2016, a look back

Another year nears its end, the seventh of this blog, which is always a good opportunity to look back, especially at what has appeared here in the blog over the course of 2016. I have grouped things loosely in various categories, so as to give an impression of cohesion.

francisPope Francis at work

In Rome, and despite turning 80 this year, Pope Francis kept up the pace, introducing several changes, expected and unexpected. First, in January, he issued a decree which opened the rite of foot washing on Maundy Thursday also for women. I reflected on it here.

On Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father sent out 1,000 missionaries of mercy, among them 13 Dutch priests, as part of the ongoing Holy Year of Mercy.

Pope Francis commented on the question of female deacons, which led to much debate, at least in Catholic social media. I also shared my thoughts.

A smaller debate revolved around an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by the Pope, about Christian burial.

The reform of the Curia also continued, first with the creation of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life and the appoinment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell as its first prefect; and then with the creation of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, for which the Pope picked Cardinal Peter Turkson as head.

Cardinals of St. LouisPope Francis also added to the College of Cardinals, as he called his third consistory, choosing seventeen new cardinals from all over the world.

Towards the end of the year, and following the end of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter about the absolution from the sin of abortion, a faculty now extended to all priests.

The Pope abroad

Pope Francis made several visits abroad this year. To Cuba and Mexico, to Greece, to Armenia, to Poland, to Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the last one received the most attention here. For two days, Pope Francis put ecumenism in the spotlight during his visit to Sweden. Announced in January as a one-day visit, a second day was added in June. In October, the Nordic bishops previewed the visit in a pastoral letter, which I published in English.

The abuse crisis

Still here, and unlikely to go completely away in the next years or decades, the abuse crisis continues to haunt the Church. in February there were shocked reactions to comments made by a prelate during a conference on how bishops should handle abuse allegations. I tried to add some context here. In the Netherlands there was indignation when it became clear that a significant number of abuse cases settled out of court included a secrecy clause, preventing victims from speaking negatively about the Church institutions under whose care they suffered abuse. In April, the annual statistics of abuse cases processed and compensation paid out were released.

Amoris laetitia

In April Amoris laetitia was released, the Post-Synodal Exhortation that was the fruit of the two Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family. Cardinal Eijk, the Dutch delegate to the assemblies, offered his initial thoughts about the document, followed by many other bishops.

4cardinalsWhile the document was broadly lauded, an ambuguous footnote led to much discussion. In November, four cardinals publised a list of dubia they presented to the Pope, but which received no answer. Citing the clear uncertainty about certain parts of Amoris laetitia, visible in the wide range of conclusions drawn, the cardinals respectfully asked for clarification, which they will most likely not be getting, at least not in the standard way.

The local churches

There were many more and varied events in local churches in the Netherlands and beyond. Theirs is a very general category, aiming to showcase some of the more important and interesting developments in 2016.

In January, the Belgian bishops elected then-Archbishop Jozef De Kesel as their new president. At the same time, Cardinal Wim Eijk announced that he would not be available for a second term as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In June, Bishop Hans van den Hende was chosen to succeed him.

bisschop HurkmansBishop Antoon Hurkmans retired as Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in January he sent his final message to the faithful of his diocese, asking for unity with the new bishop. In April, rumours started floating that the bishops had suggested Bishop Hurkmans as new rector of the Church of the Frisians in Rome.

The Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden celebrated the 60th anniversary of their establishment.

On Schiermonnikoog, the Cistercian monks, formerly of Sion Abbey, found a location for their new monastery.

The Dutch and Belgian bishops announced a new translation of the Lord’s Prayera new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, to be introduced on the first Sunday of Advent.

church-498525_960_720A photograph of the cathedral of Groningen-Leeuwarden started appearing across the globe as a stock photo in articles about the Catholic Church. It continues to do so, as I saw it appear, some time last week, in an advert for a concert by a Dutch singer.

Speaking in Lourdes in May, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz spoke open-heartedly about his deteriorating Eyesight.

In June, Fr. Hermann Scheipers passed away. The 102-year-old priest was the last survivor of Dachau concentration camp’s priest barracks.

