The consistory of the marginalised – a look back

Cardinals of St. LouisAnd so the Church gains twenty new cardinals. Much has already been said about the unique nature of the group, their places of origin and pastoral and other qualities which would spell out much regarding Pope Francis’ game plan for the future of the Church, both universally and locally in the dioceses and countries of the new cardinals.

Perhaps it can be best summarised as follows: The new cardinals bring the peripheries of the world Church to Rome and Rome to the peripheries. There is much variation in Catholic life across the world, and the needs and questions of one place are not necessarily the same as the needs of another. By creating cardinals from places as different as Communist Vietnam, violent Morelia, diaspora Myanmar, refugee-struck Agrigento and distant Tonga, Pope Francis acknowledges this and wants to make good use of the variety. The creation of these cardinals also expresses the closeness of Rome to these different locations, and lends extra weight to the Church’s presence and influence there.

pimiento rodriguezThe actual ceremony of the creation of the new cardinals was nothing out of the ordinary as these things go. One cardinal, José de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez (at right), stayed at home, but he may be excused for that, being 96 years old, and thus the third-oldest member of the College. Cardinals Rauber and De Magistris, respectively 80 and 88 and both physically incapable of kneeling before the Holy Father to receive ring and biretta, both received the signs of their title from a standing Pope Francis who came to them instead of the other way around. Of course, we saw something similar in last year’s consistory for wheelchair-bound Cardinal Jean-Pierre Kutwa.

This consistory was unique in another regard: the appointment of title churches and deaconries. While there were a fair number of vacant titles, Pope Francis chose to fill only seven of these, and created thirteen new ones. Of course, every single cardinal has a title church or deaconry in Rome, which makes 227 of them. Creating thirteen new ones would seem somewhat unnecessary as there are now still one vacant title church and nine vacant deaconries available. But who knows, maybe they will soon be filled if the rumours of Pope Francis wanting to increase the number of cardinals who vote in a conclave from 120 to 140 turn out to be true…

Manuel Macário do Nascimento ClementeOf the pre-existing titles and deaconries there were some examples of continuity. The Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Macário do Nascimento Clemente (at left), was given Sant’Antonio in Campo Marzio, previously held by his immediate predecessor in Lisbon. Santissimi Nomi di Gesù e Maria in Via Lata remained with a retired and experienced worker in the Curia: previously held by Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, it is now the deaconry of Cardinal Luigi De Magistris. Sant’Antonio di Padova a Circonvallazione Appia kept its Belgian connection: first held by Belgian Cardinal Julien Ries it is now in the possession of the former Nuncio to Belgium, Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber.

Age-wise, this consistory not only created one of the oldest cardinals, the aforementioned de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez, but also the two youngest: Cardinal Daniel Sturla Berhouet of Montevideo, 55, and Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga, 53.

hendriks mambertiThere was a Dutch delegation at the consistory, in addition to Cardinal Wim Eijk who, as a member of the College of Cardinals, attended all meetings. Bishop Frans Wiertz was in Rome with a group of pilgrims from his Diocese of Roermond, and Bishop Jan Hendriks attended because of his acquaintance with Cardinal Dominique Mamberti (pictured above). He blogged about it on his personal website, and writes about the presence of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI:

“Pope Benedict XVI […] [was] stormed by the cardinals and bishops present in order to briefly greet him.

Various members of the diplomatic corps followed. Other faithful were also able to find their way, but needed some more time to get to him.

In the photo [I took] one can discern a small white zucchetto: that is Pope emeritus Benedict!


The Pope emeritus underwent all these gestures, smiling friendly and almost shyly.”

hendriks wiertz

^Bishops Jan Hendriks and Frans Wiertz in St. Peter’s Square

Finally, in closing, the text of Pope Francis’ homily during the Mass with the new cardinals on Sunday. Some have called it a roadmap of his pontificate:

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

True, the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas exclaimed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Finding the right words… Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

Consider carefully that, in these days when you have become Cardinals, we have asked Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23), to intercede for us so that we can be God’s faithful servants. May she – our Mother – teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; not to be afraid of tenderness. How often we fear tenderness! May Mary teach us not to be afraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.

Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!

