For Lent, the cardinal once more on church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIn his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.

In the letter, the cardinal writes:

“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”

Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:

“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”

This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.

Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.

Easter message – Bishop Heiner Koch

Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen suggests we should be like Christ on the road to Emmaus towards the people around us whose hearts do not burn at Easter.

koch“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). That is how the disciples asked each other about their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Here in Saxony, we live in a land in which Christians find that at Easter the hearts of eighty percent of their neighbours do not burn in the least. They do not want anyone to explain the Scriptures to them. Not that they don’t value the Church and Christians. I am under the impression that they do so more than in the dioceses of former West Germany. But God? “Stay away from me with that phantom”. That makes Easter for them an unrealistic and meaningless history. There is no reason to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus or hope for our own resurrection, but the infinite love of God which leaves no one, not even in the hour of our death, alone. Infinite: even in our death it knows no boundaries. The good-hearted Lord remains true to us. That is the heart of the eve of Easter, without which it becomes crippled, a celebration of hares and hidden eggs.

How happy and grateful should we be when our heart burns at Easter, when we remember the the love of God through the fire of Easter, which does not go out for any of us!

And when we see that for so many people around, there is no spark jumping from the fire, even this Easter, which is for us so important? Than nothing remains but to do as little or as much as Jesus did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus: before he opened the Scriptures for them, he walked with them, listened to them and asked them questions, and he remained with them when they stood in sorrow. Perhaps that is the service of the pascal faith which we are called to perform, today and perhaps even longer, in the name of Jesus, also here in Saxony.

I wish you and all that are yours a happy and blessed Easter,

Yours,

+ Dr. Heiner Koch
Bishop Dresden-Meißen

Original text

Waypoints – A selection of Lenten messages

Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t  a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.

Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkFrom Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:

 “For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… […] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”

But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.

“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”

In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.

“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”

He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.

“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.

But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”

Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.

01-mgr%20leonardBrussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:

“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? […] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”

About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:

“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”

Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:

“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”

And prayer is not hard:

“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”

hollerichArchbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.

“I […] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”

Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:

“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”

The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.

Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.

anders+arborelius+ruotsi+katolinen+kirkkoBishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:

“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”

But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.

Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:

“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”

But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.

“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”

During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.

“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”

But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.

Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.

johan-bonnyAntwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.

“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”

Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.

“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”

Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.

“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”

And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.

bürcherReykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for  our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:

“I would like  to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or  Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in  Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and  a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community!  I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of  my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”

hoogmartensLastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.

“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”

But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.

“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”

The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:

“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”

In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.

—————-

As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.

Francis visiting, not just yet

francisA short statement from the bishops today: Pope Francis will not be visiting the Netherlands quite yet. After Bishop Jos Punt spoke about the Holy Father being interested when presented with the idea, there was quite some speculation about the feasibility and even desirability of a papal visit to this most secularised bit of Europe, and December’s ad limina visit only raised the enthusiasm, even among the other bishops.

But the Pope’s agenda and priorities don’t allow for such a visit just yet, the bishops said today. They had discussed the plans in their plenary meeting of this month, and this discussion had even already involved the Pope himself, so the statement says. Pope Francis remains as welcome as ever, the bishops assured.

In 2015 it will be 30 years since we last had a Pope visiting, in a very charged and tense atmosphere, which even led to Cardinal Simonis having police protection for the duration… Times have changed, and while such measures should not be required, a papal visit to the Netherlands will surely be something, in both a positive and a negative way. If it happens in the foreseeable future, we had better brace ourselves for quite the ride.

The General Report for the Ad Limina – The portfolios

Continuing with our translation of the general report that the Dutch bishops will be handing to Pope Francis in the first week of December, we arrive at the second part, in which the various portfolios within the Bishops’ Conference are described, as well as some developments within the fields they cover.

It would seem that each portfolio holder has written a short text. These are sadly not written for easy reading. They are dry texts intended to convey information, and their length prevents the inclusion of much detail.

Below, I will briefly list the main points in each text.

logo TSTVocations and Education to Church Ministry (Wim Cardinal Eijk): Mentions the intended merger between the three Catholic theological faculties in the country. The Faculty of Catholic Theology (logo pictured) of the University of Tilburg, but located in Utrecht, was the result. Two faculties participated, while the third lost the right to dispense ecclesiastical grades. No mention is made of the seminaries.