In that same month, the nestor of the Dutch bishops marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Huub Ernst is 99 and currently the sixth-oldest bishop in the world.

In Belgium, the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels closed down the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, erected by his predecessor, to the surprise of many.

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt received a personal message and blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 18th Coronation Feasts held in Hasselt in the summer.

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175The annual procession in honour of St. Willibrord in Utrecht was criticised this year after the archbishop chose to limit its ecumenical aspect. I shared some thoughts here.

In Norway, Trondheim completed and consecrated a new cathedral. English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was sent to represent the Holy Father at the event.

The retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, was heard from again when a new book featured his thoughts about never having been made a cardinal, unlike his immediate predecessors and, it turned out at about the time of the book’s publication, is successor.

At the end of the year, Berlin was hit by terrorism as a truck plowed through a Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding numerous others. Archbishop Heiner Koch offered a poetic reflection.

The Dutch Church abroad

In foreign media, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands also made a few headlines.

naamloosIn September, Cardinal Eijk was invited to speak at the annual assembly of the Canadian bishops, sharing his experiences and thoughts concerning the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the wake of that meeting, he also floated the idea that the Pope could write an encyclical on the errors of gender ideology.

in Rome, 2,000 Dutch pilgrims were met by Pope Francis, who spoke to them about being channels of mercy.

The new Dutch translation of the Our Father also sparked fears in some quarters that the bishops were leading everyone into heresy, leading to many faithful revolting against the new text. The truth was somewhat less exciting.

Equally overexcited was the report of empty parishes and starving priests in the Netherlands. I provided some necessary details here.

In Dutch

While my blog is written in English, there have also been three blog posts in Dutch. All three were translations of texts which were especially interesting or important. The first was my translation of the joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, an important milestone in ecumenical relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches.

IMG_7842Then there was the headline-making address by Cardinal Robert Sarah at the Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, in which the cardinal invited priests to start celebrating ad orientem again. But the text contained much more than that, and remains well worth reading.

Lastly, I provided translations of all the papal addresses and homilies during the Holy Father’s visit to Sweden. I kept the post at the top of the blog for a while, as a reflection of its importance for Dutch-speaking Christians as well.

A thank you

Twice in 2016 I asked my readers to contribute financially to the blog. In both instances several of you came through, using the PayPal button in the sidebar to donate. My gratitude to you remains.

2016 in appointments

Obituary

As every year, there is also death. Notewrothy this year were the following:

  • 26 March: Bishop Andreas Sol, 100, Bishop emeritus of Amboina.
  • 31 March: Georges-Marie-Martin Cardinal Cottier, 93, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Domenico e Sisto, Pro-Theologian emeritus of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
  • 16 May: Giovanni Cardinal Coppa, 90, Cardinal-Deacon of San Lino, Apostolic Nuncio emeritus to the Czech Republic.
  • 26 May: Loris Cardinal Capovilla, 100, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Archbishop-Prelate emeritus of Loreto.
  • 9 July: Silvano Cardinal Piovanelli, 92, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie a Via Trionfale, Archbishop emeritus of Firenze.
  • 2 August: Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, 89, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, Archbishop emeritus of Kraków.
  • 18 August: Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert, 102, Bishop emeritus of Inongo.
  • 13 November: Bishop Aloysius Zichem, 83, Bishop emeritus of Paramaribo.
  • 21 November: Bishop Maximilian Ziegelbauer, 93, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Augsburg.
  • 14 December: Paulo Cardinal Arns, Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana, Archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Protopriest of the College of Cardinals.

“Divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages” – Cardinal Eijk on the confusion about The Footnote

eijk synod

^Cardinal Eijk, fifth from the left in the second row, participates in a session of the Synod of Bishops.

Upon the publication of the official Dutch translation of Amoris laetitia, last Thursday (yes, a whopping nine months after the apostolic exhortation was released in Rome), Cardinal Wim Eijk, who participated in both sessions of the Synod of Bishops which resulted in the papal document, provided a brief quote about the topic that continues to keep pens writing and keyboard clicking: The Footnote which may or may not open the door to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried faithful. About the debate about Amoris laetitia the cardinal says,

“A downside is that various interpretations of the exhortation are circulating. Doctrine or longstanding practice in the Church is not changed by divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages in a Church document.”

