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The Dutch, I Presume?

Holland and Netherlands are not the same thing, and the people and language are Dutch (though Flemish works, too). It does not help the rest of us, I suppose, that the Dutch national team was competing in the World Cup as Holland, though it was in fact the whole of the Netherlands represented. Holland is the western part of the Netherlands, one of the regions and once-independent states that combined to form the Netherlands, which itself is part of the region known variously as the Low Countries and the Benelux region (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg).

In fact, while Eveline and I were touring the canals of Den Bosch, the volunteer tour boat captain asked the 20 people on board how many were from Holland. Considering I was the only person not speaking Dutch, I was surprised when Eveline was the only one to raise her hand – the rest were from elsewhere in the Netherlands: Friesland, Zeeland, Gelderland et al.

Hans Brinker, the boy everyone knows about for sticking his finger in the dyke to keep it from flooding. Everyone but the Dutch, that is.

A few people asked what my impressions of the Netherlands were, and what my expectations had been. Everyone seemed genuinely surprised that growing up on the far end of America, I had even heard about their country as a child. When visiting Kinderdyke, a picturesque concentration of nearly 20 windmills, we saw a notation in the guestbook reading, “It is a childhood dream come true to see these! Thank you!” The mild scoffing by the natives at the remark earned an explanation from me that indeed the mills and dykes of the Netherlands are known to us since childhood. Who knew that most Dutch have never heard of Hans Brinker?

In front of the Binnenhof, home of the Dutch States-General (parliament)

A few words to describe my impressions? Fiets (bicycles)! Windmills, dykes, canals, and polders. Skating. Decorated bread! Drop (liquorice). Small country and houses. Friendly people, hospitality. Stroopwafels and Gouda (‘how-da’) cheese. [The Netherlands is about 16000 square miles – roughly 2/3 the size of Western Washington;  the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.]

M.C. Escher tribute in sand

During a game of Dutchopoly, which was lost to the aforementioned theologian-diplomat, I got a pop quiz from her mom: “Do Americans know any [contemporary] famous Dutch people?” Schillebeecx, of course! And Visser t’Hooft. (Pronounced tohft, not tooft, I discover after the laughter subsides…) M.C. Escher is well known, but I doubt many know he was Dutch. Historical figures are more likely: Spinoza, Erasmus, Van Gogh. I had already mentioned Hans Brinker to mostly blank stares. But actors, musicians, athletes? Not so sure…

My generous hosts

After Amsterdam, I got a full day to explore the university town of Tilburg, Eveline’s college home for the last five years. Big, beautiful, rarely visited churches; bicycles in the tens of thousands parked at the train station; a large outdoor shopping district. I discovered almost immediately that the Dutch do not anticipate size-13 American feet when designing stairs.

Amsterdam may be the capital, but the seat of government is Den Haag (The Hague), which is where the Queen, parliament, and the embassies cluster, not to mention the international criminal courts. Like Amsterdam it dates from about the 13th century, and retains a great deal of European charm. A little less so, Rotterdam, which we visited next. Though an older city, its historic center was all but completely demolished during WWII. Definitely something to be in the midst of The Hague and the sea of orange as Holland won its way to the World Cup finals!


Over the weekend we retreated to Maasdam in South Holland, a small rural town where Eveline grew up and where her parents still keep her childhood house. Her father rides his bike 40 km to work daily, as he has for decades, and her mother has a pair of wooden clogs she still uses for working in the garden. We toured the island by fiets, and I discovered this is a lot easier to do when A) the entire country is flat and below sea level, B) you ride street cruisers rather than mountain bikes, and C) the entire country is crisscrossed with dedicated bicycle paths, not just 18” lanes on the side of a road!

World Cup game ends in five minutes. Your train leaves in three. Where would you be?

Sunday was my first Fourth of July outside the U.S. Thanksgiving in Rome had had all the feel of home, a big feast and a gathering of friends, but there were no fireworks for me for Independence Day. (“So that’s why they always play that movie on TV today!” she says). There is plenty of Red, White, and Blue, however, since those are the colors of the Dutch flag as well – though Orange is the ‘unofficial’ color of the country, William of Orange being the ‘founding father’ if you will. We spent the afternoon touring the windmills of kinderdyke and the surrounding area. It is a little bit eerie to see rivers flowing through fields where the river is consistently higher than the land around it!

The Binnenhof

My last day was spent with a gathering of the Dutch clergy, honoring the end of the Year of the Priest, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch for short). The guest of honor, presider and lecturer was the recently retired Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for the last decade. Between the morning’s Eucharist and the afternoon’s lecture and vespers, we wandered around the town, sampled the famous Bosch Bollen, and toured the city from the canals that run beneath the city.

The cardinal’s address was delivered in German, and we were provided with Dutch translations in advance enough for me to glean the basic points from my host before the lecture began.

Cardinal Kasper in Den Bosch

(As I was searching for an English translation, I came upon a blog, In Caelo et in Terra,  that included them and a photo from the event. I have commandeered both, so please give credit where it is due.) His remarks reflected on his more than half century of ordained ministry, and he addresses head-on the topics of clericalism and celibacy, and does not shy away from the scandal. His central point is that the priest must be a servant of joy, must put aside secondary attitudes (clericalism) and focus on Christ and his community. It was a fine way to end my year in Europe, in the company of a great friend sitting at the feet of a great teacher!