Liturgy, Church Music, Bible and Christian Art (Bishop Jan Liesen): This department tries to emphasise the fullness of liturgical life through letters and liturgical books. There is special attention for new translations of the Roman Missal and the Bible as used in the liturgy.

Catechesis (Bishop Rob Mutsaerts): There are projects about First Communion and Confirmation,  a series of six catechetical magazines on topics like birth, suffering, forgiveness and education, a catechesis method for children and teenagers. New goals are new forms of evangelisation and catechesis and more investing in the volunteer force.

basisschoolEducation (Bishop Jan Hendriks): Government policy and secularisation put pressure on Catholic education. Ways are sought to improve relations between Church and schools and increase religious knowledge of teachers.

Youth (Bishop Rob Mutsaerts): Pastoral care is mostly presented in national events (Catholic Youth Day, diocesan events). The number of youth groups is slowly decreasing, but young Catholics are increasingly present on the Internet and in social media.

Communication and Media (Bishop Frans Wiertz): Little interest from secular media in Church and faith, except for the sexual abuse crisis and the election of Pope Francis. Fewer financial means to invest in communication. There seem to be new chances in new media (seriously? Seem to be?)

prisonPastoral care in Justice and Health Care (Bishop Everard de Jong): Pastoral care in prisons takes place in close cooperation with the state. Most hospitals and nursing homes are secularised, making providing pastoral care more difficult. It is being ‘professionalised’ and thus becoming more secular. There are very few priests available in this area, and the challenge is to strengthen the bonds between caregivers and dioceses, and dioceses and institutions.

Church and Society (Bishop Gerard de Korte): The bishop meets twice annually with representatives from various areas of society, including political parties and unions. The bishop tries to spread Catholic social thought via the media.

Ecumenism and Contacts with the Eastern Rites (Bishop Hans van den Hende): There are direct ecumenical contacts with the Protestant Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Oriental and Orthodox Churches, the Evangelical Alliance and the Pentecostal churches. Expressions of ecumenism include a joint declaration on Baptism and a nationwide Week of Prayer for Unity.

Interreligious Dialogue (Bishop Jan van Burgsteden): Cooperation exists with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Deus Caritas Est and the Vatican II documents are basis for further contacts.

punt ethiopiëMission and Development (Bishop Jos Punt): There is solidarity and creativity in the parishes, often aimed at local projects. These can be integrated in national actions. There is also a decline in financial contributions to missionary projects. (At left: Bishop Punt on a missionary visit to Ethiopia)

Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) (Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom): The bishop participates in the two meetings per year of the COMECE, and subsequently reports to the bishops’ conference about it. Several COMECE projects are put into practice in the Netherlands.

Marriage and Family (Bishop Antoon Hurkmans): Good marriage preparation and family amenities are promoted for the new parishes. Numerous movements assist the Church in these goals.

Handboek-katholieke-medische-ethiekMedical Ethics (Wim Cardinal Eijk): The cardinal lectures on this topic in the Netherlands and abroad, and also teaches the subject at the seminary of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, and writes articles for various publications. He also maintains political contacts to emphasise the topic, and has published a handbook on medical ethics (pictured), which is currently being translated into English and Italian.

Relations with Judaism (Bishop Herman Woorts): Several meetings between Jewish and Christian communities take place, in relation to the remembrance of the Holocaust and several Jewish feasts. All dioceses should have their own working group for relations with Judaism.

Movements and New Communities (Bishop Jan van Burgsteden): These are fourteen movements and communities recognised by the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Religious and Secular Institutes (Bishop Jan van Burgsteden): Three to four meetings per year have led to mutual dialogue and confidence and has brought bishops and religious closer together.

Church and the Elderly (Bishop Gerard de Korte): Two elements are important: representation and comfort on the one hand, and questions of life and death, the younger generations and hope on the other. This is achieved through celebrations and speaking engagements.

Church and Women (Bishop Gerard de Korte): Consisting mainly of contacts with the Union of Dutch Catholic Women, in two meetings per year.

Our Lady of Lourdes BasilicaPilgrimages (Bishop Herman Woorts): The bishop takes part in the annual meeting of the three official pilgrimage organisations. Important now is the creation of a new pilgrims’ book related to the publication of an interrim Missal, probably sometime in 2014. The bishop takes part in various pilgrimages and celebrations.

