Bishop Voderholzer’s remedy to dropping numbers

In a homily at the pilgrimage site of St. Anna Schäffer in Mindelstetten, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg addressed the recently released statistics regarding church attendance and such in the Catholic Church in Germany. He compares them to the equally disastrous numbers in the Lutheran church and explains that the standard liberal remedies of constantly wanting to change church and faith, and getting rid of perceived oppressive dogmas, is not the solution to the crisis.

According to Bishop Voderholzer, the numbers point out something else: an evaporation of faith. He also puts this into perspective, saying that the Lord never promised his followers to be a majority anywhere. Rather, he foresaw difficulties and opposition. So, depressing numbers should, in themselves, really not be a cause for us to give up.

1085557_m1w590q75v2214_PortrtbildBischof_2“Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Last Friday, the 21st of July, the statistics for the Catholic Churc and the Lutheran Church in Germany for the year 2016 were published. You will probably have heard a few things about it via radio and television or in the newspaper.

The outcome was not very surprising. Like before, the number of people leaving the Church are disconcertingly high, even when they have dropped by some 11 percent in the Catholic Church as compared to 2015. The number of baptisms has increased slightly, the number of marriages decreased soewhat. In Hamburg and Berlin the number of Catholics has grown, due to the influx of Catholic foreigners; but in general the number of Catholics is growing smaller.

Dear sisters and brothers, I do not want to bore you with numbers and statictics today, on the Anna Schäffer Day of Remembrance. But the public reactions to these numbers are noteworthy and lead us to look further.

As a remedy to turn these trends around and to preserve our social relevance we are continuously advised to – literally – “open up and rid ourselves of rigid conservative dogmas.”

In this case, these are:

Abolishing the celibacy of priests;

Removing the different tasks and appointments of men and women in the Church and admitting women into apostolic ministry;

Consenting to the demand of full legal equality of same-sex partnerships with marriage;

Admitting everyone to Communion, and so on.

You know the list of demands as well as I do.

Dear sisters and brothers! The problematic nature of this advice becomes clear with a quick glance at the statistics of the Lutheran church. If the application of the aforementioned pieces of advice would really be a way of improving the situation of the Church, flourishing life must be visible in the Lutheran church.

But what do the numbers say? More people leave the Lutheran church – and have done so, with the exception of 2014, for years – than the Catholic Church, despite the fact that in the Lutheran church these demands have all basically been fulfilled and all these alleged impediments to being church are no longer present. But this is generally ignored in public, even though the numbers were presented on the same day. Isn’t the reason that this is being ignored perhaps that it would reveal the blatant weakness, yes, the inconsistency and absurdity of this “good” advice to the Catholic Church?! Can one, in all seriousness, present the path of the Lutheran church as a remedy, when it is so often led to an even greater distance to the faith and the church? I say this without malice! I know Lutheran fellow Christians who completely agree with my assessment and who warn us Catholics not to make the same mistakes.

We must look much further in the whole debate. The statictics reveal a secularisation which has been progressing for years, a loss of church affiliation and lastly a decline in the substance of faith, an evaporation of the awareness of God. That is why we do not really have a shortage of priests, but a much more fundamental shortage of faith. The priest shortage is a symptom, like a fever. But the fever is not itself the disease, but it indicates the presence of an inflammation. I am certain: the fever of the priest shortage indicates the disease of lack of faith. As an aside, the Lutheran church has also long known the phantom of lack of priests, as there are too few young people who study theology and are willing to also put themselves professionally at the service of the Gospel; all this without celibacy and with the possibility for women to also assume the office of the priesthood! This should give us a sense of the true reasons for the lack of church adherence.

Dear sisters and brothers, come together at the grave of Saint Anna Schäffer! We all have the image and the fate of the Church at heart. But not in the sense that we belong to her as to a club whose public image and strength are the ultimate goal; but for the sake of the message and the sake of the people, for whose sake God became man in Jesus Christ. In the Church He takes us into service for His Gospel. The Lord did not promise us that we would always be the majority; rather, He predicted headwind and resistance.

For that reason we should not concern ourselves too much with numbers and statistics. What should concern us is that the Gospel can lighten up our environment, through our lives in faith. Everywhere where we overshadow the Gospel because of inattentiveness, lovelessness and hard-heartedness, we are called to convert and once more give the Lord space.

