Bishop Bonny at the Synod – Yes to family and marriage, respect for diversity and local responsibilities

Like last year, the intervention of a Belgian Synod father has been made public. This time it is Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, who used his three minutes of speaking time to discuss the chapter from the Instrumentum laboris that deals with the fullness of the family.

The Dutch original text is available here. Below is my English translation:

johan-bonnyIntervention on Part II, Chapter III (The Family and The Path Leading to its Fullness) of the Instrumentum laboris (IL)

  1. According to sociological research, marriage and family are highly regarded as values, even in modern western culture. There is an honest desire among both Christians and those who think differently for authentic friendship, lasting relationships, for children and grandchildren, for supportive family structures. For the Church this desire is a positive starting point for the proclamation of the Gospel. At the same time there are doubts in our society about the feasibility and the sustainability of marriage and family (IL 65). It is therefore important that the Church has a convincing word in favour of the choice for marriage and children, and the steps and path of growth towards making that choice. In this context, civil marriage, as institutional form of marriage and family, deserves the necessary appreciation (IL 63, 66, 102). Furthermore, our contemporaries are counting on the Church as a partner in the development of social structures and legal frameworks which benefit marriage and family life. On this point the Synod can send out a strong and, if necessary, countercultural signal.
  2. Sacramental marriage is, also among faithful, no longer the de facto only model of marriage and family life. The experiences of our contemporaries are very diverse and varied on this point. More than in the past, their life stories follow a personal course. Next to risks and limitations, this development also offers possibilities and opportunities. It is important that the Church highlight the positive or constructive elements in this development (IL 56, 98), value the “seeds of the Words” which are dormant in life stories (IL 56, 99), recognise the graduality in the process of growth that people go through (IL 60), respect and promote the “divine pedagogy of grace” on the path of life that God goes with people (IL 62), and also welcome a “praeparatio evangelica” in the “symphony of differences” (IL 83), and especially to end all exclusions (IL 72, 121). For couples and families the way of the Gospel today is the way of dialogue and mutual respect.
  3. In their local Churches bishops encounter a great variety of questions and needs, to which they must provide a pastoral answer today. Across the world, faithful and pastors have made use of the Synod and the questionnaire to present their pressing questions to the bishops and the Pope. Those questions clearly differ between countries and continents. There is however a common theme in those questions, namely the desire that the Church will stand in “the great rive of mercy” (IL 68, 106). It is important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this. The Synod not only deals with “the family as Church”, but also with “the Church as family”. Every family knows what it means to work on unity in diversity, with patience and creativity.

Msgr. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp
Bishops’ Conference of Belgium

As the Synod begins, a short note from the cardinal

Via, a short note from Cardinal Eijk, who is the sole Dutch participant in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops which was opened yesterday with a Holy Mass.

“The opening celebration, in which we prayed for the support of the Holy Spirit, was impressive, and we are ready to begin this intense period of listening to and deliberating and discussing with each other. I hope that faithful across the world and in especially in the Netherlands pray with us for God’s blessing over this Synod.”

synod of bishops

 Cardinal Baldisseri addresses the Synod, flanked by the Pope and, at his right, Archbishop Bruno Forte, the special secretary, and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, president delegate. Seated in the third row from the bottom, second from the right, seems to be Cardinal Eijk, flanked by Cardinals Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal and Christopher Collins.

Today was the first full day of deliberations, although for the majority of Synod father, much of it was taken up by listening. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod, once again explained the processes of the coming three weeks. Cardinal Péter Erdö, relator general, held a long exposition outlining the context and topics of the Synod. John Allen has a good analysis of the cardinal’s talk. His clear words about the impossibility of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, ruffled a number of feathers outside the Synod hall, but it should be clear by now that the Synod is not about to change doctrine. Rather, its focus is pastoral care and how it may best be developed and practiced. As Cardinal Vingt-Trois put it at this afternoon’s press conference, “If you think you will find a radical change in Church doctrine, you’ll be disappointed”. The archbishop of Paris, who serves the Synod as one of four President Delegates, stated that the Synod has two goals: to propose the Gospel of the family and the pastoral accompaniment of families in their realities.

Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano

In Rome, no one was fired for being gay

We’ve all read the headlines by now. A Polish official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was fired for announcing his homosexuality and the Church is therefore full of old meanies. Reality is bit different, as it often is.

krzysztof-charamsa-ranghoher-vatikanmitarbeiter-100~_v-img__16__9__l_-1dc0e8f74459dd04c91a0d45af4972b9069f1135Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa, pictured at left, who has worked for the Congregation for more than a decade, yesterday informed the world about his sexual preference and also introduced the man he has a relationship with. In the process he strongly criticised the Church and the Congregation he worked for, calling for an end to homophobia and, by his actions, the acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriage. Of course, working where he had for the past decade and more, he should have known better.

There are three things that are significant here:

  1. Msgr. Charamsa’s homosexuality. This is no reason to fired him, and it wasn’t. No one can be held accountable for his sexual orientation, and it should not play a part in his suitability for his job in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  2. A secret relationship. Msgr. Charamsa has a relationship with a man, which means he broke his promise of celibacy, made freely at his ordination. This is a serious problem. Of course, any priest, be he homosexual or heterosexual, can fall in love. In such a situation, the priest in question has the obligation to take his vows and promises seriously and try and find a way to resolve the situation. And he should get all the assistance he needs, not least from his bishop and brother priests.
  3. Timing. It would be a very strange coincidence that Msgr. Charamsa made his announcement yesterday, the day before the opening of the Synod of Bishops, when all (media) eyes are on Rome. This is not the story of a victim of inhuman rules, but a well-planned and well-timed statement of disobedience. It has all the hallmarks of a man burning his bridges behind him. He should have known that this was what would happen.

Many media and commentators, including Catholic ones, reduce this to just the man’s homosexuality, to show how intolerant the Church is. It is good to remember that the outcome would have been no different if Msgr. Charamsa had revealed that he was in a relationship with a woman.

Judging by the press statement released yesterday, the Holy See was less than pleased and announced that Msgr, Charamsa would not be continuing his work at the Congegration for the Doctrine of the Faith and several Roman universities. His ordinary, Bishop Ryszard Kasyna of Pelplin, was quick to announce that Msgr. Charamsa was “admonished … to return to the way of Christ’s priesthood”.

Don Danneels? The power struggles of the Belgian cardinal

danneelsIn an extensive biography (cover pictured), published earlier this week, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and personal choice of Pope Francis to attend the Synod of Bishops assembly in two weeks time, speaks frankly about his membership of a group of cardinals and bishops, which he likenes to a maffia. This group, named Sankt Gallen for the Swiss town where they would meet, became active in 1990s and included among its members the late Cardinals Carlo Martini and Basil Hume, Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann, as well as Bishop Ad van Luyn, bishop emeritus of Rotterdam.

It should be noted that I have not been able to read the biography myself yet, so I draw my conclusion from those snippets I have read and from what others have written.

The group, which Cardinal Danneels called a maffia in an interview, had the aim of radically modernising the Church following the papacy of St. John Paul II. Members could speak freely and no records were kept, as the cardinal admitted once the group’s existence was revealed in research related to the writing of the biography.

Unhappy with the course of the Church under Saint John Paul II (who appointed Cardinal Danneels as archbishop in 1979 and cardinal in 1983), the group tried to influence the conclave of 2005, and Cardinal Danneels freely admits to have been disillusioned when the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Apparently they had a Pope in mind in the mold of Pope Francis, and his 2013 election was met with satisfaction.

It is one thing to discuss the future and express hopes and wishes, it is quite another to form a sort of shadow cabinet in blatant opposition to the Pope and expressing disappointment when the wrong pontiff is chosen. Cardinal Danneels does not seem to see it as problematic that he so callously disregards one Pope and creates an artificial opposition between him and his successor.

As Catholics we believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit when a new Pope is chosen. We believe that his work is for the good of the work, even when we may sometimes disagree with the way he works or what he focusses on. There is a certain element of loyalty involved, especially on the parts of cardinals and bishops, who have been created and appointed to assist the Pope in the affairs of the world Church. Loyal disagreement, which may be expressed personally to the Pope or even publically when well-founded and expressed with aforementioned loyalty and faith in the Spirit is certainly possible. It may even be good sometimes.

But this is not what the Sankt Gallen group did. Secret meetings, no records, a maffia… This does not give an impression of loyalty, but of an attempt to influence things in secret, behind the scenes. And while the group is evidently happy with Pope Francis, he may turn out to be their greatest enemy. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has wanted to end the backroom politics and hunger for personal gain in the Curia and has been very clear about what a bishop should be: concerned not with power, but with the sheep.

Personally, I do not like pidgeonholing people (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has a good article in the Catholic Herald on that same topic, by the way), and I don’t believe for one second that Cardinal Danneels is or has been all bad, as some would have us believe. But that does not take away the fact that he has gone beyond his authority and the conduct expected of cardinals and bishops.

