“The freedom to commit myself” – Archbishop Heße on marriage and fatherhood

Portrait_Hesse_webThere are many eyes on the German bishops in the runup to the Synod of Bishops assembly in autumn. Their ideas about family, marriage and related topics has been much discussed and criticised. Today I came across an interview with the archbishop of Hamburg Msgr. Stefan Heße. Journalist Norbert Vojta is not overly familiar with the Catholic Church and has managed to craft an honest and open interview with the archbishop, which delves into various topics, from Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to the archbishop’s football team preferences (he has none) and hobbies (classical music). From some questions on celibacy, Archbishop Heße moves to the topic of marriage, which I share in translation here:

“I believe that freedom does not consist of me leaving everything open and free and undertermined, but instead, that I choose and commit myself. Analogously, that is also the case in marriage. […] I can’t permanently keep all options open, but I am only happy when I can concretely commit myself to someone.”

“In our understanding, I can not get a divorce. Marriage exists until death separates the spouses. The idea is that I give myself fully and completely to a person and trust him or her fully and completely. That is a magnificent undertaking. I am happy that my parents are able to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. Of course, I also know that marriages do fail.”

Does the archbishop have no wish to be married and have children?

“I can imagine myself as a father. In all honesty, that was a topic during my studies.That was very clearly a question I had to ask myself.”

“For me it is a comfort that I can also see myself as a husband or father. I would have found it harder if I had told myself, well, you’re unsuited to be a father or husband, so you may as well be a priest.”

Road signs – how changing the teaching of the Church leads us nowhere

In Germany the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, has been calling for pastoral and doctrinal changes to the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Conference of Dutch Religious, the KNR, was following suit.

Towards the end of April, the KNR, through its commission for women, was involved in the organisation of a symposium on relationships and family, with a special focus on divorce, homosexuality and migration, in the light of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies about the same topic. The symposium’s closing statement, which appeared on the KNR website on the 20th of May, summarises the conclusions and outlines what the participants – some 70 priests, religious and laity in all – think the bishops should decide and promote at the upcoming general assembly. Some of their points, such as simplifying the process of nullification of marriages or increasing pastoral sensitivity towards the divorced – are already being investigated and developed in the Church. Others are rather problematic and clash with the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, and thus ultimately with the sacrament of marriage and the order of Creation as has been given to us by God.

The symposium suggest the following in addition to the non-problematic points I already mentioned. I have added my comments in [red].

  • More respect for the decisions and the conscience of remarried faithful. [There is  a difference between respecting decisions and conscience and allowing things. One can respect a decision and still point out the consequences. The reverse is also true: the person making a decision must be aware and respect the consequences of it. Of course, no one should be forcing anyone towards or away from a decision, but the Church does have a duty of honesty towards people. In the end, we are free people, free to make informed choices, but that is not the be-all and end-all.]
  • Finding a new word for “annulment” as many people do not want to deny the relationship that existed. [To me this sounds like a superficial nicety. Sure “annulment” is a legalistic term that does not sound nice, but the end of a marriage is not nice. It should be remembered that an annulment does not mark the end of a marriage, but the conclusion that there never was a sacramental marriage to begin with. Nothing is ended, since there was nothing to begin with. Is that denial of a relationship? Of course not. Everyone, and the couple involved certainly, will see that there most certainly was a relationship. We should not need to change words to realise that.]
  • Reconsidering doctrine and practice regarding divorce, using the Orthodox Churches as an example. [This is problematic in a way that I know little about, but Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, explains in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church that there is no single Orthodox understanding or praxis regarding these issues, in addition to other problems. Taking the Orthodox example may not be as straightforward or desirable as it seems.]
  • Marking the end of a marriage with some sort of ritual [This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with. What sort of ritual? Is it one of celebration or mourning? A ritual for people or for God? Is there even something to mark the ending of?]