Paul and Francis – a selective reading of two Popes

Paul-VIIn this month’s edition of our diocesan magazine I came across an odd statement: Pope Francis has freed the Church from the strict doctrines regarding human sexuality and procreation as laid down by Pope Paul VI (pictured) in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The same Pope Francis who has beatified Paul VI and repeatedly called him a courageous prophet, exactly for Humanae Vitae

Where do these claims come from? It isn’t the first time I’ve come across similar statements. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a people’s person, even more so than Saint John Paul II was, I suspect. But Pope Francis is also Catholic, and is unafraid of underlining even the unpopular teachings: he is staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, continuously speaks of the dangers of sin and the devil, and, like I said above, is fully in line with the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

It is risky business to isolate Popes from one another. Humanae Vitae does not show us the full person of Paul VI, and today’s General Audiences don’t tell us everything about Francis. Both those parts of their teaching and person are important, but if we do not look any further, we run the risk of making such faulty and misleading statements as the one that opened this blog post.

In the case of Pope Francis, let his open personality be an invitiation to find out more about him and thus about the faith. His appreciation for Paul VI should likewise be reason to read Humanae Vitae anew. The papacy is no popularity contest, and nor does it revolve around superficial niceties. It is a teaching office, and sometimes that teaching reaches across the years, decades and centuries. And sometimes it is expanded or we look at it from a new perspective. In the case of Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, it is more than policy, more than old-fashioned opinions that need correcting. On the contrary, as Pope Francis has said, it is prophetic.

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.

Mercy and doctrine, following the example of Christ

“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”

Cardinal George PellWords from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.

The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.

In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.

The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.

Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.

The trouble with headlines – no sins and no new developments in Pope marrying 20 Roman couples

Making headlines is not always easy. I sometimes find myself having completed a blog post with relative ease, only to struggle with coming up with an eye-catching headline. They need to be short, interesting and true to the content of the article they announce and, in essence, summarise. I imagine that these are the same concern of those who write for a living for newspapers, journals and on websites. But in recent days too many have failed to follow the rules…

Yesterday, 20 Roman couples were married in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis. This is pretty rare for Popes to do for the simple reason of their many other duties. Pope Benedict XVI never did it, and Pope St. John Paul II only got around to it once over the 27 years of his pontificate. But as he is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome, witnessing the marriage of some of the faithful of his diocese is a wonderful opportunity to be near to his closest flock: the Romans themselves.


The couples were from all walks of life and a broad range in age, and all had their own stories, as the Pope hinted at in his homily: “The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life!” Rare are the couples whose story is the stereotypical romantic one: they meet, fall in love, get married, have children and live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that none of the twenty couples married yesterday have had such smooth sailing. And that is what inspired many headlines.

 “Pope marries sinners,” we read. “Francis overthrows tradition by marrying cohabitating couples!” and more along such lines. The essence of all this was that Pope Francis, they said, in contrast to Catholic teaching and the practice of the Church for years, married people who were living in sin. But was that really true?

The simple answer is no. In reports about yesterday’s ceremony we read that one of the grooms has had a previous married nullified and that a bride already had a child. Others were apparently already living together for a long time before marrying. While it is objectively so that the Church has its concern about children being born outside marriage and cohabitation while not married, these in themselves have never been reason for the Church refusing to marry couples. In fact, it is simply so that the Church gladly welcomes any couple who wants to receive the sacrament of marriage.

marriageMarriage is a sacrament that includes both rights and duties. To oneself, to one’s  partner, to God and to the community. It is good for the future husband and wife to be well aware of these, be willing to accept them and know how to include them in their lives together. That is a  lifelong process, but it starts before marriage begins.

From the outside we may notice many irregularities – a child outside of marriage, a previous marriage – but we should not jump to conclusions about these 20 Roman couples. All we know is that these irregularities are now regularised, and that is reason for joy.

There is certainly no reason to see sins and new developments where there are none. Pope Francis did not do anything that could not be done before, and nothing that priests across the world don’t do regular (although they would rarely marry forty people in one go). What is remarkable, however, is that it happened. That 20 couples said yes to each other, promised to stand together in good and bad times and let their love bear fruit and new life in all sorts of ways. That’s the true headline.

Photo credit: [1] Alessandra Tarantino/AP,  [2] Paul Haring/CNS

Sharing Christ in freedom – Pope Francis to 50,000 altar servers

They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:

“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.

To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”

pope francis altar servers

After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.

Pope Francis answered:

pope francis“Dear servers,

I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.

You have asked me what you can do to  contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability  it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.

But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.

I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.

Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!

The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”

“There is nothing worse” – Bishop Wiertz on sexual abuse

Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.

Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.

abuse maastricht wiertz

“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.

Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.

It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.

You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”

Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s  reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.

Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.

For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.

Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?

It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.

This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.

It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.

May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”

Photo credit: ANP