European bishops reflect on the United States

Two European bishops have spent their summer holidays visiting the United States, and both have shared some of their thoughts and experiences on social media. And both have perhaps unavoidably, noticed the differences between their countries and the behemoth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Mgr. dr. G.J.N. de KorteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch travelled New England, including New York and Washington DC, with his sister, and wrote an article for Nederlands Dagblad. Noting the immense economic, military and cultural influence of the United States on the rest of the world, as well as the kind and informal attitude of its inhabitants, Bishop de Korte devotes most of his article to the political stalemate of two parties, virtually equal in size, who are increasingly unwilling to cooperate, and the media’s eagerness to contribute to this increasing polarisation, which the bishops calls “extreme”.

A similar gap exists in society, the bishop writes. Whereas most European countries have established extensive social welfare systems to help those people who can’t make ends meet, in the United States this falls mostly to private organisations and citizens, including the churches. While this expression of Christianity is far more developed than it is in Europe, it is no structural solution to solve the injustices underlying the enormous differences between rich and poor.

Bishop de Korte concludes his article with the hope that the churches can build bridges and add unity and nuance to the political and social debates. “What American society needs now are reasonable and moderate leaders in church and society”.

Another European prelate visiting the United States is the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. He shared his experiences via his Twitter account, in both German and English. Sharing encounters with religious communites (the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of Life and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal), parish  visits and meetings with brother bishops Cardinal Dolan of New York, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Wilton of Washington, as well as a harbour tour in Boston and visits to the 9/11 monument in New York and the White House, and a hamburger meal with Catholic youth in Washington, Cardinal Woelki’s account is mostly positive and hopeful. About his meeting with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, he writes:

“So many Catholic changes in America: the Franciscans of the Renewal care for the homeless in the Bronx and live from what is given to them. Their communties are small, but growing! I wonder what we can learn from them.”

And there was time to throw some hoops…

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Looking in from the outside, it is often easy to find fault with a person or, in this case, a country. And while it is clear there are problems and worrisome developments under the current American presidency, the positive things should not be forgotten. While we may be conviced that America can learn from Europe, the reverse is also true.

The Catholic involvement in American society is both inspired and down-to-earth. I see this also in those American priests and bishops I follow on social media; to be effective and make an impact in society, however great or small, it is necessary to get dirty hands, to be involved in a way that people can relate to. Sadly, this is something I don’t see often enough in the Netherlands (although it does happen). Sure, a priest and bishop has important duties and is a rolemodel and example. But he is also a person and must relate to other people. Share those personal passions and interests, show that you’re into sports, movies, music, cooking, gardening, whatever, joke around a bit… Be a man of God among men (and women). A cardinal playing basketball (or wondering why there is no thirteenth floor in his hotel, as Cardinal Woelki also did, leading to the question why faith evaporates while superstition persist): I’m all for it.

Photo credit: [1] RKKerk.nl, [2]  Cardinal Woelki’s social media team on Twitter.