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 conditions but one profession of faith” for full unity between Catholic and Orthodox Churches

“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”

This passage from Pope Francis’ message to Patriarch Bartholomew I today struck me as a very happy and hopeful one. The Orthodox Churches are so close to us in faith, sacraments and apostolic succession that the most immediate hope for full unity, the goal of ecumenism, is with them. And they have much to give us: a sense of mysticism that we have sometimes lost, especially in the west; of sacramentality and new ways of considering the Divine and how we relate to God in our worship and daily life.

The principle that Pope Francis refers to at the start of passage regards Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II Decree on Christian Unity, and specifically the 15th and 16th chapters thereof. The conclusion of Chapter 15 summarises the principle that is deemed so essential for full communion:

“The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians.”

Chapter 16 adds to that the importance of the laws and customs of the Orthodox Churches:

“Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.”

The liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Orthodox Churches, as well as their laws and customs are no obstacle for full unity. Indeed, they are essential for the further purpose of that unity: the fullness of Christian tradition, worship and evangelisation. The word of God will resound all the stronger.

francis bartholomew

Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring

The fluidity of doctrine – looking back at the Synod

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.

“Not very nice”- Protestants call Cardinal Eijk to explain himself

eijkThe comments by Cardinal Eijk on the Council of Trent continue to cause a stir, chiefly in Protestant circles, but also among Catholics. Accusations that Trent was centuries ago and that times have changed are mostly heard, but these ignore that the cardinal was not speaking about current affairs. He spoke out of the assumption – which is the general Catholic one – that the dogmatic statements of a Council remain so, even as time passes. The implementation and even need of specific statements may change, and so there are texts which came out of Trent which are interesting, but no longer of much use beyond the theoretical study of them.

Cardinal Eijk spoke about the validity of – especially – the anathemas decreed at Trent, aimed at those who wilfully, freely and in full knowledge that they were doing so proclaimed untruths, even heresies, against the faith as taught by the Church. He also emphasised that people who today have a different image of God or understanding of the faith can’t be blamed for that: upbringing and tradition are not a reason to declare anyone cursed in the sight of God. That judgement, as the cardinal also said, lies with God anyway. The Church here on earth, however, can and should underline the faith she teaches and point out when someone is in error. That is what Trent did: she emphasised the truths of the faith and put an end to certain practices which were in contradiction to that, such as the trade in indulgences.

But that is not the level on which the debate is taking place. There is no discussion about the reason, mistakes or truths about what the Church teaches or what was decided and done at the Council of Trent. This was what Cardinal Eijk was talking about, but his critics focus on something else altogether: the tone.

arjan-plaisier-04Today the secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Arjan Plaisier, wrote an open letter to Cardinal Eijk asking him certain questions about his comments. Below are these questions, translated into English:

“Firstly: Is it in order to let tradition speak in such a way, outside the context of any ecumenical conversation or encounter? Does it fit in a time when much has taken place in the field of ecumenism, to make such a statement “about you, without you”? Isn’t this a denial of an ecumenical history which we have gone through together? Does this not block any further dialogue about fundamental faith topics which we can have, unilaterally or in the context of the Council of Churches?”

The progress of ecumenical relations does not take place in changing teachings or traditions (the latter word will have a rather different meaning for Catholics and Protestants anyway). Ecumenism is relational, a tool for increased understanding, not of abandoning truths. Whether the cardinal’s comments would block any further dialogue is not up to him. It is up to our ecumenical partners, who deserve to know what the Church teaches, in plain sight, not hidden under a blanket of “being nice to each other”. Sure, we should strive for cordial relations, but that can not be the final goal of ecumenism. It should be noted, in this context, that Cardinal Eijk has stated that he is fully behind ecumenism and agrees with Pope Francis on this topic.

The letter continues:

“Secondly: Do you have the opinion that the fundamental differences that exist between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, still need to be condemned in terms of “cursed” and “banned”?”

The cardinal never said anything of the kind. There are differences, and these must be addressed and named, but modern Protestants and the faith the proclaim are not addressed by Trent.

“Paul addressed that curse to the proclamation of a different Gospel, namely different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Crucified. Various dialogues between Rome and the Reformation have concluded that we recognise and acknowledge each other in this Gospel. That recognition has everything to do what the patient and honest efforts to better  understand each other in this. Fundamental differences remain, especially concerning ecclesiology. But is it in order, especially in light of the recognition mentioned above, to speak about these differences in the language of “cursing”? How, by the way, is this related to the mutual recognition of  the others Baptism?”