Regarding homosexuality, the closing statement lists three points:

  • Considering the relationships of people of the same sex, who love each other and take care of each other, as equal to heterosexual relationships and respecting them as such. [This is a difficult one. A distinction must be made between people and relationships. People are always equal, with the same human diginity that God has given all of us. And this should be the basis of how we interact with each other. Relationships, a vague enough term to encompass everything from being neighbours, colleagues at work, up to and including marriage, are not equal. There may be similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, but there are also differences. When we start to consider them as fully equal we disregard the differences, which are not inconsequential. Sure, we can respect the love and responsibility in all relationships (these are inherently good things), but at the same time we acknowledge a fullness that we are called to strive for as far as we can. When we say that all relationships are the same, we deny this, and thus deny God].
  • Re-assessing the anthropology of the Church on the basis of modern insights from psychology, biology and philosophy. [While the Church must always be open to what we learn of the world and humanity through science, this must never be a reason to close the door to revelation. God has taught us about ourselves, and continues to do so through Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. The Church must remain careful to not be swept away with the winds of time. The teaching, including that about sexuality, marriage and family, can not be subject to the whims of the times. Besides, discovering new facts about human nature and sexuality is not in itself reason to change doctrine and practice, but an invitation to work out how both are compatible and can be understood through each other. The Church does not teach primarily because she discovers things (although she does that too), but because she has been given a teaching.]
  • If so desired to bless unions other than the classical marriage between man and woman. [There are two things to consider here. First, there is the blessing itself: in order to bless something, the Church must be in favour of it, and consider it something that must benefit from the blessing in order to flourish. Same-sex relationships (or, if we keep to the language of the statement, any relationship one can think of – even including between adult and minors, people and their pets, with multiple spouses and so on) do not in themselves meet these criteria, regardless of the good they can manifest, such as love and care. Secondly, the Church blesses publicly, not in secret. Assuming a way was found to bless the love and care in a relationship, but not the relationship itself, the Church must take care to show that this is what it is doing. Today, there is a high risk that any such blessing is seen as a sacramental marriage, something which the Church cannot support].

This will sound like a whole bunch of negatives, and that is in itself problematic too. The message of the Church is not a negative one, but it is different to what comes to us in society. The whole of love, family, sexuality and everything connected to it, the Church teaches, is more than just the desires of individual people. That is what it begins with, of course, but it can become so much more. That is what God has called us to from the very beginning, and that is what the Church continues to uphold.

It is exceedingly important for the Church to look at how she presents this, which is why, I believe, Pope Francis called the Synod to begin with: not to change doctrine, but to revitalise the pastoral work of the Church in this field. In order to so, the Church must be honest and open, truthful and welcoming, even when her conversational partners are not. She must speak, but also listen, for the feelings, desires and questions of people are very real, and they deserve acknowledgement and answers.

By changing teachings, the Church shows she does not take herself seriously. So why should anyone else? Listening and acknowledging is not automatically the same as accepting, although society would often have us believe it is. Not agreeing is the same as disrespecting or opposing, we so often hear or read, sometimes bluntly, sometimes between the lines. Instead, we should always look to Jesus, who did not agree with the Pharisees, tax collectors and other sinners, but who nevertheless sat down and ate with them and listened to their stories. He took them seriously enough to listen and then correct them when necessary. And we know that that approach worked, far better than bluntly pointing fingers and calling someone a sinner.

We are people called to great things, to fully become ourselves in love. None of us is perfect, and we all have our particular challenges on the road towards the fullness in God. We are not called to sit down and give up, or to walk past those who have sat down (or worse, encourage them to sit down and give up), but to continue, to help those who struggle and can’t see where to go anymore. And to do that, we need clear signs along the road, not arrows towards side roads that lead nowhere.

Archbishop Léonard at 75, time to look back and ahead.

léonardToday Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard marks his 75th birthday, and his letter of resignation will be delivered to the desk of Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, who will forward it to Rome. All this is foreseen in canon law, but the immediate outcome has several options.

The resignation may be accepted immediately, after which a Diocesan Administrator will have to be appointed. The resignation may als be postponed for either a set or undefined period. In any case, the Holy See press office bulletins, which announce retirement and new appointments, will be enthusiastically scrutinised.

In any case, the relatively short period that Archbishop Léonard occupied the seat of Saint Rumbold is coming to an end. It is a time of looking back, as well as looking ahead. Back at the past five years and ahead to whomever the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels may be.

Archbishop Léonard was appointed at roughly the same time that I started this blog, and my translation of an earlier interview with him caused one of the first peaks in visitors here. Ever since his appointment, he was considered a likely candidate to be made a cardinal, which however never happened. But this never caused him grief.

