Attack in Utrecht: reactions from the archdiocese

A terrorist attack or an honour killing, whatever motivated the shooter, three people were killed and five injured while riding a tram in the city of Utrecht this morning. The shooter was arrested in the evening after the city had been on lockdown for the better part of the day.

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In a first reaction, the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk, said:

“Today’s shock is great. The perpetrator’s motives remain unclear for now, but it is clear that the impact on the city and the Netherlands is great. We greatly sympathise with the victims and their family, and also with the witnesses of this horrific incident. I ask your prayer for the deceased and those they leave behind, and for the injured we mourn today, for a quick and full recovery.”

From Germany, Domradio reached out to Father Anton Ten Klooster, priest of Utrecht who teaches at a university in the city. He was forced to spend his day at the university as the police had asked everyone to remain indoors while the shooter remained at large,  and describes his first thoughts upon hearing the news:

“As a priest I think in the first about the people and their fear. But I also think about what it means for society. These are, after all, tense times. There has been the terrible terorrist attack in New Zealand. And now this. What does that mean for us priests? How can we really try to accompany people and also respond in the right way? These are the first thoughts, but one can’t really do anything immediately.”

Anoher priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, Father Roderick Vonhögen, shares his thoughts upon hearing the news in the vlog below (starting at 2:09):

Photo credit: ANP

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After Verviers, some thoughts about our relations with Muslims

L_ordinazione_episcopale_di_Jean_Pierre_Delville_vescovo_di_Liegi_11The fear of terrorism and the danger of returning Jihadists from Syria and Iraq seems to be slowly creeping northward, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Yesterday, Belgian police prevented a terrorist attack on police officers and installation in the town of Verviers, southwest of Liège, which saw several arrests made and two suspected terrorists killed. As chance would have it, the Bishop of Liège, Jean-Pierre Delville, was in Verviers as the police operation took place. Yesterday, he gave the following statement.

“The incident took place when I was visiting the mosque on the Rue de Hodimont in Verviers. The friendship shown by the Muslim community of Hodimont sharply contrasts with the aggression of those who betray Islam with their blind violence. War only leads to war. Only dialogue and encounter can lead to peace.”

It almost seems more than coincidental that Msgr. Delville was visiting a mosque, of all places, at that time. But it does put him in the perfect place to comment on how this terrorism also affects Muslim communities.

The reactions in Catholic circles on the increased fear of terrorism and the recent attacks, as far as I have seen in social media, is varied. Most reactions make a distinction between terror and Islam, but there are also those who link the two, considering violence an inherent element of Islam. I wouldn’t know that,as I am not overly familiar with that religion, but I can understand these sentiments as the violence and terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam is very visible these days. But that does not mean that those sentiments are correct. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was struck by how quick many Muslims, including religious leaders, were to condemn it. We are on the same side against the evil that causes people to kill and destroy.

Islam is still something many in the west look upon warily. It is not something that is native to western Europe, and we don’t know a lot about it, in general. But what we do think to know and see, frightens us. Understandable as this is, it is not what we are asked to do as Christians. We are asked to follow the example of Jesus, who went to meet the people who did not share His teaching (or at least not yet).

There are those who do not like it when bishops visit mosques, as Msgr. Delville did, and to me it often seems as if they are afraid that he will come out “contaminated”, or that it is construed as an approval of Islam.

As Christians we do not share the faith of Muslims. Jesus did not share the thoughts and practices of the Pharisees, scribes and tax collectors, even condemned them, but he sat down and debated with them all the same. We must do the same: share what we have in common (and we do have things in common with Muslims) and meet the people and so allow them to meet Jesus through us.

Charlie Hebdo – Bishops react

Like almost every public authority figure, the Dutch bishops have also released an official response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in paris, two days ago. It is a perfunctory statement, short and quite standard:

Logo Bisschoppenconferentie“The Dutch Bishops’ Conference is shocked and stunned by the reports about the violent attack on the offices of a magazine in Paris, in which twelve people were killed.

The bishops strongly reject the use of any form of violence to impose opinions or religious convictions. They also reject any form of violence aimed at denying people their right to express their own opinions.

The bishops’ sympathies go to the relatives of the deceased victims and also to the injured and their families. “We pray for consolation for them, but also for wisdom for the French authorities in approaching violence because of religious and philosophical opinions.

Furthermore, the bishops’ conference fully endorses Pope Francis’ reaction to the attack.”

More interesting are the reactions of individual bishops.

Bishop Jos Punt, of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sent an open letter to the editors of the major Dutch newspapers and, in extension, to all who work in the free press. In it, he writes:

kn_705396_punt“My thoughts are with your colleagues who have died and with their families, relatives and friends. But my thoughts are also with you and all your coworkers, who are used to be able to bring world news in freedom and rightly consider this a great good in the democratic principles we all cherish. That freedom is now again challenged and that makes you feel unsafe.

As bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam I know that religions and their spiritual leaders, but also ministers, politicians and many others in public office or functions are sometimes targets for satire. That can go very far and cause protests.

But in the context of freedom of speech it must be possible to do so respectfully and must never lead to brutal murder, like yesterday in Paris.”

Bishop Punt also underlines the importance of dialogue between religions with mutual respect and good will, to foster peace and harmony in the world, and reminded that the forces of good are always stronger than the forces of evil. He closes his letter as follows:

“I wish you and your coworkers much wisdom and courage in the decisions you have to make now, perhaps forced by circumstances, in bringing news. But now you are supported by many who have shown their horror at this attack and sympathise strongly with you.”

mgr_hendriks2014_200Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of the same diocese, shares the letter as well, and adds:

“The terrorist action which happened in Paris must be strongly condemned by every sane person. I hope that this will not lead to further violence, but to more attention for the importance of an honest and open dialogue to achieve peace and reconciliation.”

Bishop Gerard de Korte, of Groningen-Leeuwarden, gives advice on how to respond to the attack and its aftermath.

korte“The time for naivety is over. A small number of fanatics can seriously disrupt our society. Our governments have the task of eliminiating terrorists as much as possible before they can strike. But guaranteeing one hundred percent security is of course an illusion.

I think it is sensible to keep our heads cool. It is completely counterproductive to outcry ourselves in anger and fear. Now we especially need a strong and controlled reaction by society. Hysterics and blind hatred towards Muslims must now be avoided. Even in hectic times it is important to keep finding nuances. Citizens in our pluralistic society must seek out that which connects. As creatures of God we people belong fundamentally together, after all.

Bishop de Korte also warns that as Christians we must avoid taking the moral high ground in this matter:

“As Christians we should be humble.  For centuries Christians despised, hated and killed others. After the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Christians have often wanted to violently enforce their vision of the truth. As far as I can see, we have left that unholy way only fairly recently. For our Church the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) also led to a breakthrough on this point. It’s no longer the right of the truth that is in the centre, but the dignity of every human. Christ is the truth in person and every man has the duty to find this truth. But that is only possible in full freedom and without any coercion or violence. We can not make holy God an instrument for our violent actions.”

Prayer and the authentic image of God – Bishop Punt’s letter for Advent

In his message for Advent, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam addresses the distortion of religion in the world, and presents a two-fold solution:

Punt“The world is in chaos, but there is hope. Humanity isn’t completely left to its own devices. 2000 years ago the heavens were broken open. Shepherds saw a great light. Angels showed them the way. The Messiah was born. God’s Son become man. Since then His Spirit comes down on this world. But the Evil is also making tracks. In the end, good shall be victorious. That is a divine promise. The Lord knows His time.

Distorted images of God

If that perspective of God, hope and eternity no longer exists, everything changes. Existing norms and values, the sense of humanity, everything loses its foundation. We have seen it in the last century, dominated by atheist ideologies and an unprecedented contempt of humanity. But religion in itself is no guarantee for peace and humanity either.

Distorted images of God and eternity can equally lead to cruelty. That is something we see especially in our time. In the extremism of the so-called Islamic State religion has taken on inhuman forms. No one seems to have an answer ready. Not the moderate and authentic Islam, and even less the western politicians and military. How to fight people who do not fear death, since they see it as a quick road to Paradise, even if they have to drag innocent people along with them. How to deal with people who think they can please God by cutting the throats of “unbelievers”. Nothing can stand up to that. Politicians and soldiers are powerless.

A father looks for his child

This is mostly a moral and spiritual question. It concerns closing the sources of hate, and denying the distorted images of God and eternity. Extremists draw their strength and fanaticism from them. For decades their hatred against the west has grown, partly because of western neocolonial politics.

What can we do now? I think two things: presenting an authentic image of God, and prayer. Recently I saw a documentary about a father looking for his son. There had been a fight at home, the boy had been unjust to his parents, went out into the world and had gone missing. His father then resigned from his job, sold everything he owned and went looking for his child. For years he travelled, across half the globe, until he had found his son and was able to embrace him again. All the fighting and accusations were completely forgotten.

There is no more beautiful image of who and how God is. You don’t need to look for him. He is looking for you. You only need to allow yourself to be found, by being open for His existence and His love, by the willingness to direct your life towards truth and justice, and by praying, even as a heart’s sigh. No prayer is lost.