The fact is that the various Protestant churches have different teachings about certain matters related to the Gospel than the Catholic Church has. Does this mean that they follow a different Gospel? No, but there are differences. Acknowledging that both the Protestant churches and the Catholic Church follow Christ does not change anything about that. And once more, the anathemas of Trent, as the cardinal has said, do not automatically refer to modern Protestants and certainly not to persons. The Gospel text from St. Paul  was not presented by Cardinal Eijk as a reason to curse anyone, but merely as a possible motivation for the work of the Council of Trent. What mutual recognition of Baptism has to do with that, is anyone’s guess. Recognising that the Church and the Protestant communities use the same valid means of Baptism is no reason to assume that they are the same in everything.

Secretary Plaisier invites Cardinal Eijk to discuss this further in a future meeting. Perhaps that would be a good opportunity to explain a few things. About Catholic tradition, the meaning of Councils, ecumenism, anathemas, identity and truth. This would be good, because the criticism has generally not yet transcended the level of emotion: it is not nice what the cardinal has said, so therefore we are hurt. That is an injustice to the cardinal and certainly also to the churches and faith of the critics themselves

Photo credit: [1] ANP

Worrisome comments from Archbishop Zollitsch

eb_zollitsch_juli2003_700In an interview with Die Welt, published yesterday,  Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, retired ordinary of Freiburg im Breisgau and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, spoke, among other things, about the proposal to allow remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. His answers are somewhat disconcerting.

On the question if the topic is now off the table, after Archbishop Müller’s opposition to the proposal which originated in Archbishop Zollitsch’s Archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, the archbishop replied:

“How can this topic be off the table? 35 to 40 percent of marriages end in divorce these days. As Church we ask ourselves: How should we relate to those concerned?  This is the question that our pastoral care office’s proposal asks. I feel much strengthened by Pope Francis, who has called his own Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family for October of 2014. There we want to present what we in Freiburg have drafted.”

Archbishop Zollitsch is of course correct when he says that the numbers call for us to be concerned about the large number of marriages, both sacramental and civil, which end prematurely. And in that sense his efforts to draft proposals to put that concern into practice are only to be lauded. But it is good te recall that Archbishop Müller did not nix the proposal. He told the German bishops to withdraw it and revise two points – that faithful can decide for themselves whether or not they should receive Communion, and that a sort of ‘pseudo-marriage rite’ may be celebrated in the church for people who enter into a second civil marriage – but he maintained that the proposal as a whole contains “very correct and important pastoral teachings”. The interviewer’s suggestion that Archbishop Müller wants the topic off the table, and Archbishop Zollitsch’s failure to correct this assessment, suggests a serious misrepresentation of the facts.

The interviewer continues:

Archbishop Müller has written to you that the draft should be “withdrawn and revised”.

“That is the judgement of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Müller’s position corresponds with the Tradition he represents. But the majority of people who have approached us were positive about the proposal. That tells me that we are pursuing an important issue and that it is important to find a viable solution. Pope Francis often speaks of being close to people. I think that that can be a good direction, also in dealing with civilly remarried.”

Here it gets more serious, as facts are more distorted. Yes, Archbishop Müller represents a Tradition, but this is not because of his position as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, but because of his identity as a Catholic Christian. That means, then, that we all represent that Tradition, which is the Church’s and which we all confess and reaffirm in every Mass. That many people are positive about the proposal means nothing in this case, as faith and Tradition are not decided by majority vote. Of course, the issue is important and a viable solution must be found. Not because many people want it, but because it is good for them.

Is your upcoming retirement or the general euphoria about Pope Francis the reason for being so relaxed about comments from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

“Neither.  As President of the Bishops’ Conference I have, in recent years, after our spring and autumn meeting, travelled to Rome to explain our position. If a prefect of one the various Congregations would then oppose this position, I would think to go slowly. A Prefect is not the Pope. I look for dialogue, and for me that is the way of collegiality and the dialogue in the Church.”