One of the first major obstacles on his path was the revelation that the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, had been guilty of sexual abuse. As president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, all eyes were on Archbishop Léonard. Shortly afterwards, the archbishop went to Rome for the ad limina visit. In an interview he discussed the Vangheluwe case, as well as education and the shortage of priests. Shortly before his own retirement, the archbishop was judged guilty of negligence in a case of sexual abuse.

201104070920-1_andre-leonard-veegt-taart-weg-en-vervolgt-voordracht-About education, he later had to correct misunderstandings about his comments, something that would mark the following years as well. Notable were his comments about AIDS as a form of immanent justice. This seeming difficulty in understanding between archbishop and media even led to the archbishop’s spokesman resigning. Among many clergy and faithful, even politicians, Archbishop Léonard was not popular because of his clear voice and these misrepresentations, although in pastoral contexts he was widely loved, for example when 22 Belgian children died in a coach crash in Switzerland. Adversity, however, sometimes had the upper hand, as the archbishop was the recipient of pies (above right), pizza, slaps and water to his face. These attacks never aroused anger in him, however. On the contrary. Following that final assault, Archbishop Léonard wrote a very kind letter to all who had expressed support for him.

In Brussels, Archbishop Léonard was soon faced with the need for new bishops, as his auxiliaries left to Namur and Bruges. In 2011 he recieved three new auxiliary bishops.

In 2012, Archbishop Léonard led his diocese in a new evangelisation of cities, one of the first porjects of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.

Archbishop Léonard took part on two Synod of Bishops assemblies, where he spoke on the reality of evil, as well as the role of women in the Church. In the 2012 Synod he was a member of the Commission for the Message.

Following the election of Pope Francis, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass of thanksgiving in Brussels.

Last year, Archbishop Lëonard started looking ahead to the future, even clearing up some misconceptions about his upcoming retirement.

ordination léonard fraternity of the holy apostlesAfter his retirement, and contrary to his previously expressed wish to leave Brussels, Archbishop Léonard will live with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, a priestly fraternity which he founded in 2013 (at left, Archbishop Léonard is seen ordaining one of the fraternity’s priests in October of 2014). Priests from this fraternity, inspired by Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, are currently entrusted with the pastoral care of two parishes in Brussels. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement or otherwise, remains to be seen.

As for the future for Mechelen-Brussels, we can only guess. But there are some possibilities we may investigate. The metropolitan see of Mechelen has been held in turn by archbishops from the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium. While Pope Francis, who makes the final appointment, is probably not one to be bothered overly much by such considerations, preferring to choose the best man for the job, whether he be from Flanders of Wallonia, it is a sensitive issue in Belgium. I expect therefore that the new archbishop will come from one of the Flemish dioceses or that part of the archdiocese which lies in Flanders. Archbishop Léonard, after all, is a Walloon, and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, hails from Flanders.

kockerolsThe Holy Father may choose to elevate one of the suffragan bishops of Flanders. These are Bishop Jozef de Kesel of Bruges, Luc van Looy of Ghent, Johan Bonny of Antwerp and Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt. Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop for the Flemish part of Mechelen-Brussels, and Jean Kockerols, auxiliary for Brussels (pictured at right), may also be added to this group. At 73, Bishop van Looy is too close to his own retirement to be a likely choice. The others are between 56 and 67, so their age is no issue. Three bishops (De Kesel, Lemmens and Kockerols) know the archdiocese well, as they serve or have served as auxiliary bishops in it. There are also bishops who are no strangers to Rome or to the Pope personally. Bishop van Looy accompanied the young people of Verse Vis when they interviewed the Pope last year. Bishop Lemmens worked in Rome before being appointed as auxiliary bishop and Bishop Kockerols is internationally active as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Bishop Bonny had made headlines for himself in relation to the Synod of Bishops, so he will also not be unknown in Rome. The only relatively unknown bishop is Patrick Hoogmartens, but he, at least, has a motto that should appeal to the current papacy: “Non ut iudicet, sed ut salvetur” (Not to judge, but to save, John 3:17).

Or the Pope may decide to do something that hasn’t happened since 1925: appoint a priest who has not yet been a bishop anywhere else to become the new archbishop. Whoever he may turn out to be, he will facing a stiff task as a shepherd in an increasingly secular environment. It may be hoped that he will be both pastorally sensitive and doctrinally clear.

léonard coat of armsArchbishop Léonard’s coat of arms

God’s voice – Bishop Bode on the realities of life

bode_purpur_240In an interview for Katholisch.de, the official Internet portal of the Catholic Church in Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück expands upon his statement that the reality of life is a source of revelation and faith on the same level as Scripture and Tradition. Bishop Bode is one of the three German bishop delegates to the upcoming Synod of Bishops in the autumn, and his comments have been heavily criticised by lay commentators, brother bishops and even cardinals alike.