Pastoral Care for Workers in Carnivals, Circuses and Shipping (Bishop Antoon Hurkmans): There is a well-ordered nationwide parish for shipping workers, with its own parish priest and group of volunteers. There is an annual meeting with the bishop.

Beatifications and Canonisations (Bishop Frans Wiertz): There have been four canonisations and three beatifications in the Dutch Church province since 1998. There are three Blesseds awaiting canonisation.  There are 13 further cases, of which three have reached the stage of Venerable. Three cases have had their file sent to Rome, and two files have been handed over to dioceses abroad. Three or four more candidates are being considered to have their processes started.

The reports are very factual and while the describe intentions, plans and wishes, there is no indication of how these are to be realised, nor how effective any projects are.

Striking – and disappointing – is the conclusion from Bishop Wiertz as holder of the communications portfolio that “here seem to be new chances in new media”. These chances have been there for years, and many Catholics in the world are exploiting them. There is a world to be won on the Internet for the Church in the Netherlands, a world that is barely being explored at this time.

The General Report for the Ad Limina – the first part

Logo BisschoppenconferentieToday the Dutch Bishops’ Conference published the general report on the Catholic Church in the Netherlands that will be presented to Pope Francis during the ad limina visit that will take place from 2 to 7 December. This report comes accompanied by reports on every diocese, which the individual ordinaries will present. Those reports remain confidential, but the general report is public. In due time, I will be posting the entire report in English. For now, however,  a look at the first part, which aims to give an overview of the state of the Church in the Netherlands, and some of the ongoing developments that dictate current policy and trends.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands

The time that the Roman Catholic Church was a great people’s church. lies some decades behind us. We are developing into a church of choice with, especially in the southern dioceses, elements of cultural Catholicism. Before us lies a future in which people who want to be Roman Catholic do so expressly out of a conscious choice. We are investing in the new evangelisation, deepening of the faith and of the personal relationship with Christ. In recent years we anchored ourselves clearly on the basics of our Catholic identity. The richness of the Roman Catholic Church, with her sacraments, social teaching, liturgy, documents and the diversity of offices and ministry has been painted and communicated more clearly and we will continue to work on that.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands exists in a situation of decline, which has begun long ago. In 25 years the number of members dropped by 1 million to 4,044,000 Catholics. At this moment, 24.1 % of the total population is Roman Catholic, and that makes her the largest group of faithful in the Netherlands.

By merging parishes and stimulating cooperation between parishes and parish groups, we want to assure that the local parish remains or becomes a thriving and attractive faith community. From these larger parishes or parish groups missionary initiatives are undertaken, searching for new possibilities to familiarise people with Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands performs her mission in a strongly secularised society. In it she does not want to retreat as on an island, but remain in dialogue with government, society, other Christians and followers of other religions and philosophies.

