Love, trust and Jacob – Archbishop Koch’s homily

In an almost 2,000-word long homily during his installation Mass as archbishop of Berlin, Archbishop Heiner Koch took the figure of Jacob as a starting point to delve into what the love of and for God is. Love is not an emotion, he explained, but a decision, and it is based on trust. And that is the key to experiencing God, as even Jacob, on the run and forced to sleep under the naked sky with a stone for a pillow, discovered.

In my experience, the Old Testament patriarchs, with the possible exception of Moses, rarely feature in homilies. That alone makes this one worth a read. Besides that, it may also help some in thinking about their own relation with God.

koch installation

“Jacob, the supplanter, that is what they called him (cf. Gen. 27:36), and from him we hear in today’s reading. With a lie he had taken the rights of the first born from his brother Esau, and so provoked his vengeance. He had to flee and already on the first night of his flight he had to spend the night under the open sky. Night surrounded him: the night of those who have no home, of those who are guilty, of those who disappointed and alienated others. In that night he took a stone, but not only to rest his head on. He and his contemporaries attributed  a special power to stones, a divine connection: That is why they expected security and shelter from such a stone. In the middle of his night, Jacob trusts on the nearness of God through the power of the stone under his head: “I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I am with you. I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this country, for I shall never desert you” (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). In the middle of the night of his life, a dream reveals to him the closeness of God: In the middle of his homelessness he finds himself at home with God: “This is the abode of God, here God gives him, the refugee, home and security (cf. Gen. 28:17). A second dream breaks the hopelessness of his life: A ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12). Heaven is open for him, despite all his guilt and with all his desperation, powerlessness and homelessness.For him, night becomes a time of awakening is, from all seclusion and darkness.

In the middle of the night Jacob experiences what Christ proclaimed and lived: I, God, love you, man, so much, beyond all boundaries and conditions, I will not leave you. I am and will remain with you. I will be at your side:

If the powerful consider you nothing but a number, I was also a number to the powerful at the time of my birth. I am with you, refugee, as I also had to flee when I was a child. I am with you when people laugh at you, as they laughed at me. I am with you when the strike and make you bleed, as they made me bleed. I am with you, when people think your life is worthless as they did mine. I am with you when there is no room for you in the city, as there was no room for me. Neither do I come down from the Cross and leave the thief there to die. My love is without limits, my love will not leave you, man, alone: not you, Jacob, the supplanter, not the thief on the Cross and not the people and not you today.

That is the heart of the good new that we Christian far and wide vouch for: Christ the Saviour is here! You can rely on Him. He is the fundamental reason for our joy: “Gaudete semper! Dominus prope. Always be joyful! The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:4,5). I took these words from Saint Paul as the motto of my episcopal service. God doesn’t come sometimes, He is here: here and now, in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Köpenick, in Potsdam and Greifswald, Brandenburg an der Havel or Frankfurt an der Oder, always and forever, in peace and suffering, in joy and need, when I am aware of His closeness and when He seems far from me, in life and in death: He is and remains near to us.  Setting no limits to human life! That is what we Christians must stand for, also when we are not supported from all sides.

This message changes everything: what perspective on life it opens, far beyond the limits of the tangible world and beyond death. Christians are people of a wide horizon, who will not be bound by circumstances of the here and now. What hope and confidence, especially in the dark times of life, may break forth from this experience of God’s closeness!

Such commitment is there, but also challenge: Leave no one ever alone: neither the unborn child, nor the homeless, the failed, the sick, the disabled, the powerless nor the dying! Set no limits for human life!

Everything, in Berlin, in Brandenburg, in Vorpommern, now depends on learning to see HIM, to discover HIM, to find HIM especially in the darkness of our lives. That is why we are here as Church: to help people discover God in their lives, sometimes in a long struggle, a long process of searching – that is what we are here for as Christians and as Church.

But: is there really such a God? Can I experience Him as a reality or does He prove to be just an empty phrase or ideological superstructure? In answering this question all people, without exception, are believers. Man does not have the choice to be a believer or not. In the decisive questions of life, and especially in the crucial question of God, man encounters his quintessential decision of faith: one believes that there is nothing beyond the visible and understandable world, and the other believes that there is a God beyond our thinking and seeing. One believes that it all ends with death, and the other that death is the portal to eternal life. One believes that God exists and the other that He does not. Everyone lives in faith. In the de facto pursuit of life man can not be indecisive about the question of God: Either he prays to God or he doesn’t. He either struiggles with God or not, either God means something in his life, or He does not. His concrete, practical life provides the answer to the question of his faith: “Do you believe that there is a God, or do you believe that there is no God?”