At the end of the interview, which covers the responses to the questionnaire sent to parishes and faithful, as well as the questions of marriage and other forms of long-term relationship, Bishop Bode discusses the gap between doctrine and the reality of life for most faithful. The Synod, he says, must find bridges to cross that gap, and simply confirming reality is not enough.

“Reality is not a source of revelation, and not even a source of faith for the “heart listening” to the people with their joys and hopes, their grief and their fears, but rather a voice of God, in which He makes a statement of His will, which can lead to deeper theological insights.”

In Scripture we read that were even two people are gathered in Christ’s name, Christ Himself is present, so it is a logical next step to consider the effects of Christ’s presence in such a gathering. I have the impression that that is what Bishop Bode wants to emphasise. These effects, this presence of the Lord can reveal things to us about the Lord and His plan for our lives. This is not on the same level as revealed truths that we find in Scripture and Tradition, but it must be seen through the lense of these.

By taking this approach in the discussions about marriage, family and sexuality, Bishop Bode does not differ too much from Pope Francis, who also emphasises the realities of the lives of faithful in dealing with all kinds of issues. And these realities are not something that must be ignored, since they are the starting point from which any solutions and answers must be reached. It is good to see if and how God speaks in these realities and hear His voice as we have come to know it in Scripture and the Tradition of ages.

For the Synod, faith, opennes and courage – Bishop Wiertz’ letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, which was read out in the churches during the first Sunday of the penitential season, Bishop Frans Wiertz looks ahead to the Synod and outlines the right attitude of the faithful towards it.

Bisschop Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

Every year in Lent we realise that we need moments of reflection and conversion in our life and in our relationship with God. They help us to be more open to God’s mercy and the Words He speaks to us. In this way we can experience those riches that God wants to give us.

In the Church there is a habit of paying special attention to a given topic over the course of the year. Pope Francis declared this year to be the “Year of Consecrated Life”. I already indicated this in my letter for Advent.

At the same time this year also has a special focus in the Synod on the family. This was held a few months ago in Rome and will be continued at the end of this year. In his message to the religious, Pope Francis writes, “I thank the Lord that the Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the Synod on the Family. Family life and consecrated life are both vocations which bring enrichment and blessings for all.”

At the end of the Synod, October last, Pope Francis urged the local Churches to think about the conclusions of the first Synod and let the issues mature. In our diocese we did so by sending the questionnaires, which are the basis of the upcoming Synod, to the parishes. The issues will also be discussed in the various advisory councils.

Now that the vision of Church and faithful on marriage and family have become such a clear topic of discussion, it is obvious that everyone has their own thoughts about it. At the same time we realise that marriage and family revolve around the merciful reality that God grants us and which we can’t invent ourselves. From that realisation Pope Francis made these issues the topic of Synods. Jointly, the bishops of the world Church can in this way manifest the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking for what is good and true in the faith is a process of the entire Church.

At the same time this search also and always takes place “with and under Peter”, as the Pope himself put it. Pope Francis emphasises both the importance of the input of all bishops – yes, even of all faithful – as well as the importance of his own presence as keeper of the faith and supreme shepherd of the Church.

In this sense our own thoughts and convictions regarding marriage and family are very valuable, but they are never the final words on the matter. What’s beautiful about the Catholic Church is exactly that we can experience the guidance of the Lord in the words spoken by Pope and bishops.

It may be expected that the Pope will collect the conclusions of this Synod in a so-called Apostolic Exhortation. This document will be a guide for how we deal with issues of marriage and family. No one can afford to take go separate ways in that. The divisions among the faithful which would be the result of that are by definition contrary to God’s will and will have disastrous consequences. After all, we find Him fully within the unity of the Church.

Many of the issues surrounding marriage and family, by the way, have to do with unity and division. At the same time it is somewhat improper to keep talking about the “issues” of marriage and family. We do a great injustice to marriage when we consider it as a source of problems.

