Dangerous Rio – young German pilgrims advised to stay at home

Final MassWith about 2,500 young Catholics, the German delegation to the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, in July of this year, is decidedly smaller than before. In comparison, some 16,500 young German Catholics attended the Madrid edition in 2011 and about 6,000 travelled all the way to Sydney in 2008. Why such a small group this time around? It’s not the distance or the cost, as Sydney was both further away and hence more expensive. No, in this case it is the German bishops who are discouraging underage Catholics from participating in the festivities, Vatican Insider reports.

Citing both travel costs and concerns about the pilgrims’ safety, the Bishop Conference’s religious education coordinator Markus Hartmann explains that the priests and coordinators accompanying the pilgrims will be ultimately responsible for their safety and that, it would seem, is a risk, or responsibility, they are not willing to take.

In a way, this reflects the added risk that Rio presents. Crime rates are admittedly higher than in, say, Sydney or Cologne, which hosted the event in 2005. On the other hand, it seems a bit odd that the bishops refuse the added responsibility: at other Church events, in or outside Germany, they are still responsible for those under their care, and pilgrims, young or old, can also be injured, fall ill, or even die in other places than Rio de Janeiro. There is always a risk.

It is sad that the bishops of Germany have chosen for this option, instead of relying on security measures that exist in Brazil, or impressing upon the pilgrims the need for extra safety precautions. After the World Youth Day, Rio de Janeiro will host both the Summer Olympics and the Football World Cup, so Brazil has much to loose if there is a security failure of any sort next July.

A diocesan statement about Fr. Paul Vlaar

The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has published a statement regarding Father Paul Vlaar and his World Cup Mass, about which I wrote a few days ago. Here is my translation:

On Sunday 11 July, Pastor Paul Vlaar of Obdam celebrated the Holy Eucharist in the spirit of the Football World Cup, wearing an orange chasuble, and did insufficient justice, in text and form, to the sanctity of the Eucharist. The footage of this has caused indignation among faithful here and abroad.

In the past the bishop had impressed upon Fr Vlaar not to mix the Holy Eucharist with profane events. The pastor has said to fully support this and promised to abide. The pastor’s pastoral zeal and commitment are not under discussion.

Following this new incident the bishop again met with Fr. Vlaar, imposed an immediate time of reflection on him and relieved him of his priestly duties for the time being. Things will once again be considered at a later date.

The situation created by the ‘orange Mass’ was a difficult and painful one for many people. The comments in my blog reflected that. I am glad to see that Bishop Punt made the best decision at this time. Change must ideally not be imposed from Rome, but must come from the person in question. A time of reflection allows for that.

Let’s keep Fr. Vlaar in our prayers, that his time of reflection may be fruitful.

What to do about the sacrilege displayed in Obdam?

Many will have heard or read about the so-called ‘World Cup Mass’ that Fr. Paul Vlaar of the parish of St. Victor in Obdam celebrated. It’s been doing the rounds for the past few days, both nationally and internationally, so I think it’s good to pay attention to it in my blog as well. With the priest dressed in an orange chasuble, and the church adorned with footballs, goals and orange banners, the Mass was a celebration of football, which is of course not only ridiculous, but also blasphemous. The Mass is the actualisation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Eucharist  source and summit of our faith.

The footage is below. It may be shocking in its blatant display of sacrilege.

Understandably, such nonsense puts the Church in the Netherlands, which doesn’t have a very good reputation anyway, in a bad light. As is often the case, the efforts of many good priests can be undone by the work of one bad priest. The comments on the post that the American Papist devoted to it speak for themselves. And there is room for a whole lot of improvement in the Netherlands, but the only thing that I want to add now is that these ‘Mass’ is not representative for the vast majority of parishes. Thank God it is not.

Is there something we can do to try and stop such blasphemy in the future? I think there is. If it is improvement we ask for, dialogue and debate online is not enough. That serves well to bring things to people’s attention, but ultimately it is the people in charge who need to implement changes.

The parish in Obdam, where this took place, is part of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, the ordinary of which is Msgr. Jozef Punt. I suggest writing him a formal and polite letter, explaining what you have seen and think about it. Explain your concerns and the reasons for it, but do not try and tell the bishop what he should do. That’s his decision, and for all we know he may well be aware of this and is already working on it. The fact that we don’t know if he is, says nothing.

You can contact the bishop at this address: Nieuwe Gracht 80, 2011 NJ, Haarlem. Be polite but clear, write in Dutch if you can, and keep the letter as short as possible (a bishop has more to do than read long letters).

If we want to do something about the ignorance about and blatant disrespect for the Lord that still occurs too often in our parishes, we must do that in communion with our priests and bishops. I know Bishop Punt slightly, and in my opinion he won’t just brush your concerns aside. But it is he, not us, who will decide what will be done, and that’s important to remember.

EDIT: Credit where credit’s due: the idea for this post was inspired by my friend Ismael.

EDIT 2: Some more thought later, I think it is also good to remain open for dialogue with Fr. Vlaar and his parish, especially since other Dutch bloggers picked up my post and have offered advice. So if you want to contact Father Paul Vlaar about this, I suggest the very same things as I did for a letter to the bishop. Be clear, polite and not excessively longwinded, and write in Dutch if at all possible. The website of the parish has a contact form that you can use, but there is also an address on the site: St. Victorparochie, Dorpsstraat 149, 1713 HE, Obdam.

Should Fr. Vlaar himself come across this post, he is welcome to respond, of course, in Dutch or English. For the sake of consistency, I keep this blog in English as much as possible, but I have been known to speak Dutch too.

The Church as an island?