With that also comes the questions: “Can I perceive, see, recognise God today? Can I experience and learn to see Him like Jacob did?”

The story of Jacob provides the answer: You will see Him when you build on Him, when you trust on Him. Trust broadens the outlook, mistrust on the other hand blinds. That is just as true in politics as in personal life. When two people meet, recognise each other, as Scripture has it, they must trust one another. Precisely that is the leap of faith, it is the leap of my trust. Without such trust there can be no experiencing God. You must dare to live in trust with God, and you will experience that God exists. That is the key to God: your trust.

The theory of science describes this when she says that the object to be studied always defines the method of investigation. A scientific object must be studied with scientific methods and a historical event with historical methods. Carrying this thought over to the knowledge of God: If God is love, He can only be known through love. We see God at the cost of our hearts, our trust. There is no easier way! There can be no knowledge of God outside of my trust.

And then, love is much more than just a feeling, but rather a decision. Especially in difficult times this becomes profoundly clear in terms of God’s love: When I no longer hear antyhing from God, when I can no longer understand Him, no longer grasp Him in my own terms,, when I feel that God is greater than my thoughts and feelings, when I no longer see His path in my hour of need, then precisely these hours become a question to me: Can God rely on my love, even when I don’t see Him? Is the decision of my love for Him so strong that it proves itself in such hours? Do I trust in God even then, and can He rely on me under such a burden? I am always touched when I consider that Christ asked Peter, before he entrust him with his great office, three times, “Do you love me?”(cf. John 21: 15-23). He does not ask, “Do you believe this and do that?” but enquires three times about his love. “Do you love me?” This questions becomes also for us the decisive question about our knowledge of God: “Do you love me?” I am convinced that most people do not know God, as they are unwilling to trust God, to give Him their hearts, their love. But precisely this path is the only path to experience that I am not alone in the days and nights of my life and that my night is therefore thrown open to Easter morning. Give God a chance! Give Him your trust!

And what if we can answer Christ’s question to us, about our love, just as hesitantly as Peter or perhaps even poorer and more pathetic? Let’s look once again at Jakob, the supplanter, with this question. His path with God is not ended, he must continue on, considerably further. Love is never done, love is always searching. I also ask you, the unbaptised, and you, who have another religion, to go with us on this search. We are grateful for your life experiences. You are a great wealth for us with your searching and your meaningful questions about life and faith. We are probably much closer to each other than we think, and perhaps we will discover on our common path not only we are searching for God, but God has already been searching for us, not only that we are looking for God, but that He is looking for us. Perhaps we can help each other in this way to discover this God, who in Paradise already asked man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).

How good it is to recall at such times that our love for God is not the decisive factor,  but God’s love for us, that His love stands firm and is reliable, that He serves us and washes our feet and not we His. Perhaps a small and quick prayer can then also help, such as, “Dear God, do not let me go!”

My dear sisters and brothers! Learning to love God together and through and in Him our sisters and brothers and all people whom God entrusts to us: to proclaim this – as the Gospel tells us today – to be seeds in the hearts of men. That is the great project of our diocese in all its effects on our parishes, communities and institutions! It is the fullness of life and the love of God, from which we all live and which carries us, also with our fractures, which we can often no longer heal. Should we not address these concerns in our time in completely new ways, with new emphases, consequences and focus? The future of the Church is not a carbon copy!

Is this not also the ecumenical path, which I would join and build up consciously and decidedly? Learning to love God, how important is this mutual way for us and our society!

Does this path of love not lead directly to the weak, the poor and disadvantaged of our society, in whom God challenges us and our love? The current need of refugees and their families is for us not just a burning and challenging social question, it becomes question of our faith. Without people in need, awaiting our love, we can not find God, who is love, and we remain blind for his closeness. He is close to us in them!

Dear sisters and brothers, from my heart I want to go this path of learning to love with you. Please come with me on our common path!

+ Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch”

 Photo credit: KNA

Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch announces retirement

In a not completely unexpected development, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans today announces the acceptance of his early retirement as bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. The bishop, who has led the diocese for 17 year, has been unable to fulfill his full duties for the past years. Health reasons led him to leave that to his auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts, and the other members of the diocesan curia. Pope Francis has asked Bishop Hurkmans to remain in office until the appointment and consecration and/or installation of his successor. In a letter, the bishop outlines the decision and his reasons:

bisschop Hurkmans“Priests, deacons,
pastoral workers and pastoral assistants,
To the faithful and all of you who are connected to the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch,

Since July of 2014 I have not had the strength to perform my work in full. Luckily, almost everything in the diocese has been able to continue, in a perfect understanding with the auxiliary bishop, vicar general and the other members of the staff, under my leadership. Through good medical care I have regained some strength, but not enough to fully take up my duties. Therefore I have been compelled to ask our Holy Father Pope Francis in June to relieve me of my duties. That was not an easy decision. I would have liked to remain in office until my 75th birthday. An answer to my writing has now been received from Rome, and the road to me succession has been opened. Rome has also stated that I remain the bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch until my successor has been appointed and installed. The terna, a secret proposal of three candidates, is to be drafted by the cathedral chapter. The chapter presents the terna to the Bishops’ Conference, who take their own position on it. Both reports will be sent to the Nuncio. The Nuncio will then open an investigation into the possible candidates and will send his conclusion, with the reports, to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. After these preparations, Pope Francis will appoint the new Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch.

I have recently had more time for reflection and prayer. That enables me to let go of my office in peace over the coming months. I have always considered it important to be the first to pray for all of you, for the diocese. In the power of the Holy Spirit I have led you in proclamation and the celeration of the sacraments. In leading the diocese I have been able to listen and sympathise much. In all these I have always three basic lines. First, I have wanted to work for the mutual unity in the diocese, within the whole of the World Church. I have explicitly wanted to launch the New Evangelisation. Where Christ is proclaimed, places of hope develop. Lastly, restructuring the parishes was a great challenge.

From the start I knew that me work would bring much stress. I never tried to avoid that. I considered it a challenge not to break with people, but remain in conversation with supporters and opponents. Looing back, I increasingly understand those tensions. And likewise for the people who, from time to time, have been explicitly critical about me. I don’t hold grudges to anyone. Of course I made mistakes in my work. I ask forgiveness from those who have affected by them. I want to slowly close the period of “being in service to the leadership” in peace.

I was the rector of the St. John’s centre seminary for eleven years, and for then years of those I was also vicar general, and I have now begun my eighteenth year as bishop. A time in which, especially thanks to many of you, much good has happened, such as the development and expansion of the seminary, the celebration of the Holy Year 2000, the celebration of the diocesan Year of Mary, the five-year Evangelisation program, the 450th anniversary of the diocese with the pilgrimage to Rome and working towards the new parishes in three rounds of reorganisation. I thank God, our Father,  in the first place for all the good that happened. I also think in gratitude of the various staff members with whom I work, of the workers in the diocese. With fraternal greetings I thank the priests who lead Church life in the parishes from day to day. I thank the deacons, pastoral workers, pastoral assistants and the many volunteers. With love I think of the religious and contemplative monastics in the diocese. They lose themselves in the love of God to propagate it. Also a word of appretiation for all who have responsibility in the intersection of Church and society, including the guilds, education and universities. I know I am connected with our brothers and sisters in other church communities, with whom I have spoken often. A kind thank you to my auxiliary bishop and the other bishops who I have met in our country and abroad. My affection, and here I have remained the parish priest of Waalwijk, for the faithful, for those who are closely involved with the Churcgh, but certainly also those who have grown further removed. That they may known that God loves them. Lastly, I thank Sonnius, the benefactors, the members of the prayer circle, the rector and seminary community who make sure that the seminary is always a “home” for me.

Slowly a new period begins for the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. For now, I will travel with you as your bishop. I continue to lead in close cooperation with the staff. I leave the actual work for the most port to Msgr. Mutsaerts, vicar general Van den Hout and the other staff members. In due time I will fully acxcept the new bishop. I hope you will too, that is necessary. Follwing his consecration and installation, I will continue with you as bishop emeritus of ‘s Hertogenbosch. In what I can do, I will be at the service of the new bishop. On his invitation I will continue cooperating to the best of my abilities.

I am happy that I am continually strengthened in my faith. I continue travelling to God, my hope and expectation since my earliest youth (Ps. 71). I will live in the village I was born, the place where I received the faith from my parents. I hope that it will again become home to me, although I will miss ‘s Hertogenbosch. But that time is not here yet. There is time of transition. A time in which we can slowy make room in our hearts and minds for the new bishop. Let us pray on the intercession of Mary, the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch, for a good new bishop. For a bishop that the diocese needs now. Our help is in the name of the Lord.