Marriage and family are rather the regular way in which people fulfill their lives. The way in which they can be happy. And especially also the way in which they manifest God’s plan with humanity. It would be a grave injustice to consider marriage as a source of fighting and misfortune. What matters especially is the question of how we can respond to situations in which the intentions and convictions from the beginning do not become reality.

From us this requires an attitude of faith and trust in the word of God. And also openness and courage concerning the way which Pope and bishops show us. In that regard we can be convinced of one certainty: that way will be one in line with Tradition and according to the faith of all ages. At the same time a newness will be present which the Holy Spirit continuously grants His Church.

During Lent we want to keep our eyes fixed on God. We will see how beneficial it us to be free from our own desires and wishes. That will also be a good attitude towards the Synod: expecting in gratitude to God what is good for man. We may all be very involved with the process taking place in our Church. But it is a great mercy to have faith that the good Lord guides His Church. Through the Holy Spirit and through the successor of Peter He always remains close to His Church. Let us accept this mercy in faith and trust.

I gladly wish a you a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Roermond,

+ Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond”

No waiting – Cardinal Marx on the Synod

101020marx250The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, has made some comments about the upcoming second session of the Synod on the family, as the bishops of Germany are discussing the topic in their spring plenary in Hildesheim. While the full text of his words has not been published, we have to make do with interpretations, which is always risky business. Cardinal Marx, speaking for the conference as a whole, has rightly said that we should not reduce the Synod to the question of divorced and remarried Catholics, but of course that does happen, especially when the bishops explain their own intentions on this topic.

About the role of Rome in the pastoral realities of the local churches, Cardinal Marx said the following:

“We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Every  bishops’ conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their area and has to proclaim the Gospel in their own unique way. We can’t  wait for a Synod to say how we should form our pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family.”

Of course the local churches and bishops are not subsidiaries of Rome, since the Church is not a business. She is, however, one body with one faith. The practical application of that faith may vary by area and culture, sure, but the faith and the teachings of that faith are the same everywhere. It is the responsibility of the local bishops’ conferences to give hands and feet to that faith, to ensure the proper pastoral care and the most effective way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. But they are also responsible for the integrity of the faith in their care and proclamation. The synodality that Pope Francis has been promoting so heavily is a way of ensuring that, as it requires and openness to other bishops and thus prevents singular bishops or groups of bishops from acting alone.

When Cardinal Marx says that he can’t wait for a Synod to tell him what to do, this can only have very limited implications. He is right that the Synod can’t instruct him on the sort of pastoral care he provides, but he does not have the authority to apply possible future changes that are directly contradictory to teachings that only a Synod can change, or even those that no Synod can. When it comes to the topic of divorce and remarriage and access to the sacraments, we have such a change in practice that a single bishop or bishops’ conference can’t introduce. But the general impression, and that may be a wrong impression, is that the German bishops are going to do everything to promote a change like this at the Synod, and even before. The bishops advocate openness to what other bishops will contribute to the Synod, but their actions, such as the one outlined here, do not completely line up with that sentiment.

This all revolves around where doctrine and pastoral care meet. Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, one of the two other German delegates to the Synod, emphasised that both must be acknowledged and taken into account when dealing with such questions. He is right, of course. But we must avoid situations in which doctrine is seen as preventing proper pastoral care, or pastoral concerns overruling doctrine. In the end it’s all about truth. The truth of Jesus Christ, not doing what Rome says, is what dictates what the Church teaches (doctrine) and does (pastoral care).

For Family Synod 2, Cardinal Eijk returns to Rome

synod of bishopsThe first group of participants in coming autumn’s Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been ratified by Pope Francis. Unlike for last year’s assembly, which was an Extraordinary one, the majority of members for this edition are elected by the bishops’ conferences of the world. The presidents of the conferences do not automatically attend, unless, as in the case of the Dutch bishops, he is elected to do so.

liesenCardinal Wim Eijk, who today coincidentally had a private audience with Pope Francis, will once again participate like he did last year, but should he not be able to do so, the bishops have chosen Bishop Jan Liesen (at right) to be his replacement. Bishop Liesen is no stranger in Rome, as he was a member of the International Theological Commission for a number of years.

The list of participants published today is far from complete. Many bishops’ conferences, such as the German, have yet to elect one of their own to go to Rome in October. The Belgian bishops likewise haven’t chosen , but they will wait for the appointment of a new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and President of the bishops’ conference, sometime in or after May.