1. Developments

  • The reorganisation of the Bishops’ Conference support structure was completed this year.  On the diocesan level there were reorganisations of the diocesan curia and a restructuring of ecclesiastical life. Ambitions, priorities and organisations must be adjusted to a decrease of available personal and financial means, the size of the faith community and the way in which one participates in the community. It makes the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands a “Church in conversion”.
  • knox_bible_openedThe bishops and their coworkers make parishes aware of their missionary duty and the importance of decent catechesis in the parishes, which makes, attuned to the various stages of life, people familiar with Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. In the past fifty years there has not been enough attention for systematic education in the faith in accordance with the teaching of the Church. A multi-year religious education program for children, youth and young adults, developed by employees of the Diocese of Roermond, is also promoted in other dioceses. Much is being done for a good formation of the countless volunteers who take care of catechesis in the parishes. On multiple sides means of assistance are being developed, such as pastoral care with an emphasis on presence in the concrete lives of people, the use of new media, the Alpha Course and initiatives of new movements.
  • Within the context of the mergers of parishes, parochial caritas foundations are also being merged, creating larger and stronger caritas foundation able to create a diaconal face for the larger parishes. A missionary Church must also give clear witness of the Gospel in the diaconal works of love.
  • Mergers of parishes and decline – with the unavoidable consequence of closing church buildings – create unrest and pain in many places.
  • wydPolicy and the joining of forces regarding the pastoral care of young people have led to a successful Dutch participation in the World Youth Days in Cologne in 2005 (3,500 participants), Sydney in 2008 (700 participants), Madrid in 2011 (1,250 participants) and Rio de Janeiro in 2013 (300 participants). The World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro drew fewer participants because of the distance and the high costs related to the journey. Additionally, the previous World Youth Days (Madrid) took place only two years earlier, which made the time to save money shorter. The annual Catholic Youth Day draws every years some 1,500 young people from all over the Netherlands. The World Youth Days especially deepened the Catholic faith of many participants, as well as the formation of their personal prayer life and active participation in Church life. There is special attention for the follow up of the World Youth Days through youth activities in the dioceses and on a national level. The dioceses also develop their own programs for youth activities.
  • The Passion is the name of a musical event organised by Roman Catholics and Protestants, in which the story of the passion of Christ and the Gospel of Easter take centre stage, and which since 2011 has taken place annually on Maundy Thursday, every time in a different location. It is broadcast live on television. Famous artists portray the roles of Christ and others who appear in the passion and the Easter Gospel. The event is a missionary chance to present the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ in a modern way to a large audience. In 2011 the event drew almost 1 million viewer. In 2012 there 1.7 million. In 2013 no less than 2.3 million viewers tuned in to The Passion.
  • There are some fifty Catholic immigrant communities and some thirty immigrant parishes (of which a few are Catholic parishes of the Eastern rite) These immigrant Catholic faith communities are often very vital and introduce experiences and expression of the Catholic faith from their country or culture of origin. In that way they contribute to a new momentum in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
  • In words and action the bishops follow a clear policy regarding the ecclesiastical, liturgical and sacramental life concerning the position and duty of priests and deacons, as well as pastoral workers and other lay ministers.
  • RKK_logo_paars_magentaThe social relevance of the Church plays a role in her relation to the government, the society, the other churches and church communities, as well as to other religions and philosophies. An important tool is the allocated broadcast time for the Roman Catholic Church (RKK), which the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Katholieke Radio Omroep (KRO) fill in cooperation. National government carries the costs for the RKK. This time offers special opportunities to reach Catholics and non-Catholics. But the government has decided to stop financing the RKK and withdraw the licenses of all religious broadcasters, so also including the RKK, in 2016. That is why it is important that the KRO continues expressing her Catholic identity in her own broadcast time. In cooperation with the bishops, the KRO will take over the broadcast of the Sunday Eucharist and a few programmes of the RKK. In addition, the bishops are investigating if there are more affordable means to broadcast programmes with a Roman Catholic identity, for example via Internet television and radio.
  • Whereas the principle of the separation of Church and state originally guaranteed the prevention of state interference with Church affairs, this separation is now used by some to urge for a religious neutralisation of the public domain. This helps in the privatisation of religion and faith. The bishops are in favour of Church and state being clearly separate from one another, both administratively and organisationally. This does not, however, mean a separation between faith and conviction on the hand, and politics on the other. The Roman Catholic faith implies a clear and develop social doctrine, a rich source of inspiration for civilians and politics. The opinions of secular groups in society are, like religious opinions, not neutral.

This part of the report is fairly factual, although it does give an idea of where the priorities of the bishops lie. It is fairly policy-driven and therefore automatically rather far removed from the daily experience of faithful and their pastoral needs and wishes. That is an ongoing issue in the Church in the Netherlands: it is still difficult to make the step from policy to practice, from the discussions and plans of the bishops to the daily affairs and experiences of people. That is a gap that needs to be closed from both sides.

The bishops will have arrived in Rome by 1 December, when they will offer a Mass at the Church of the Frisians, with Cardinal Eijk as the main celebrant. This Mass will be broadcast live on television.

Teacher and shepherd – Before the ad limina, Bishop de Korte on the task of the bishop

bisschop de korteThe first bishop to do so, Bishop Gerard de Korte looks ahead to the upcoming ad limina visit in his regular contribution to Friesch Dagblad and the diocesan website. For those who know the bishop, his two main topics should come as no surprise: ecumenism and the speechlessness of the faithful have been at the heart of his work since his arrival in Groningen in 2008.