I hope to meet you in the future, I greet you from my heart and remain with you in prayer.

Msr. drs. A.L.M. Hurkmans,
bishop ofs-Hertogenbosch”

More to come…

Mercy for all – in major letter, Pope Francis outlines the Jubilee

“This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one,” could be the simple and rather accurate summary of the letter that Pope Francis sent to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, outlining some points he wishes to focus on during the Jubilee of Mercy which starts in December. That these are not just words becomes clear when we take a closer look at some of those points.

Of course, the Holy Father first speaks about the faithful, who are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, in every cathedral or other church designated by the local bishop, and in the four papal basilicas in Rome, in order to receive the Jubilee Indulgence. This pilgrimage is, the Pope writes, “a sign of the deep desire for true conversion”. The pilgrimage should also be linked to the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, and feature  the profession of faith and prayers for the Pope and his intentions.

But there are also those who are unable to make this pilgrimage: the sick, the elderly, the lonely, even prisoners. God does not ask us for the impossible, so these people can obtain the indulgence by living their time of trial with hope and faith, by receiving Communion or attending Mass or community prayer, even through all forms of communication channels. Prisoners can receive the indulgence in prison chapels.

The Church as a whole is also called to perform the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy*. By making the mercy received from God visible as we extend it to others, the indulgence is surely also obtained, Pope Francis writes.

Even the deceased can obtain the indulgence, not through their own actions, of course, but through ours. We do this by praying for them in the liturgy of the Mass.

The big point, according to all media, has to do with abortion. Pope Francis has decide to give all priests across the world the faculties of giving absolution to all who have procured an abortion and who seek forgiveness for it. This does not mean that abortion is no longer a sin, or that it no longer leads to automatic excommunication. That is unchanged. But the mercy we receive calls us to be merciful to others, and to allow them to be forgiven. The door to that forgiveness has now been opened wider for the course of the Jubilee.

Lastly, this same forgiveness and absolution may now also be obtained from priests of the Society of Saint Pius X. While these priests remain in a sort of limbo, since their ordinations are valid but not licit (ie. they do not have permission from the Church to exercise their priestly faculties), they have now received a temporary permission to hear confession and offer absolution to the faithful. This in its own is a major step on the road to a future reconciliation.

The letter is an interesting piece of work, and one with major repercussions. Confession and absolution is what it’s all about: we receive Gods mercy when we acknowledge our sins and errors, and when we are contrite. God forgives readily those who ask Him. And once that mercy has been received, we are to share it, pass it on to those around us.

*Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, bury the dead, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead.

I have made a first Dutch translation of the letter, which is available here. I did notice, however, that the English text is rather clumsy and unclear in places. I resorted to the German text to clear up some passages. Others may want to do likewise, depending on their fluency in Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Polish.

Catholics, Creation and Ecumenism

prayerPope Francis recently declared that the date of 1 September would from now on be the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Dutch bishops followed suit and called for all fatheful and people of good will to pray for the protection of and care for creation. Not only does this emphasise the place of humanity, and especially Catholic Christians, in the whole of creation, but it also sheds a light on the ecumenical priorities of Pope Francis.

The start with that last fact, Pope Francis has long been cultivating his personal relations with the Orthodox Church in the persons of its highest-ranking prelates. This new World Day of Prayer is the Catholic version of an Orthodox day of prayer for the same purpose: creation. So he has established yet another day on which Catholics and Orthodox share prayers and goals, and it is hard not to see this is a prelude to a common date of Easter, which I personally believe may not be that far off. Easter is the most important event for the Church of both West and East, and an important waypost on the road to future unity.

And why Creation? It is impossible not to see this in relation to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (the official Dutch translation of which is available for preorder now), which discusses our responsibility for the world around us. Some consider this to be a bad thing, but it is of course a perfectly reasonable and important topic for a Pope to talk about. After all, we are stewards, not just of ourselves and our relationship with God, but of the entire world around us. And as such we have a responsibility to protect and take care of Creation. And not only we, but everyone in the world, Christian or not. That makes Creation a perfect ecumenical topic.

Cardinal Sarah and the liturgy of the Council

406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003Back in June, Cardinal Sarah, in charge of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote an article on the liturgy according to Vatican II. That rather excellent test is now available in English at Views from the Choir Loft and in Dutch on my blog.

