Opening the Year of Faith in the Netherlands

It’s a week ago now, but I figured it would be nice to give an impression of how the Year of Faith was opened in the Netherlands. All dioceses marked the occasion with special Masses in either the cathedral or another major church in the diocese.

The Archdiocese of Utrecht played host to a national symposium on the four great Constitutions of the Second Vatican Council. Some 250 people attended, a number that could perhaps have been higher if the symposium wasn’t open to clergy and pastoral workers only.

The Mass which started off the symposium was offered by Wim Cardinal Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. In his homily he looked back at the fruits of the Council, but also the responses to it. The cardinal noted that, “On the one hand there are people who are disappointed, because the Council did not bring the fruits they had hoped for. And on the other hand there are people who make the reproach that the current crisis in the Church was caused by the Council.” He went on to say that both responses are unjust. The roots of secularisation were already laid well before the Council – as, for example, Blessed Titus Brandsma already noticed – and the discussion about celibacy and liturgy was already being held in the 1950s.

In Breda Bishop Jan Liesen, pictured at right during the symposium mentioned above, offered a Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony. About the Year of Faith he said:

“The Year of Faith is a year in which to listen to God, to the spirit which has been poured out in our hearts. Put differently: our Church does not revolve around an organisation, but around a living person, Christ. The Gospels speak of how Jesus continuously presented people with the question, “Who do you say I am?” Other religions may have a book, a great way of life or something. We Christians do not have that, at least not as the heart of our faith: we have the person of Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Liesen also spoke about our spiritual life, which we need to nurture in order to be evangelisers ourselves.

“To make work of your spiritual life – how do you do that? It is a matter of choosing, really choosing. In our time we have somewhat forgotten what choosing is, maybe or probably because we have such material wealth. We can walk past shop windows in long shopping streets and pick what we like. We then think that we have made a choice, but we haven’t. We were looking for something and left much where it was and brought that one thing home, but that is not choosing. There comes a time when we don’t like what we have brought home anymore and then we’ll get something else. That is not choosing: it is merely the satisfaction of a desire, whether it is real or imaginary. Because of such a materialistic way of life, which is being promoted in all manners imaginable and which we should not underestimate or make illusions about when it concerns ourselves – because of that way of life we sometimes deal with people in the same way, and we drop them when they no longer suit us. But really choosing when it concerns a person means: choosing that one as he or she is and not dripping them to choose another. That is the basis of true friendship, that is the basis of marriage and family, and that is also the basis of spiritual life, of the conversation with God.”

The final topic that Bishop Liesen touched upon was the Eucharist. He re-emphasised the central place that that sacrament has in our faith, and his desire (and presumably intention as well) to cut down the number of Communion service in his diocese. These services have, in many places, become more of a habit  and a celebration of the community instead of a necessity when there is no priest available, and water down the valuable role of the Eucharist in our lives.

In the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, the Year of Faith was opened at the shrine of Our Lady of Need in Heiloo. In his homily, auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks spoke about faith, saying:

“Faith is a mercy and we can be grateful that we have received that mercy.

Faith requires surrender, giving up control, confidence that you are safe in the loving care of a heavenly Father, that everything will turn out alright, no matter how many setbacks and suffering you may find on your way.

No matter how much evil and how many problems there are: because of faith our life is an ascent to God. Without faith it would be nothing but decomposition, descent, a pointless event with a sad ending.

Faith also requires humility, because it entails us bowing down for a higher power, for someone who can dictate the law to you.

Our Catholic faith lets us know Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. It lets us understand the Holy Spirit, who resides in our hearts and gently leads us to the heavenly Father, who is source and purpose of all of creation.

Through our Catholic faith we also got to know and venerate Mary, who is our Mother through Jesus, as an example of faith, as intercessor and mediator.”

And about evangelisation, he added:

“Whatever we do in the Church, we must first be Christians.

Every priest, every believer must first be a Christian.

The work that we do in the Church can’t be an exterior job, but an expression of our love for Christ, expression of our faith.”

Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, who opened the Year of Faith in the cathedral basilica of St. John in Den Bosch, spoke about having faith in our time:

“Today every faithful is individually faced with a great challenge. The Second Vatican Council already foresaw this. This Council was intended to bring the Church up to date, a way of returning to the source. It again placed Holy Scripture at the heart. It looked for the vital sources of the Church of the future in the young Church of the Church Fathers. You and I, we are confronted with an increasingly secularised world. We shouldn’t want to walk away from that. We should be strong by resisting the difficulties of this time and witness of our faith in the world of today, with the sources of the Council. There are numerous difficulties. The Church in our part of the world grows smaller, we must dispose of church buildings. It’ll be increasingly difficult to pass on the faith to future generations. Acting according to the faith in marriage, in celibacy, in politics is increasingly at odds with what’s going on in society. What matters now is to believe or not: to entrust yourself to God. To travel the way with Him. When you have faith, confess this faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit openly. God will take care of you. He will give you life. Confess your faith in the Church. Do not stay alone. Participate, as the Council asks, in the life of the Church. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life. Be there, every Sunday. Immerse yourself in the liturgy, in Holy Scripture and never forget to serve the poor. Faith must be expressed in action.”

In Roermond Bishop Frans Wiertz referred to the collection of ten local Saints and Blesseds, from 4th-century St. Servatius to St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1942, who were gathered in the cathedral of St. Christopher as examples of the faith. The bishop said about this:

“We are gathered here as faithful from all directions of our local Church. And we are not alone, but in the presence of a number of prominent blesseds and saints from our area, men and women who represent the faith of many centuries, who represent all those people who preceded us in the faith.”

In the Diocese of Rotterdam, Bishop Hans van den Hende opened the Year of Faith in the Basilica of St. Liduina and Our Lady of the Rosary in Schiedam. In his homily he discussed Pope Benedict’s Apostolic letter Porta Fidei, in which the Holy Father announced the Year of Faith, and on the Second Vatican Council, but also on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law. Summarising the Year of Faith, the bishops said:

“The Year of Faith, brothers and sisters, regards all aspects of our life in faith. To confess that God exists, that His Son became men, that the Holy Spirit always wants to inspire us. To celebrate our faith in the Eucharist and the other sacraments and to be careful with the Words of Scripture. We do so as true listeners to the message of God and also by truly living as Christians and to be recognisable in our words and actions as friends of the Lords, and fourth, to keep up the conversation with the Lord.”

In Groningen, Bishop Gerard de Korte also opened the Year of Faith, with a Mass at the cathedral of St. Joseph, but the text of his homily is sadly not available online.

Photo credit: [1], [2] Ramon Mangold, [5] Peter van Mulken

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Climbing to the top at Easter – Dutch bishops focus on the mysteries of faith

The Eucharist and its celebration are the source and summit of our Christian life. It’s a line that has appeared time and again on this blog and in many other places. And while at times it may seem like a snappy sound bite or handy slogan, it is an essential truth that we need to understand and practice in order to live a proper Christian life. In His Son, God has come among us and given Himself to us. If we profess to follow Christ but ignore Him in his most vulnerable presence among us, we are missing the essential point.

Our faith is an Easter faith. The death and resurrection of Christ that we remember and celebrate at Easter permeates every day and everything we do as Christians. It is the foundation and seal of the new covenant that God has made with us. To pretend otherwise is a denial of what the Lord communicates to us in the Bible and sacred Tradition.

In a letter dated to Ash Wednesday, and sent to all priests, deacons, pastoral workers and caregivers in the country, the Dutch bishops seem to want to emphasise this. Starting with the Easter Triduum of 2013, they say, the focus of the communal celebrations must return to the Eucharist. Easter, they say, is after all “the feast of feasts”. What we remember and make present at Easter is, again, our covenant’s basis and seal.

The bishops write that, in every aspect, the Easter celebrations must be dignified. They are a celebration of God’s sacrifice, not merely one of human community. The celebrations must take place in cathedrals and parish churches, provided it can be done with dignity there. These locations allow the attendance of many faithful, servants and other volunteers and the singing of at least some parts of the liturgy. Small communities, special groups and societies are urged to join these celebrations, and what is interesting about that last point is the reason given by the bishops: it will allow the celebrations to be held in the best possible form. The focus is not first on the community of faithful, but on the celebration of the sacred mysteries. And rightly so, for we are a community through the Eucharist, through Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. We don’t make that community, God does.