These various interpretations are, I believe, also the reason for the dubia presented by the Four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner) . They ask for clarification, stating that confusion exists. The fact that there are rather contrasting interpretations is enough to show that they are right.

Cardinal Eijk treads carefully, speaking about “possibly unclear passages”, but makes clear that the intepretations of a passage do not change anything in doctrine or Tradition. The compentent authority, in this case the Pope, is the only who can do that. As it looks now, he has no inclination to do so directly, which means that, for the foreseeable future, the confusion will continue.

Who knows, perhaps things will settle down in time, at which point clarifications will find more open minds. At this moment, as Cardinal Eijk indicates, and more than a few others with him, Amoris laetitia has not changed anything about the Church’s doctrine. How we approach that doctrine and put it into practice, however, is open to change, adaptation and, most importantly, improvement. And that, I believe, is what Pope Francis is aiming for.

Four cardinals to the Pope – An honest contribution to the debate

Four cardinals – in some ways, four usual suspects – have written to the Pope about Amoris laetitia, asking for clarification about certain issues which have given many writers a lot to write about already. And while some – although fewer than I initially expected – have chosen to see this as a challenge against Pope Francis, it is an attempt to insert some clarity into a sensitive and difficult issue.

4cardinalsCardinals Walter Brandmüller (President emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences), Raymond Burke (Patron of the Order of Malta), Carlo Caffarra (Archbishop emeritus of Bologna) and Joachim Meisner (Archbishop emeritus of Cologne) published their September letter to Pope Francis today, after having received no papal reply. In the foreword to the letter, which can be read in full here, they express an awareness of the risk they run of being disregarded “as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy”. This is a real risk, as too often any sense of apparent disagreement with Pope Francis, or even, as here, a request for more clarity, is seen as an adversarial attack on the Holy Father. What many forget is that Pope Francis has frequently asked for such debate, not least during the Synod of Bishops, but certainly also in its aftermath across the world.

The fact that this letter has received no response seems perhaps a bit at odds with this request for open and honest debate, but perhaps it is wisest to see this, as the four cardinals do, “as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

The format of the letter is interesting, as it does not invite for a long explanatory answer, but a simple yes or no. This reflects the fact that underneath our pastoral action, there is a solid basis of doctrine, which does not change with the situation. This basis does not exist for itself, but for us, as it shows the way towards the objective truth that is Christ and His teaching.

There is more at stake than being nice in the discussion about marriage and divorce, and sin and mercy. The letter reflects that, as it raises important questions that need asking. It is not a matter of using the writings of one Pope against that of another, but taking the writings of both seriously.

The letter of the four cardinals deserves to be taken seriously, even though it is not something that can be directly applied in pastoral practice. Rather, it concerns itself with what comes before, what dictates the forms our pastoral practice can take. Hopefully, it will one day receive an answer from either Pope Francis or Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whose attention the letter was also addressed.

Another year, another Synod

synod of bishopsThe Holy See today announced a Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October 2018. Still two years away, it will discuss the topic of “youth, faith and vocational discernment”. Earlier, a rumoured topic for a future gathering of the Synod was priestly celibacy and married priesthood, but while that question does not pop up in the announced topic, it will undoubtedly play a part in the deliberations.

Bishops’ conferences around the world elect their representatives to attend Ordinary General Assemblies of the Synod. Most conferences, such as the Dutch, Belgian and Nordic ones, will elect one bishop, while others, such as the German, have the right to choose more, depending on the size of their membership. The heads of the curial departments willa utomatically attend, as will the twelve members of the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, who had the task of drawing up the theme of the next assembly. The Pope also chooses a number of delegates to attend.

Ordinary Assemblies generally take place every three to four years. The longest period was between the ninth in 1994 and tenth in 2001, although there were no less than six Special Assemblies on the Church in different parts of the world in that period.

The Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment can be an opportunity to not only explore and communicate anew the ways in which God calls us to follow Him, but also to show that the question of vocations does not revolve solely around a choice for religious life or the priesthood. Marriage and single life are also vocations, and God calls people to follow Him in all those states of living. They can be profound wellsprings of faith and life, ever deepening our life with God, drawing closer to Him. Especially in the west, young people, Catholic or not, need to hear and see this.

Bishop van Looy’s 75th, and the question of a retired Nuncio

van looyIn Belgium a second diocese is expected to soon fall vacant, as Bishop Luc van Looy celebrates his 75th birthday today. The bishop of Ghent has been in office since 2003, and was a personal choice of Pope Francis to attend the second assembly of the Synod of Bishops last year. The other vacant diocese in Flanders is neighbouring Bruges, which saw its bishop, Jozef De Kesel, leave last year to become archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

The Diocese of Ghent is largely coextensive with the Belgian province of East Flanders (it also includes one municipality of the Province of Antwerp) and has recently been reorganised into ten deaneries. Bishop van Looy is its 30th bishop since the diocese was established in 1559, during the great reorganisation of dioceses in what was then the Spanish Netherlands.

Although Bishop van Looy offers his resignation to the Pope upon reaching the age of 75, the Holy Father has no obligation to immediately accept it. In fact, unless there is a likely candidate waiting in the wings, Bruges may be first in line for a new bishop. And then there is the question of the Apostolic Nuncio, who plays an important part in the appointment of new bishops.

220px-sanguis_brvgensis_2013-17aArchbishop Giacinto Berloco has been the Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg since 2009, and turned 75 himself on 31 August of this year. Belgian media have been treating recent appearances of the nuncio as something like farewells, and a resource like Catholic Hierarchy already lists him as retired. No announcement of a retirement has been released through either the Belgian bishops or the Holy See, however.

Whatever the current status of the official representative of the Holy See to Belgium may be, for now we may assume that Archbishop Berloco remains in office. But we may equally assume that that situation will change soon.

[EDIT: Charles Bransom, who maintains a weblog devoted to the Apostolic Succession of the world’s bishops, notes that Archbishop Berloco is indeed retired. He writes: “In  the list of audiences published in the Holy See’s daily bulletin on 23 September 2016 is that of Archbishop Berloco. He is identified as Titular Archbishop of Fidene and Apostolic Nuncio: “S.E. Mons. Giacinto Berloco, Arcivescovo tit. di Fidene, Nunzio Apostolico;”. There is no mention of him being nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg. […] If he were still nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, that would have been added after “Nunzio Apostolico.”  Upon retirement, many nuncios are received in audience by the Pope and the above is always the way they are mentioned in such audiences.” Why the Holy See does not report the retirement of Nuncios, as opposed to those of all other bishops, remains anyone’s guess.]

In the meantime, Bishop van Looy celebrated his birthday with his closest coworkers in the bishop’s house. To the reporters present he said he was not concerned with when his resignation would be accepted: “Come what may!”.

In Germany, the numbers speak

numbersThe Catholic Church in Germany has published its annual statistics overview over 2015, and for the first time in several years there is a positive development to be noted when compared to the previous year. It remains to be seen if this development continues into the future, but it does begs the questions if this is the result of something like a Francis Effect, or of some other recent trend in the Church or the world. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, commenting on the numbers, believes it is due to there not only being an interest in what the Church has to offer, but also an active desire fore the sacraments:

“The statistics over 2015 indicate that the Church in Germany remains, as before, a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted. There is evidently not only an interest, but also an active desire for the sacraments of the Church, as the slight increase in the number of Baptisms and marriages shows. Although the number of people leaving the Church has decreased when compared to 2014, the number remains high, indicating we should persevere in our pastoral efforts. We need a “demanding pastoral approach” which does justice to the various realities of people and communicates the hope of the faith in a convincing manner. The completion of the Synod of Bishops in the past year, as well as Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Amoris laetitia are important signposts.

“But the naked numbers also show that the Church in our country is an integral part of our society. We will develop our pastoral efforts further on the basis of these statsitics. A lot has already been done in the dioceses. I am thinking of the process of dialogue concluded in the past year, which has contributed to a renewal in the Church. Pope Francis encourages us when he says that the path to the Church of the future is the part of a “synodal Church”. This means that all the faithful, laity and clergy, are required! In the future, we will bear witness of our faith together and proclaim the Gospel with conviction.”