MüllerSo what Archbishop Zollitsch is saying here is that the opinions of Curial officials, who are tasked with specific duties in the Church (in the case of the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith this includes to make sure that the faith is represented completely and properly and shared in all its fullness), duties which come with the necessary amount of authority, do not matter? That it is simply a matter of diplomacy: Oh, if I can’t get my way like this, I’ll just try it like that? Ordinaries, of which Archbishop Zollitsch is one, have the same duty as I mentioned above for Archbishop Müller, but if they fail in performing them, corrections must come from a higher level: the Pope, who delegates some duties to those called to assist him in his. And among those are the members of the Curia. Simply saying, “a Prefect is not the Pope”, is tantamount to ignoring the entire existence, duty, authority and function of the Curia. And in this case, Archbishop Zollitsch also conveniently ignores the fact that Archbishop Müller clearly stated that he composed his article on the issue in L’Osservatore Romano, and the subsequent letter to the German bishops, after consultation with the Pope. It is therefore impossible to say that this Prefect is simply acting for himself. We can safely assume that Pope Francis is fully behind Archbishop Müller in this case.

Hiding behind bland statements like “collegiality” and “dialogue” (which are not meaningless in themselves, but they are as used here), is incredibly naive. Archbishop Müller, speaking after discussing hs beforehand with the Pope, has been very clear. He has the duty and authority to correct the German bishops. That is dialogue. Dialogue is not a collection of niceties without any consequences for anyone. It is the collegial correction of errors, which must be given and received in fraternity. Ignoring and pushing them aside as simple opinions of some Prefect who is just acting for himself is a distortion of facts, faith and duty.

The Bible within our faith – Pope Francis explains

knox_bible_openedIn an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Dutch Bishop Jan Liesen is a member), Pope Francis shone a light on the Catholic understanding of the Bible. This is an ever-necessary effort, as there is still much confusion and misunderstanding on exactly how the Bible fits in our faith and tradition.

In his address, the Holy Father explained:

“As we know, the Holy Scriptures are the testimony in written form of God’s Word, the canonical memorial that attests to the event of Revelation. The Word of God, therefore, precedes and exceeds the Bible. It is for this reason that the center of our faith is not only a book, but a history of salvation and especially a Person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Precisely because the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture to understand it properly we need the constant presence of the Holy Spirit who “guide us to all truth” (Jn 16:13). It should be inserted within the current of the great Tradition which, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Magisterium, recognized the canonical writings as the Word addressed by God to His people who have never ceased to meditate and discover its inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council has reiterated this with great clarity in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God “(n. 12).”

What we may gather from this is that the Bible does not exist in isolation: it is not a book that came into being as we know it today. Instead, it grew, developed and exists not for its own purpose, but to communicate the Word of God. And a second important point is the role of Tradition, the magisterium, and – not least – the Holy Spirit, which act as interpreters of this Word.

We are a Religion of the Book, but our religion is not about the book. It is about what – who – the book is about. And that gives us a hint about how we should relate to the Bible. As Pope Francis explains later:

“The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be only an individual scientific effort, but must always confront itself with, be inserted within and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church. This norm is essential to specify the correct relationship between exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church. The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers, the Church of Christ, to nourish the faith and guide the life of charity.”

The nature of the Bible tells us how it relates to us and the greater body of faith. We should receive it as it was given: the testimony of the Word of God for the community of faithful.

Never alone – the sensus fidei

liesen pope benedictIn an address to the International Theological Commission a few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI (pictured at left with Bishop Jan Liesen, one of the Commission’s members) spoke about a difficult but important topic: the sensus fidei. This religious sensibility is something that we must recognise and cultivate in order to recognise what is and what is not the truth that has been handed down through the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.

What is especially important today, the pope said, is “to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”

This passage says a lot about how we are called to live as faithful people, with an innate sensus fidei. In the first place, it is not an opinion. Secondly, it does not exists separately from the Church and the Magisterium which are equally given by God, like the sensus fidei. Thirdly, it can’t grow if we are not active participants to the fullest in the life of the Church.

But perhaps the most important lessons we can draw from this is that faith, our sense of it and therefore also our practice, is never solitary. We are never alone, but always live, act and believe with our fellow faithful. The Church is the combined body of those faithful, and that is why faith is lived with and in the Church, of which the Magisterium is an indispensable part. Just like the Apostles lived with Christ and according to His teachings, so we are called to live with our teachers and follow them in charity and obedience.

Photo credit: l’Osservatore Romano