Simplified or shortened celebrations are to be avoided. Celebrations on the various days of the Triduum have their own unique character and timing. The Easter vigil, for example, is celebrated after sunset, and not without reason. Afternoon vigils take away an essential element of the celebration and make it subordinate to our own limitations and wishes. It should, of course, be the other way around. The ‘complete’ celebration of the Church, the bishops write, takes precedence over that of the smaller local community (and the customs and deviations that have been allowed to develop in those smaller communities over time).

As Word and Communion celebrations by laity have steadily become more and more common, especially in those areas where priests are few, the bishops’ statement that it is “of the utmost importance that, during the Easter Triduum, the faithful indeed take part in the special liturgical celebrations led by a priest” is timely.

All celebrations during those days are to be led by a priest. Other forms are not allowed. Every diocese will point out specific churches where the celebrations will be offered in their fullness, and smaller communities and new movement are expressly invited to join these celebrations.

Lastly, the bishops urge all the faithful to receive Communion at Easter, preceded by Confession.

Fifteen years ago, such a letter would have been unheard of, and if it was released then, very few faithful and clergy would have taken it seriously. I am not saying that every lay faithful, deacon or priest will happily accept it today, but it is a step in the right direction. In the western world, in western Europe especially, we must combat the individualistic life philosophies which teach us that things are good as long as they feel good, that no one has a right to tell me what to do, and that the only truth that exists is the truth that I make for myself. These trends are no less visible in the Church. By refocusing at least the Easter celebrations on their contents instead of on the superficial feelings and perceived rights of the faithful, we may begin to counter the dictatorship of relativism.

The archbishop and the pastoral worker, two sides of the same coin

A fairly small news item earlier this week – about Archbishop Wim Eijk of Utrecht asking a parish council to terminate the employment of pastoral worker Tejo van der Meulen – has led to much debate about the role of pastoral workers and the lines they, in more than one person’s opinion, routinely seem to cross.

At first, the piece of information seemed innocent enough: an issue that concerned one parish, but we’ve seen several times already that not all of these issues keep to the boundaries of the parish they originate in. Both secular and Catholic media have made much of it, taken the fact as a reason to write in favour of or against the existence of, the duties of, or the liberties taken by pastoral workers. The case of Mr. van der Meulen is used as a starting point of the debate, and as evidence that pastoral workers routinely ‘play priest’.

Without going into too much detail about the situation of Mr. van der Meulen and the reasons that Archbishop Eijk had for rescinding his mission, it does shed a light on the status of pastoral workers in the dioceses of the Netherlands. Pastoral workers are lay people who are sent by the bishop to a specific parish or area to perform pastoral duties, usually in cooperation with a priest and parish council, although in some areas, for example in the north, priests may be few and pastoral workers will have managerial duties that are usually reserved for parish priests in other areas. Here, pastoral workers also lead the faithful in prayer services, as well as services of the Word and even Communion services. While the Church does require pastoral workers to attend Mass before being sent out to lead a service somewhere else, this does not always happen. Sometimes that is because the pastoral workers in question does not have the opportunity to go to Mass, but that can’t always be the case.

As the above indicates, theory does not always equal practice. And, more often than many would like, we’ve seen liturgical abuses crop up, because the boundaries between priest and pastoral worker vanished. A single clear cause is difficult to indicate, but the lack of priests and a limited knowledge of the faculties and duties of priest and laity are certainly among them. And then we see situation like in the case of Mr. van der Meulen, where the pastoral worker joins the priest at the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, or where the pastoral worker reads the Gospel at Mass. Indications that there is no awareness of what a priest or lay person can or can’t do, and a pretense that the one is the same as the other. And that is something that, I believe, Archbishop Eijk tries to combat. And he should be joined by all other bishops in that, as Blessed Pope John Paul II called them to do as far back as 1980.

Priests and pastoral workers are two sides of the same coin; I often have the impression that pastoral workers work from a strong pastoral concern for the people. A good priest will have that same concern, but will be called to express that concern by means of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word of God. Together, they can and should work fruitfully together for the faithful under their care, which is possible when they know duties, abilities and limitations, as Father Anton ten Klooster points out.

Actually, come to think of it, pastoral workers and priests who pretend they are something they are not, are mostly doing a disservice to themselves. They have each been given a specific mission in the Church, in which they each can be bearers of the Good News, each in their own unique way. Why throw that gift aside, or switch it for someone else’s?

We are all workers in God’s vineyard, not in our own. Let’s reflect that in our work and vocation.