In the first week of December all Dutch bishops will go to Rome. We will visit the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul, celebrate the Eucharist in several places and for a full week we will have numerous meetings with the closest collaborators of the Pope and with Pope Francis personally. This visit, which has been prepared intensively in the Netherlands over the past months, invites to mark time. Probing questions must be answered: what is the state of the Church today? What is the future of ecclesiastical life in our country? Very important as well is the question of what sort of leadership the Christian community needs today and tomorrow. In that context, you could consider all officials in the churches, but from my position I primarily think of the interpretation of the office of the bishop within the Roman Church.

Speechless faithful

For more than half a century our Dutch culture is characterised by great prosperity and an increasingly educated population. Partly because of this our society is marked by individualism, a deep desire for participation and democracy, and, not least, a rapid moral liberalisation. Christian faith communities in general and the Roman in particular must come to terms with this cultural state of affairs. Powerful individualisation has caused many parishes and faith communities to shrink. The Church in our country has become extremely vulnerable. Numerous families no longer succeed to socialise the younger generations into the Church. Even more tense, I think, is the crisis of content of the faith. Many Catholics, but other Christians as well,  are speechless about the content of their faith and can no longer articulate very well what motivates them. The big question is how church officials in general and bishops especially should make policy today. In my opinion contextual leadership is the only fruitful way. One thing and another implies to me a substantively clear message centred on Christ in combination with a cordial attitude and openness to dialogue.

Encounter and cordiality

In the modern Netherlands, where self determination and assertiveness are important values, religious searchers are today scared off by ecclesiastical ritualism and legalism. Most faithful appreciate a faith community’s cordiality and inspiration in faith and do not think in terms of legal or illegal. When a Church official or ecclesiastical office does do the latter, they immediately are at a disadvantage in communication. In case of a conflict the vast majority expects both within and without the Church no one-sided disciplinary measures, but a two-sided dialogue.

Encounter and cordiality are indispensable to really reach people’s hearts. In that sense I consider Pope Francis’ actions to be an important example on how to approach people as bishop of the North. Christian faith is in the first place a relational faith. Christian truth, after all, is a person, Jesus Christ Himself. To come to faith requires process oriented thought. After a process of initiation people can ultimately make the leap of faith and find with Christ direction for the journey of life that we all make. A bishop has various duties. As a teacher he must protect the teaching of the Church that has been handed down, and at the same time he is a shepherd for his people. The combination of teacher and shepherd is not always easy. A teacher in the Church today is wise to shape that teaching pastorally, without denying the truth of the Christian faith. In that context no bishop will be able to avoid disciplinary measures every now and then. But this does require great pastoral wisdom and prudence.

Ecumenical involvement

Dutch culture’s profound individualisation does not leave the churches unaffected, on the contrary. Many young, but also older people no longer see any reason to be art of a parish of church community. There is a crisis of transmission on a broad front. Church leaders must therefore give priority to finding new forms of church building for the progression of the Gospel. Church life, after all, principally requires community building. When people experience their faith as separate atoms that means the end for the Christian community. In that context Church leadership, in my deepest conviction, also needs ecumenical involvement. As a hopefully vital minority Christians of different traditions are called to continue searching for more unity around the living Christ. I sincerely hope that bishops, but also officials in other Christian communities, will make a fundamental choice for that path.

It is hard not to read the bishop’s comment about pastoral leadership and disciplinary measures as a criticism of the actions of Cardinal Eijk and other bishops (notably Bishops Hurkmans and Mutsaerts) who have had to correct priests and other faithful in their dioceses over the past years. While he is of course right that pastoral wisdom and prudence are required assets for a bishop in such situations, there are also cases in which these have reached their limit and other steps need to be taken for the wellbeing of the faithful and the truth of the faith.

The balance between pastoral sensitivity and the need to defend the faith via stricter actions (between teacher and shepherd, as Bishop de Korte puts it) is one that will come increasingly to the fore everywhere, I think. Pope Francis has firmly placed the former at the heart of his papacy, leaving the latter to those working with him. We have seen that, I think, in the recent writings of Archbishop Müller about marriage, divorce and the sacraments. Rather than some form of tension between Pope and Curia, we should see this is the modus operandi of the Francis papacy.m

It is good to recall that the Dutch bishops will not only be meeting the Pope, but also the prefects and presidents of the dicasteries of the Curia.