The cardinal, who serves as the president of the German Bishop’s Conference, is optimistic, and the latest numbers do warrant some measure of optimism. Many dioceses are reporting changes in trends of several years, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages, revealing that 2014/2015 is, for now a turning point in some areas. When comparing the 2015 statstics with those of 1995, 20 years ago, it becomes clear how welcome this change is. The number of Catholics is still lower than in 1995, sometimes significantly so (of note are the Dioceses of Görlitz and Magdeburg). Baptisms, however, are more frequent in some dioceses than they were in 1995. Berlin, Dresden-Meißen and Erfurt all report increases. It is interesting to see that both these dioceses and those with the most extreme drops in Catholic faithful are in the east of Germany, where secularism is most prevalent after decades of communist rule. This increase can be partly attributed to immigration, from both Poland and the further abroad.

Marriages are still in crisis, however, with the numbers halved in some places over the past 20 years (Bamberg, Berlin, Dresden-Meißen, Erfurt, Görlitz, Hamburg, München und Freising, Passau and Würzburg are the only dioceses to have kept their numbers at 50% or above).

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

While it is far from the main point of Amoris laetitia or the Synod of Bishops assemblies that preceeded it, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is one that has kept people occupied both during and after the publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation. That is in part due to the fact that Amoris laetitia does not give a clear answer*, although Pope Francis has indicated that he does not aim to change Church teaching with his text. And current Church teaching is that people whose first married is considered valid and who are in a relation with someone else are objectively adulterous and thus can not receive Holy Communion. Of course, the bare words of the law do not – and can not – take the specific situation of every couple into account, and are therefore necessarily general.

Amoris laetitia instead discusses the pastoral approach to people in such situations, and this is the place where the specifics of an individual relationship, marriage, divorce and second marriage can be discussed and interpreted. That still does not mean that the law can be changed there, but it is the place where understanding can be given, different ways in which a person can be a part of the life of the Church (a major focus of the Exhortation) and also where solutions to normalise their situation (called ‘irregular’ in Church legalese) can be found.

I have seen many comments which interpret the legal considerations as some form of punishment for people failing in marriage. This is of course not so. The law deals with factual situations, not with the reasons for the existence of those facts (although these can be taken into account when a court is asked for an opinion or verdict in a specific case).

In the end, and I have said this before, Jesus Himself gave the perfect summary of how to relate to people who, for whatever reason, failed to live up to the ideal. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we read of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. After an episode in which He confronts the scribes and Pharisees with their own hypocricy, the Lord tells the woman that he will not condemn her (mercy, the pastoral approach), but also that she should not sin from then on (the law). The law is clear, but never asks for the condemnation of people.  Jesus forgives our past mistakes, but also asks us not to make the same mistakes again. And in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics it is clear that this means that we should not condemn the people concerned, but welcome them into our Church communities. But at the same time it is clear that they can’t continue in their objectively sinful state (just like the woman in the Gospel can’t continue sleeping around with other men). What exactly can and must change in each specific situation is a matter for the pastoral sphere, where the law provides a framework.

And here Pope Francis’ sadness, expressed during Saturday’s flight back from Lesbos, at how too many people only focus on this specific question, becomes understandable. The context of the mistakes made is not inconsequential; their causes lie elsewhere and affect the entire edifice of marriage and family. It is about more than Communion (which no one has a right to, anyway): it is about broken families, divorce, adultery, economic uncertainty, unwillingness or inability to get married, falling birth rates… Yes, access to the sacraments, or lack thereof, is one of the consequences of these crises, but we should not make the mistake of considering it the only one.

Yes, there is a development of doctrine, as many have said. Not of its roots, which lie in the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church, the bedrock on which the faith grows, but in the application, the choices we make which result in the tree of faith bearing much fruit. We need both, roots and fruit.

*And no, that infamous footnote 351 is no clear answer either, as it mentions sacraments, of which there are seven, and not Holy Communion to the exlucion of the other six.