Refugees, pastoral care, mercy and a selfie – the German bishops’ plenary has begun

Evidently some of the auxiliary bishops (and one ordinary) have too much time on their hands at the autumn plenary of the German bishops… Time enough to take a bishops selfie.

They may be excused however, as the selfie was taken during the standard photo opp on Tuesday, where all the bishops pose for an updated group photo of the conference (shared at the bottom of this post).

german bishopsFrom left to right: Dominik Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne; Matthias König, auxiliary bishop of Paderborn; Reinhard Pappenberger, auxiliary bishop of Regensburg; Herwig Gössl, auxiliary bishop of Bamberg; Franz-Josef Overbeck, bishop of Essen; Heinz-Günter Bongartz, auxiliary bishop of Hildesheim; and Andreas Kutschke, diocesan administrator of Dresden-Meißen.

Portrait_Hesse_webAt the plenary, which continues until Thursday, the bishops have mainly discussed the refugee crisis in Germany and the role that the Church can play in providing shelter and assistance. It is estimated that dioceses, parishes and Catholic aid organisations have already made close to 100 million euros available for this goal, of which 66.5 million will be spent for projects in Germany itself, while the remained will go to aid projects in countries of origin. The average expenditure in past years was 73 million euros. The bishops have elected Hamburg’s Archbishop Stefan Heße as special envoy for refugee questions beyond the competence and responsibility of individual dioceses. The archbishop’s first focus will be on providing shelter. For that purpose, more than 800 buildings that are property of the Church have already been made available, but that number does not include private initiatives or those of religious communities.

Other topics to be discussed at the plenary are the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy and the Synod of Bishops, now only a few weeks away. Preparations are virtually done by now, so nothing new is expected to come from this plenary.

The conference today released a document focussed on renewing the pastoral care offered in the dioceses. As Bishop Bode, chairman of the pastoral commission, explained, the new document, titled Gemeinsam Kirche sein – Wort der deutschen Bischöfe zur Erneuerung der Pastoral (Being Church together – Words from the German bishops for the renewal of pastoral care) is based on a new reading of the Council documents Gaudium et spes and Lumen gentium, with new developments in society in mind. The document, which also focusses on the common priesthood of the faithful, as well as the ordained priesthood, which both represent the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the various charisms present in the Church, can be downloaded for free or purchased here.

Opening today’s session with the celebration of Mass, Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Woelki gave the homily, in which he spoke about the two major elements in Christ’s public ministry: proclamation and healing, aspects that we are also called to make visible in our Christian life, despite any hesitation or fear we may feel.

woelki32The cardinal also explained that the Church in Germany is materially better off than ever before. She does much, employs many people and is a pillar in society. But that’s not what the Church is: she is a community of faithful.

“And exactly that, the shared content of faith, has largely dissipated into thin air. The fact that only one third of Germans believes in the resurrection of Christ should already worry the Churches somewhat, considering the fact that two thirds of the population are Christian, at least on paper. But it is even worse. Even among the faithful the core content of the Christian message is rejected en masse. 60 percent does not believe in eternal life. In contrast, one German in four believes that encountering a black cat brings bad luck. Between Flensburg and Oberammergau more people believe in UFO’s than in the final judgement. Welcome to the German diaspora. This diaspora, dear sisters and brothers, is no longer far away – in Hildesheim or the east of the republic; this diaspora is our pastoral reality everywhere.


We live in this time. But how do want to work in this time? Today’s Gospel reminds us that we are also sent – just like the young man then – “to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). The aim is to make the Church visible as a witness of God’s mercy.


The aim is to heal the wounds in people’s souls with mercy – that is the purpose of every word of eternal life; and in an unsurpaasable way the incarnate word of eternal life, in which we believe and which alone is decisive in our lives: Jesus Christ, who answered Peter’s question how often one should forgive, “not seven wrongs, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Jesus asks us to forgive and give ourselves, to be tools of forgiveness, since we have first experienced God’s  forgiveness, to be generous to all in the knowledge that God also maintains his good will towards us. In this sense, no one really needs a second shirt – except perhaps as a participant in an autumn plenary meeting of the German bishops – but rather an open heart, that lets itself be moved by the mercy of God.”

german bishops conference

Photo credit: [1] Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp, [3] Ralph Sondermann

Bishop surprise – Ghent’s Van Looy to join Belgian delegation to the Synod

van looyWe already knew that the Belgian bishops had delegated Bishop Johan Bonny to October’s Synod of Bishops assembly, and it is no surprise that Cardinal Godfried Danneels once again features in Pope Francis’ personal selection of delegates. What is surprising, not least to the man himself, is the choice of a third Belgian bishop to go to Rome next month, as we learned from the full list of Synod delegates that was released today. That third bishop is Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent and, since a few months, chairman of Caritas Europe. And that function, the bishop believes, may well be the reason that he was selected by the Pope.

