parishes in the Netherlands is decreasing. And it has been for some time now. But it is inaccurate to claim that parishes are shutting down. Rather, parishes are merging with their neighbours to create larger parish clusters or megaparishes. This happens in most Dutch dioceses, and it is an organisational change, virtually always triggered by financial reasons and the lack of priests. The exact form that these mergers take differs per diocese. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, where I live, the parishes are merging, but with local faith communities continuing to come together, sometimes without a church building of their own. Or so the diocese, and especially our former bishop, Msgr. de Korte, hopes. Priests are tasked to travel in their parishes to minister to the faithful. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the new megaparishes have socalled Eucharistic centers assigned, churches where Holy Mass is celebrated every Sunday, while other churches in the parish will host Mass less frequently. I have compared the two approaches, as promoted by Cardinal Wim Eijk (at right) and Bishop Gerard de Korte, here.

aa%20Staatsiefoto%20Mgr_%20Wiertz%201_06KLEINThe idea that priests may need to find jobs comes from a speech made by Bishop Frans Wiertz (at left) of Roermond in October. Speaking at an annual meeting of the diocese, he discussed the current state of affairs in the Church in the Netherlands, comparing it with the Church in other countries.  He also spoke about the financial side and described how the network of institutionalised social support, by the government but also by the Church, is now reaching its financial limits. While it is a good thing to support anyone who needs it, that support can not continue forever, or become a right for all. Quoting the bishop:

“A parallel development has been going on in our Church, in contrast to all those countries I have visited. Earlier this year I asked a parish priest in Sri Lanka how he managed his livelihood, who took care of it. He said, “The people here are too poor, they can’t afford it. And the bishop? How would he have to do it? He can’t pay all the priests.” So I asked him how he earned his daily rice. He said, “I just work.” He was a teacher at a school. On the side. So parish priest and at the same time teacher at a school. He did that for forty hours a week. He taught English, history and of course religion.

Dear people, this was also the situation in our country until about 1960. There was no set salary for priests then. In one prosperous parish the priest received a higher salary and in the other parish, which had nothing, he had to survive of the gifts that the people brought him. In the Middle Ages the priest had a garden and he had to grow his own vegetables, and he sometimes had some cattle as well. There are stories of parishes where the chickens flew through the church.

Of course, I do not want to return to that situation.But I do want to say that, analogous to the state, the Church introduced social arrangements: roughly the same salary for all priests. They count on that too. Parish councils take care of it. A solidarity arrangement was introduced. The diocese receives money from parishes to help other parishes, for example when rebuilding and painting is needed and there is no money for it. That all functions, as long as not everyone calls upon it. But when it has become a right, and the rich parishes also want to receive those 20 percent – I don’t know how high those percentages are – from the diocese – from other parishes – it no longer works.

I am strongly convinced that we need another form of financing in twenty years. And that priests must all be missionary then, and willing to contribute to the costs of their livelihood. If it isn’t necessary, that is fine by me. I also do not want to invoke it, but when you, as a missionary, are not willing to give something yourself, what kind of missionary are you?

This is a vision of the future. I am not saying it will be reality. I also do not say it needs to come in a hurry. We have the time. I think it will take at least 20 years… The people in the parishes will have to maintain their own church and also the priests, it can’t automatically come from somewhere else. I think that this is a future which we must at least acknowledge.”

Bishop Wiertz was speaking from his heart, as a bishop on the verge of retirement, and his speech was in many ways that of a bishop taking stock of the Church he is about to leave in the hands of another. He was certainly not painting a depressing image, or outlining some new policy. Taking inspiration from the flourishing churches he encountered on his travels abroad (Bishop Wiertz visits one of the countries where his diocese sponsors missionary and charitable activities every year), he wants to encourage the Church in the Netherlands to move forward into the future from a current situation which is, indeed, not wholly positive or even encouraging. The Michael Voris program which inspired this blog post is not wrong when it notes that there are problems. Howver, that does not mean that there are faithless wastelands where church bells once tolled, or poor priests plowing windswept fields just yet. And even if there were… we have faith, hope and love. Even a mustard seed of either can grow into something great.

“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