Saved by prayer

Centuries before Christ the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, advances on Jerusalem with an enormous army. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, refuses to surrender the city. Sennacherib writes him a  letter and taunts him, “Who do you think you are? You have seen how Assyria has defeated all peoples. How would Jerusalem be saved? Do not be fooled by the God you trust, He will not be able to save you from my hands.” Hezekiah goes to the Temple and places the letter on the altar of the Lord, and prays, “Lord, you alone are God over all kingdoms of the earth. Hear how Sennacherib taunts you, the living God. Save us from his grasp, so that all people of the earth will see that You alone are God”.

That night, Scripture informs us, the angel of the Lord brought down death and confusion on the camp of Assyria. Sennacherib struck camp and returned in humiliation to Assyria, where he died.

Whether it concerns our personal life or the situation in the world, the Lord waits for our prayer and confidence to bring salvation. Let us place our prayer and good deeds, but also our needs and sins, before the Child of Bethlehem, like the shepherds and the wise men did. He will give us peace and a solution, although perhaps along very different roads than we would expect. In that sense, I wish you a blessed Christmas.”

+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.

Archbishop in Africa – Dutch priest appointed as Nuncio

Mgr%20Bert%20van%20Megen2-loreOn Saturday Pope Francis appointed Dutch Msgr. Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan. A high-profile appointment, certainly for  a Dutch priest. Msgr. Bert van Megen is a priest of the Diocese of Roermond, and that diocese’s Bishop Frans Wiertz considers the appointment “a great honour.” As Nuncio, he will be similar to a country’s ambassador in another country, maintaining contact with the government and also with the local Church.

Archbishop-elect van Megen was born in 1961 in the town of Eygelshoven and was ordained to the priesthood in 1987, after studying at the diocesan seminary Rolduc, which produced more than one other bishop. After his ordination, Father van Megen was stationed in parishes in Nieuweinde and Schaesberg, both in the Diocese of Roermond. He entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service and subsequently worked at Nunciatures in Sudan, Brazil, Slovakia, Israel, the United Nations and most recently in Malawi, where he was chargé d’affaires.

Archbishop-elect van Megen joins a very select club, as he is only the fourth Dutch prelate to represent the Holy See at the highest level in a given country. The other members of this club are Archbishop Bernhard Gijlswijk (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1922 to 1944), Archbishop Adriaan Smets (Apostolic Delegate to Persia from 1922 to 1930) and Archbishop Martin Lucas (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1945-1952, Apostolic Internuncio to India from 1952 to 1959 and Apostolic Delegate to Scandinavia from 1959-1961). There are currently two other Dutch-born bishops active abroad: Bishop Willem de Bekker of Paramaribo, and Bishop John Oudeman, auxiliary of Brisbane. In addition, six more are retired.

sudan flagThe Apostolic Nunciature to Sudan was established in 1972 and seven archbishops have preceded Msgr. van Megen there. The most recent was Archbishop Leo Boccardi, who was transferred to Iran in July of last year. Previous Nuncios to Sudan also represented the Holy See in other parts of Africa at the same time, specifically Eritrea and Somalia. While Somalia currently has a Nuncio assigned, Eritrea has not, so Msgr. van Megen may eventually also be assigned to that country.

The Catholic Church in Sudan is covered by two circumscriptions; the Archdiocese of Khartoum and the Diocese of El Obeid. The archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako is 73, so Msgr. van Megen will very likely be involved in the appointment of his successor.

About 5% of the population of Sudan is Catholic, mainly in the south and in Khartoum. Officially there is freedom of religion, but socially there is a strong pressure against conversion from Islam to Christianity. The violence and civil war that has affected the country in recent years makes for an interesting first posting for a new Nuncio.

Msgr. van Megen will probably be consecrated soon after Easter, but the location is not yet known, although Rome seems likely. If so, Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin may well perform the consecration. But Mgr. van Megen has also said that he hopes that the ceremony will take place in the Netherlands. In that case I can imagine that Bishop Wiertz will consecrate him. As archbishop, Msgr. van Megen will hold the titular see of Novaliciana, located in modern Algeria. Previous holders of this see were, for example, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz, Nuncio to Great Britain from 2004 to 2010, and Cardinal Achille Silvestrini when he was Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church from 1979 to 1988

A politician’s take on the Vatican

Boris_Dittrich_croppedFormer Dutch parliamentarian Boris Dittrich (pictured) has been treating several media outlets to the story of his visit to the Vatican and his conversation with Archbishop Müller. There are some serious problems with his comments, which I will try to address by fisking this article, which was written by Frans Wijnands and was published today on “meeting place for Christians” Het Goede Leven (all bold text in between square brackets are my comments):

The Pope does not decide the doctrine of the Church, says Archbishop Müller

Under the current Pope Francis there is no relaxation imaginable in the Church’s strictly dismissive opinion on homosexuality. So states the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is not the Pope who decides the doctrine, the dogmas of the Church [well, in the case of dogmas, it is]. Concerning doctrine, that is a matter for the Curia. That is the response that Dutch former (Liberal Democrat] politician Boris Dittrich received from Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Dittrich suggested out loud that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards homosexuals could change in a positive way under Pope Francis.