“I was surprised by the personal invitation from the Pope. I assume that the Pope asked me because of my experiences in the world Church and as chairman of Caritas Europe and member of the international administration in Rome.”

Those functions will also dictate his contributions at the Synod, Bishop Van Looy explains.

“I will focus therefore on families and poverty, families who are fleeing or migrating, as well as broken families and the consequences thereof for children. Additionaly, as a Salesian I am especially concerned with young people and their upbringing and all the concerns that parents have regarding this. Let’s not forget that the Synod is about the mission of the family in the world”.

A point well worth remembering in that last sentence, as too often it seems that the only thing to be discussed at the Synod is whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion.

Bishop Van Looy was already chosen by the other bishops of Belgium to be the substitute for Bishop Bonny, to attend the Synod if the latter would be unable to. Whetehr they will now chose another substitute seems possible if unlikely.

Two other Belgian participants are Fr. George Henri Ruyssen SJ, professor in Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and Fr. Emmanuel De Ruyver, a priest studying in Rome, who is an assistant in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

For the Synod, catechesis – the focus of Cardinal Eijk

The 11 Cardinals book is published today by Ignatius Press, but at the end of last month, Rorate Caeli already posted a first review. One of the contributing authors of Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint is Cardinal Wim Eijk, and he is quoted in the review:

“Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk says it in his essay forthrightly when he speaks of a “faulty knowledge of the faith or a lack of faith per se” among the married couples today and says that “catechesis has been seriously neglected for half a century.” And he concludes:

True pastoral ministry means that the pastor leads the persons entrusted to his care to the truth definitely found in Jesus Christ who is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6). We must seek the solution to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the faith by transmitting and explaining its foundations more adequately and clearly than we have done in the last half century. (p. 51)

Eijk reminds us that Christ entrusted the Church “to proclaim the truth.” Practically, he proposes to make the thorough preparation for future spouses an emphatic and persevering duty of the Church, and to ask the future spouses explicitly, at the onset, whether they accept the indissolubility of marriage. If they deny this doctrine, he says, they should be denied the sacrament of matrimony.”

eijk jerusalem ccee^Cardinal Eijk, third from left, in Jerusalem at the plenary meeting of the CCEE which took place over the past week.

The forthright and objective language used by the cardinal – the concerns and focus of the book are pastoral, but that does not mean the content and reasoning should not also be doctrinal – have once again resulted in criticism in the Netherlands. The cardinal is accused of insensitivity towards the faithful, to name an example. Certainly, the Church should be pastoral and merciful when the faithful come to her to be married or receive another sacrament, but she should not deny the faith she has been tasked to protect and communicate. Catholic teaching about marriage is clear, and when a couple is clear in their intent to follow that teaching and receive the sacrament, the Church, through her ministers, will witness to their marriage. In other circumstances however, when a couple does not agree with some element or other of the sacrament of marriage, or does not intend to accept it in its fullness, the Church can’t, in good conscience, be a witness to their marriage. Marrying in Church is not some sentimental affair or a nice photo opportunity. It is a sacrament, with rights but certainly also duties, for couple and Church alike, but which ultimately helps us on our journey towards God. God invites and enables us to accept His invitation through the grace of the sacrament, to live in the fullness of marriage, and so in the fullness of our humanity according to our vocation.

In my opinion, Cardinal Eijk is spot on about the importance of renewed catechesis. Our faith is rich and beautiful and, granted, sometimes difficult. As baptised Catholics we deserve nothing less to know it and let it transform us, to come ever closer to God. God ceaselessly invites, but we should know His invitation before we can accept it.

Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint is a doctrinal treatise of a pastoral problem. He sees a lack of knowledge of the faith as the root of the problem, and it is exactly the duty of the Church’s pastors to remedy that, to help people on their way to the Truth. For that journey, people need both mercy and teaching, the first to help overcome the personal failings everyone has, the second to show our destination and help us reach our fullest human potential as creatures wanted and loved by God.