New cardinal appointments reveal papal focus

Yesterday, some of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis in his latest two consistories (November 2016 and June 2017) were given their duties in the Roman curia. More than simply an honorary title (although it sometimes is just that), a cardinal is expected to sit on various councils and congregations and so assist the Pope in running the affairs of the world Church. They are expected to be in Rome regularly to facilitate this, which, I imagine, does little to make life easier for some. Cardinal Mario Zenari, for example, serves in daily life as the Apostolic Nuncio to war-torn Syria. He has now been assigned to serve as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches as well.

763Among the cardinals in question are Jozef Cardinal De Kesel (at left), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and Anders Cardinal Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm. They have been appointed as members of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively.

The appointments of both cardinals are logical ones. Cardinal De Kesel has spoken out on numerous occasions on the role of the laity in the Church, and the dignity of human life. His appointment will undoubtedly herald his continued role in the debate about these topics, not least in the context of the Amoris laetitia its interpretation. Cardinal Arborelius has long since been involved with ecumenism, which is unavoidable in a country like Sweden. The Catholic Church is small but growing and has to relate to the secular society of the country and its Lutheran background.

The dicastery to gain the largest number of new members is the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. With five members (Cardinals Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka, Bangeldesh), Maurice Piat (Port-Louis, Mauritius), John Ribat (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Vientiane, Laos) and Gregorio Rosa Chávez (auxiliary of San Salvador, El Salvador), all from Pope Francis’ favoured ‘peripheries’, it perhaps shows the importance he attaches to the dicastery which he established at the start of this year.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

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The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

Permission withdrawn – Bishop de Korte says no to gay pride prayer service at his cathedral

downloadLast week, Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote a letter to explain his decision to allow an ecumenical prayer service to open the gay pride Pink Saturday event at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral. I shared that letter in an English translation in the post linked above. Sadly, that letter did not have the effect hoped for the by the bishop, and today he announces that he withdraws his permission for the prayer service in his cathedral.

In his second letter, the bishop states that he failed to remove the tensions that arose in his diocese following the announcement of the prayer event. “My nuanced doctrinal and pastoral letter was not accepted by many,” he writes, and adds, “Homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in our Church.”

Bishop de Korte then explains his decision to withdraw permissions:

“Until today, priests and other faithful have protested the prayer service at St. John’s. Although I personally completely trust the prayer leaders, I must conclude that, even before the service has begun, the religious feelings of many Catholics have been deeply affected. To the, the cathedral is the symbol of our diocese and they cannot believe that the service’s serenity is guaranteed. This is a serious state of affairs. I cannot hurt the conscience of faithful and must not cause scandal to my brothers and sisters.

The commotion surrounding the intended prayer service is such that the good relationships within the faith community are at stake. In that context I feel, after careful deliberation, forced to withdraw my permission for the ecumenical prayer service in our cathedral. I really that this new decision is a disappointment to more than a few. But because of the unity in our diocese I believe I can do no other.”

This decision, the bishop explains, does in no way mean that there should be no outreach from the Church to the gay community. I think that was at the core of the intended prayer service, hence the title of my previous post on the issue beginning with that word ‘outreach’.

Bishop de Korte writes:

“Dominant secular culture is directly contrary to Catholicism on the correct experience of sexuality in general and homosexuality especially. Catholic faithful live in modern culture and are deeply influenced by it.

As I concluded in my Pentecost letter, this often leads to misunderstanding, anger and sadness. As a bishop, I will keep looking for a proper form of dialogue, both internally and externally, no matter how difficult and thankless that may often be. People, of any orientation, should find, in our Catholic community at least, kindness, security and friendship. Every person is welcome in our faith community.”

The sense of disappointment is tangible in the bishop’s words, and that is shared by many who have commented on social media tonight. What we should watch out for is fingerpointing, however. Bishop de Korte felt forced to make this decision, but he did so out his sense of duty to all the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care, not just those who may happen to agree with him on this issue. Personally, I initially had some trepidations about the wisdom of the prayer service, but on the other hand, as the bishop says, we can’t ignore the society we live in. It is in that society that we must reach people: it is impossible to remain outside it and expect to be a Church with any kind of influence or voice. The Church will simply be ignored, even more than it is already, by faithful and non-faithful alike.

Bishop de Korte concludes his letter with a sense of hope.

“When I was installed as bishop in the cathedral, on Saturday 14 May 2016, I spoke about the importance of mutual trust and unity. I strife for an clear but also hospitable and friendly Church. I hope and pray that every faithful in our diocese wants to contribute to that, especially at this moment. Especially now, we are called to hold on to each other as a community around the living Lord.”

The ecumenical prayer service is not cancelled, but will relocate to a nearby Protestant church. Cathedral administrator Father Geertjan van Rossem will be one of the celebrants of the serive, but Bishop de Korte won’t attend.

Photo credit: Marc Bolsius

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

TitelkerkkardinaalDeKesel00001

^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Catholic Christmas present ideas

It’s barely November, but two potential Christmas gifts came to my attention today.

Catholicism-bookFather Robert Barron’s series on the Catholic faith, Catholicism, is set for release in the Netherlands, with Dutch subtitles. Originally released in the United States several years ago, the series appears to be a wonderful tool for catechesis, but also an interesting look at the great variety of our worldwide Church, as well as the heart of the faith.

The 500-minute DVD series is available for the price of €39,90 from the Catholic Alpha Centre and Publisher Betsaida, which is connected to the St. John’s Centre seminary of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch.

Also from ‘s Hertogenbosch comes the second book, this time for adults, from the pen of Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of that diocese (and at the moment filling in for ordinary Bishop Antoon Hurkmans who is taking his rest for medical reasons – prayers for him). In it, the bishop aims to correct all sorts of misconceptions about the Church and her faith. He writes:

“This is no scientific book. I don’t pretend to be a theologian, I’m no cultural sociologist or scientist. In order to explain things to non-experts, a pragmatic and sober approach by someone who knows the topic well is often more effective than a highly scientific approach.”

mutsaertsThe book, titled Gewoon over Geloof (a play on words which means both “simply about faith” and “acting or talking normally about faith”), aims to correct an image of the Church in modern secular society, which consider the Catholic faith to be “backwards, irrational, medieval, illiberal, unreasonable, misogynistic, homophobic and brainwashed”.

Bishop Mutsaerts has one previous book on his name, a children’s book titled Jezus kan niet voetballen (“Jesus can’t play football”).

Some thoughts on the Synod and how some people choose to view it

I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.

Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.

There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).

Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.

The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.

“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.