From a distance, I’ve been following the discussion that has developed around the suggestion from theologian Frank Bosman and information scientist Eric van den Berg that churches across the country ring their bells should the Dutch football team be victorious in the World Cup final. Of course, that point is moot now, but the suggestion and the discussion it raised is interesting. Bosman and Van den Berg offer their own analysis here (in Dutch).

They list a number of positive responses from the Remonstrants, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, staff members of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Father Harm Schilder and even the Church of Santi Michele e Magno, better known as the Church of the Frisians, in Rome.

But it is some of the negative responses which lead me to what I want to discuss. People say that the Church should not concern itself with anything popular or worldly, that church bells should only be used to call people to prayer or service, and that this involvement with the World Cup in some way supports idolatry since, some say football players are then treated as gods themselves.

For the vast majority of people, church bells are the main and often only visible sign of the Church in daily life. They hear them in the morning when they ring to call people to Mass, when it is time to pray the Angelus and even when another hour has passed. That alone shows that church bells have long outgrown a strictly liturgical or ecclesiastical use. They are social and cultural phenomena which play a part in the daily life of both christians and others. All of which does not imply that their function of calling people to prayer and Mass is any less important.

The Church is a part of society, even when we try to abide to Christ’s words when he said that we do not belong to this world (cf John 17: 16-18). The simple fact is that we do live and function is this world, even if our fate lies beyond it. Christ has even sent us to follow our vocation in this world. That vocation, our christian identity, should also be the foundation and deciding fact of what we do, but it does not preclude an expansion of activities. Ringing a church bell to celebrate something or other (be it a football victory, the Queen’s birthday or New Year) that plays a major part in the life of many people or which has an important role in society does not bring us down to some lower level, but may ultimately function to raise others up.

It’s ultimately a simply choice: we, as a Church, fall utterly silent and retreat to our own isolated world, thus ignoring Jesus’ call “that the world may believe” (John 17: 21), or we remain present, in both simple and significant ways, but ultimately in the lives of people. It is through the Church that God’s salvation works. That Church must therefore always let her voice be heard, on serious matters of life and death, but also in pure joy and celebration.

The Catholic faith reflects the full human experience, and more. Prayer, knowledge, wisdom and contemplation, but also laughter, celebration, sadness, compassion and the whole spectrum of human emotion.  I see many who seem to advocate a serious, dark and grim Catholicism. The reason, they appear to say, is that the problems we face are serious and grim. Well, no doubt about it. But such a faith has more in common with some isolationist and restrictive Protestant communities which deny basic human emotions and conditions than it does with the full range of human and divine life that comes to us through the Church.

The Catholic Church can’t allow itself to be an island, “entire of itself” (to quote John Donne). She must be seen and heard, because Christ must be seen and heard. With the christian identity as a form foundation, the Catholic Church can weather a joyful celebration here and there. She may even grow from it.

Cucumber time

Apart from the chaos in Belgium not a whole is happening in the Church. It must be summer soon, maybe an early silly season, which we in Dutch call ‘komkommertijd’ (‘cucumber time’), but that’s usually in August.

So in the mean time we’ll have to make do with what’s available. I have refrained from writing much about the Belgian situation, serious though it is. There are many Catholic blogs and news outlets which devote much space to the desecration of the graves of two cardinals, the resignation of Prof. Peter Adriaenssens as head of the abuse commission (citing betrayal of the victims’ trust and agreements between the commission and Justice) and strong words of criticism from both Cardinal Bertone and Pope Benedict XVI at the address of the Belgian magistrate who ordered the search (Cardinal Bertone said that this situation has no precedent, not even in formerly Communist countries). I don’t think that I have much to add to that.

In the Church in the Netherlands there is also not much out of the ordinary going on (at least not much I am at liberty to discuss). Only the appointment of a new chief editor of Katholiek Nieuwsblad has certain bloggers in an uproar, but that’s par of the course for them. Nothing out of the ordinary there either, then.

So, quiet time. Time to enjoy the summer outside (or inside, what with the World Cup going on…).

Faith on the football field

Nu.nl announces that Wesley Sneijder, man of the match in both of the games the Dutch team has played in the World Cup, has recently become Catholic, while English team captain Wayne Rooney was blocked from answering a question about the cross and rosary he habitually wears.

Apparently, faith and football go well together, but it is still reason for a slightly amazed tone in media reports: wow, normal people can be Catholic too. The perceived amazement is not very surprising. One rarely sees the Catholic identity of people so clearly, unless the person in question is a priest or bishop, for example. The fact that Sneijder openly mentions that he was introduced to the Church, and Rooney’s rosary and cross (which he wears outside training, of course), are both subtle but potent witnesses of faith.

The bishop’s conference of South Africa, which also includes the bishops of Botswana and Swaziland, have created a website called Church on the Ball, for all news surrounding the World Cup and its meaning for South Africans and the Church. One specific initiative that I am quite sympathetic to is the so-called Peace Cup, a tournament of African teams organised by the Church. It takes place in the Atteridgeville township in Pretoria, and sees 26 teams from all over Africa competing. Notable is the fact that the teams who reach the semifinals and the finals will consist of multiple nationalities. As Father Kees Thönissen, OFM Cap, said:

Peace is built on inner values such as mutual respect and appreciation of difference. A football Peace Cup is a modest attempt to bring about value change through the immediate experience of the ‘other’ as a human being with unique qualities and skills. Large scale social transformation is arrived at through small scale relationships. It is our prayer that the ties of unity and understanding built up in the teams of this Peace Cup will spread as a leaven into South Africa’s burgeoning multi-ethnic society so in need for real examples of peacefulness.