Dittrich was in Rome and the Vatican these past days on behalf of Human Rights Watch, a worldwide human rights organisation which, among others, strives for equal rights for homosexuals [including the right to change truth, it would seem]. Dittrich is its director for ‘rights of sexual minorities’.

Open Letter

Earlier he had explained the position of Human Rights Watch in a more or less open letter of twelve pages [talk about losing the point in words, perhaps?] With the letter, Human Rights Watch encouraged Pope Francis last month to denounce violence towards and discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals, and to stand up to priests and other workers in the Church who support violence against and discrimination of sexual minorities [Because no Pope has done that before. I’ll just share this link again; in it I quote some sources which state exactly what Dittrich wants].

Dittrich travelled to Rome to personally explain the letter, but did not get to speak with the Pope [Did he think of making an appointment, or did he just assume the Holy Father would make time for him on the spot?]. The former D66 member of parliament was at the weekly audience with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday and was able to hand the letter to an assistant when Francis’ car stopped near him.

MüllerHe did get to speak with Msgr. Müller (pictured), the head of the most important Vatican Congregation, that of the Doctrine of the Faith. Dittrich told Müller that he attended an opening of a campaign for more rights for homosexuals in Rio de Janeiro in 2008 and there spoke extensively with the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires: Msgr. Bergoglio, the current Pope. He told Dittrich that he was or is [odd and suggestive use of words] opposed to gay marriage, but could imagine that an alternative was possible, for example the legal recognition of homosexual relations. [Where did we hear that before? Oh, right: here.] A sort of cohabitation contract [as it exists in the Netherlands for both same-sex and separate-sex couples].

Cold and Stiff

To Dittrich’s suggestion that under the current Pope a relaxation of the Church’s strictly dismissive position was imaginable, Müller’s reply was that the Pope does not make policy, but that that was a task for the Curia.

“The entire conversation was cold and stiff. Very detached. Not a single sign of thinking along or sympathy, “says Dittrich. “I senses a tension, a sort of self defense.” [Probably because some research will show that the teaching of the Church is not subject to the personal opinions of whoever, and that Pope Francis is indeed a son of the Church, as he said himself].

In Rome and among Vatican watchers it is known that the public actions of Francis are not received well be everyone in the highest governing body. The Pope has repeatedly shown that he makes his own decisions and does not rely too much on the Curia. [On the other hand, Archbishop Müller and other Curial prelates have been confirmed in their jobs after careful consideration, a sure sign that Pope Francis supports them in their work].

Tensions

He recently appointed Msgr. Pietro Parolin as new Secretary of State, as successor of Cardinal Bertone. Dittrich assumes that this new Secretary of State will loyally execute the Pope’s policies [Of course he will]. “That obviously creates tensions with the Curia [really?] Because it could lead to the influence and power of that Curia decreasing”, Dittrich assumes. [Dittrich should do a little less assuming and some more researching. Pope Francis was given a specific mandate to reform the Curia by the cardinals who elected him. Among them many Curial cardinals. Pope Francis’ intentions to reform the Curia are hardly secret].

Shortly before resigning, Pope Benedict XVI appointed his former student, friend and confidant, Msgr. Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [well, shortly… nine months, and it was a decision most likely far longer in the making], an office that Pope Benedict held himself for years before being elected Pope.

In the conversation [which took place where and how, I wonder? Did Dittrich meet the archbishop by chance or did he have an appointment?] with Boris Dittrich, Msgr. Müller also strongly attacked the role of the media. According to him, these are, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, continuously out to hit the Vatican. [Well, many media outlets are, that’s a fact. Whether it’s wise to accuse all media of that, if the archbishop did, is the question]

I can’t help but consider Dittrich’s comments somewhat untrustworthy. He displays a lack of understanding about how the Church works and what she teaches, and a lack of preparation for his attempts to share a letter with the Pope. Add to that his clear liberal agenda, and we get an artificial image of a Curia opposed to their Pope, and image which simply is not supported by reality. It’s like what Archbishop Gänswein said when it was assumed that he and Pope Francis did not get along because he was Benedict’s man: “All nonsense”.

Pope Francis has been encouraging a more pastoral approach to and treatment of homosexuals (and anyone else on the margins of our lives, for that matter) in the Church, but that is not the same thing as changing the teachings of the Church. Pope Francis has never indicated any willingness to change those. Those teachings are also not the product of policy makers, but have been given to us and continuously explained by the Church. To say that Pope and Curia are, or even can be, opposed to each other as if they were two politicians in parliament is a gross misrepresentation of reality.

Photo credit: [1] Sebastiaan ter Burg, [2] Catholic.org