Although a reading requires some awareness of theological terms, in its entirety Cardinal Sarah’s article is a wonderful invitation to open ourselves to and discover the liturgy as it is. Given by God to its finest detail, even to the participatio actuosa (which does not, as some believe, mean that everyone should be doing stuff) of every single believer present.

Much has been made about Cardinal Sarah’s support for an ad orientem orientation of the priest for specific parts of the Mass, but that is really not the point of his argument, but rather a logical conclusion deriving from it. The liturgy is not ours, but the Lord’s, and in it He comes to meet us. Why not welcome Him face to face?

Corpus Christi – The Eucharist as source and summit

While it is celebrated in the Netherlands next Sunday, today is the actual day of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, the feast day devoted to one of the most mysterious truths of our faith: the Real Presence of Our Lord in the consecrated bread and wine.

My parish priest asked my to translate his homily for the feast day for use in the English-language Mass on Saturday, and I was given his permission to share it here in my blog (in a slightly edited form).

eucharist“”What is the Holy Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist?”, was the question asked in a Catholic group. Silence. “We come together to pray”, someone eventually mumbled. “To honour God”, someone added, “and to ask for His assistance”.

That is all true, but we always do that when we pray, in Vespers or Adoration or whatever communal prayer we have. But what is the unique element of a Mass? Why is Holy Mass the central and most characteristic celebration of the Catholic Church and, by the way, also of the Orthodox Churches of the East? Because in it we remember the Easter of Jesus – His death and resurrection – and make it present in the signs of bread and wine. It is the celebration of the heart of our faith.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, they come together in the Eucharist. The one sacrifice on the Cross of Good Friday remains present among us in the signs of bread and wine, as at the Last Supper Jesus said about the bread: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you”, and about the chalice of wine: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.  And so, the next day He gave up His Body and Blood for us on the Cross. And at the Last Supper, Jesus added: “Do this in memory of me.”

He wanted the one sacrifice on the Cross – literally the crucial moment in the history of God with people – to remain among us in this way, sacramentally, which means in signs but also real, as each sacrament achieves in signs (for example, the water at Baptism) what it indicates.

All sacraments, the entire sacramental life of the Church, is contained in the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, in the Eucharistic sacrifice that our Saviour established in the night that He was betrayed, to let the sacrifice continue through all the ages, until He comes again.

That is why the Eucharist is source and summit of all the sacraments, of all of Christian life. Everything flows from it and everything leads back to it. It is supper and  sacrifice. Bread and wine are at the heart of creation. They contain what the earth has to offer. Bread gives life and existence to man, wine gives him joy. Gifts of creation, work of our hands and from them we offer to God – a sacrifice, but the true sacrifice is the gift of self.

At the multiplication of loaves it already became clear how Jesus saves all from distress and gives in abundance. At the wedding at Cana it was the same: abundance and the best – the new, second creation already shows itself. All lines come together at the Last Supper: the lines of bread and wine, of supper and sacrifice, of gift and gift of self, of creation and salvation, of past, present and future – until He comes again.

Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, through the power of His word and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit is continuously implored, and especially through the laying on of hands to bring to life, in the Eucharist, and at ordinations. Of course Christ is present in the Church in many ways: in His word, in her prayer (“where two or three are gathered in My name…”), also in the poor, the sick and prisoners (“what you have done for the least of Mine…”), in the sacraments, in the person of the priest.  But nowhere in that intense way as in bread and wine. In bread and wine Christ himself is completely present. That is why we kneel at the Eucharistic prayer, and the priest kneels after the words of consecration: not for bread and wine, but for Christ in the signs of bread and wine – through Christ’s own words.

When we have received Him like this in Holy Communion, we abide with Him in a silent and intimate conversation. Yes, we believe in the continuing presence of Jesus in the Blessed Hosts that remain and which have traditionally been given to the sick and which are again given at the next Mass. Since the 13th century that was expanded into the adoration of the Eucharistic Lord in the monstrance. We will conclude this Eucharist with a short time of silent adoration and a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.


Father Rolf Wagenaar is parish priest of St. Martin’s parish in Groningen and cathedral administrator of the Cathedral of Saints Joseph and Martin, Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Translation update: From a retired Pope to a retired Secretary of State

Just a brief notice to say that I have translated the letter that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI wrote to Cardinal Bertone recently. The letter will be featured in the caridnal’s new book, and it is only the second public communication by the retired Pope. I use the German text (which, I presume, is the original text) which can be read here.

Anywa, find ym translation via this link or the sidebar at left.