Instead of constantly changing the structures, also and especially the sacramental structures of the Church, instead of diluting the message of the Gospel and instead of proclaiming a light version of Jesus, evangelisation is called for, a saturation of society with the Spirit of Jesus. And the first and all-important step on that way is a daily striving towards holiness, the daily listening to God’s word and the willingness to begin the reform of the Church with myself. That is reformation: the renewal of faith, the restoration of the image of Christ which was engraved in us in Baptism and Confirmation. Where this is granted to us in God’s mercy, where we succeed in this, we will make the people of our time once again curious about the faith which supports us. And then we can also explain the hope that lives within us.

Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord! In the endeavours of evangelisation in our time Saint Anna Schäffer is in every aspect an example and also an advocate.

She wanted to devote her life to the mission abroad. But the Lord had destined her for the mission in her own country. Before becoming a comforter and source of joy in faith for many, she had to allow herself to be evangelised again, and radically so. Accepting her suffering as a partaking in the cross of Christ was anything but easy. Bedridden and with her gaze upon the cross she faced this process of inner healing and transformation. She so became a bright sign of God’s work, a messenger of faith to countless people and ultimately a saint of the Catholic Church.

And so we pray today for her intercession, that the Lord will grant each and everyone of us the grace to begin the reform of the Church in ourselves; that we muster the courage to lt ourselves be evangelised anew every day and in this way be prepared to serve the mission of the Church – for the salvation of humanity and the glory of the triune God, whose is the glory, today, every day and forever. Amen.”

Advertisements

60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

Simonis 60 jaar Mis kl

Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

Man of peace – Bishop Ernst passes away

“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”

2016-06-07%20Breda_MgrErnst_©RamonMangold_WEB01_410Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.

Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”

Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.

download
Bishop Ernst in 1967

Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.

One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.

The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.

Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.

Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.

In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.

A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst

  • 1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
  • 1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
  • 1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
  • 1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
  • 1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
  • 1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
  • 1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
  • 1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
  • 1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
  • 1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.

Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).

Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.

Phot credit: [1, 2] Ramon Mangold

For Scandinavia, a nuncio used to great distances

Pope Francis today appointed a new apostolic nuncio to Sweden and Iceland. These two non-adjacent countries will undoubtedly soon be joined by Finland, Norway and Denmark as the new nuncio’s area of operations. The Nordic countries, although they each have their own nunciature in name*, have always shared one nuncio among them.

Monseñor_James_GreenAn expansive territory to cover, made even more expansive by the Scandinavian bishops regularly meeting in Germany, it is now under the diplomatic responsibility of no stranger to large distances. Archbishop James Patrick Green, 66, comes to Scandinavia from his previous posting in Peru, where he has been the nuncio since 2012. His other postings include the southern tip of Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) from 2006 to 2012, and China, where he was Chargé d’affaires, from 2002 to 2006. Earlier in his diplomatic career, he also served at the nunciature in the Netherlands.

Archbishop Green was born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1950, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by its then-archbishop Cardinal John Krol. In 2006, upon his appointment as nuncio to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (Lesotho and Swaziland would follow later), he was consecrated and named as titular archbishop of Altinum.

Archbishop Green is characterised as “accessible, friendly, gracious and impressively capable”, and is credited with creating a stable episcopate in southern Africa. In Scandinavia, with only six serving bishops, he will have rather less chances to do so. The most senior Nordic bishop, Helsinki’s Teemu Sippo, is 69, followed by Stockholm’s Anders Arborelius at 67, and Copenhagen’s Czeslaw Kozon, who is 65. Although a bishop can retire before the age of 75 for health reasons, the expectation is that it will be another six years before Archbishop Green needs to get to work to collect information for a new bishop. The nuncio himself is still nine years away from retirement, so it is possible that he will be reassigned before that, especiallty considering that he never spent more than five years at his earlier assignments.

The Catholic Church in Scandinavia is growing, mostly due to immigration from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines. It is still numerically small, though, and exists in highly secular societies: many people nominally belong to the Lutheran church which, until fairly recently, was the state church in most Nordic countries, but most will consider themselves atheist or agnostic. The immigrant population differs in that respect from the native Scandinavians, and this will undoubtedly affect how the Church acts and is perceived.

The appointment of a new nuncio was no surprise. Archbishop Green’s predecessor, Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, nuncio since 2012, had already announced his early retirement. At 70, he retires for health reasons.

*Finland was the first in 1966 to get a full diplomatic representation in the form of a nuncio, followed by Iceland in 1976. Denmark and Norway followed in 1982, leaving Sweden to change the old offices of the Apostolic Delegation of Scandinavia into the Nunciature of Sweden. The nuncio still resides in Stockholm, in the northern subburb of Djursholm, although the general secretariat of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference is located in Copenhagen.

Phot credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

naamloos

Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

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.