English Translation


The Year of the Priest: Corresponsibility of Priests and Laity

The Lay Centre has three major aspects to its ministry of hospitality and formation. The first is the one most familiar to anyone reading my blog or following my studies, which is the community of students and scholars who live in the house of formation throughout the academic year (Oct-June) and who eat, pray and learn together in an ongoing dialogue of life. The second is the ongoing adult formation offered (mostly) to the English-speaking population of Rome. Theology, spirituality, church history, liturgy, art, and architecture offered by faculty of the pontifical universities and visiting scholars every Thursday morning as part of the Vincent Pallotti Institute.

The third piece of the mission is the summer seminars and retreats offered by the lay centre. During June, July, and September groups come in from around the world to spend a week in Rome. Some have their own agenda and primarily enjoy the hospitality of the Lay Centre, while others are sponsored by the Centre directly and open to anyone from around the world.

A few years ago I remember hearing about Rome’s first-ever symposium on Lay Ecclesial Ministry, and recall thinking to myself, “First? This has been going on 50 years and they are only now talking about it???” Little did I know. (One can hear about how slowly time moves in the Eternal City, but you really have to be there to appreciate it, soak it in, and start wondering what all the fuss was about back when you cared about things like deadlines, traffic laws, and absolute concepts of any kind…)

One of the programs offered this summer was the latest in the series touching on lay ecclesial ministry, but with a timely twist. In honor of the Year of the Priest, and timed to coincide with the closing festivities of the year, the theme was taken from Pope Benedict’s address to the annual convention of the diocese of Rome (given at St. John Lateran on May 26, 2009) and again later to the presbytery of Rome at the beginning of the year: “Corresponsibility of Priests and Laity”.

The unique opportunities for a program like this in Rome include access to so much of the Church’s history within walking distance, access to curia officials, access to representatives of the Church from all over the world, and of course the hospitality of the Lay Centre.

The program progressed through the centuries day by day, with an examination of key saints and their experience of “corresponsibility”. We studied St. Paul and his collaborators with Abbot Edmund Power of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls – guardians of the tomb of the great missionary and co-patron of Rome. St. Justin Martyr, a layman, buried at St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. Pope St. Gregory the Great, with his oratory of St. Andrew is literally just over the wall from my Roman home. St. Vincent Pallotti was an early modern pioneer of lay formation.

Contemporary organizations and developments we looked at included the Emmanuel Community, Sant’Egidio, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and the Union of the Catholic Apostolate. Presenters included Dr. Marian Diaz, Fr. William Henn of the Gregorian, Ms. Ana Crisitina Villa-Betancourt of the PCL, Fr. Jean Baptiste Edart of the Emmanuel Community, and John Breen of the Beda College in Rome. The participants were mostly students and (both lay and ordained) ministers from the U.S., but included one Dutch pastoral life director.

[Further Reflection to Follow]

The Challenge of Priesthood

This should not be the topic of my first blog touching on the Year of the Priest. Maybe it should a story of vocation, or a theological reflection on the priesthood of Christ and his church. Perhaps an ecclesiological exposition of the ministerial priesthood of the bishop, presbyter, and deacon, with ecumenical emphasis. That is the price of procrastination, however. Those will come in time.

I came across both of these articles yesterday evening, and it was too powerful to avoid.  

Very Rev. K. Scott Connolly

The first is from my diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Northwest Progress, in part of a series highlighting the presbyterate of the archdiocese in honor of the Year of the Priest; they provide brief profiles of five pastors each issue. This week’s issue includes five whom I know personally. Two were in seminary formation with me; two have worked with me as collaborators for the pastoral leadership of a parish; I have had several conversations with each, and have known most of them since I was 17 or 18.

Given that familiarity, I was mostly skimming the profiles. What priest does not think the greatest joy of being a priest is celebrating the sacraments, anyway? (Well, OK, there was one). I almost missed “the greatest challenge as a priest” on my first read, but that is the most telling part. Most of us who are or have been in pastoral ministry find that time-management and administration is an omnipresent challenge, and legitimately so. Yet, one response truly stands out, and calls us to remember what ministry, and the presbyterate, is really about.

Achbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

To then turn to the next article only confirmed that read. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin addressed this week’s release of the national investigation of the sexual abuse of children and its systematic cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. The report itself reads much like the reports in the States over the last ten years. What reads differently is the response of the archbishop himself, which should be read in full and is available here:

Three times, the archbishop repeats that “No words of apology will ever be sufficient.”

He acknowledges not only the profoundly sinful nature of the acts of abuse by priests, but also the abject failure of the bishops and religious superiors to act for good:

“One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the Report is that while Church leaders – Bishops and religious superiors – failed, almost every parent who came to the diocese to report abuse clearly understood the awfulness of what has involved.  Almost exclusively their primary motivation was to try to ensure that what happened to their child, or in some case to themselves, did not happen to other children.”

He does not equivocate, blame the media, secular society or anti-Catholic bias; he does not claim that they ‘did not understand’ the nature of the pedophile and the ephebophile thirty years ago, or that they needed a ‘learning curve’ to adequetely deal with these problems. He makes no excuse for the culture of clericalism and institutionalism that allowed and encouraged the perpetuation of grave sin:

“Efforts made to “protect the Church” and to “avoid scandal” have had the ironic result of bringing this horrendous scandal on the Church today.”

In his interview he refers to the people making these excuses as a ‘caste’, a group who thought they could do anything and get away with it – which makes the crimes all the more horrendous because they were perpetuated by those who serve in the name of Jesus Christ.

There may be a long way to go before all remnants of that caste-mentality are eradicated from the Church, but our prayers and dedicated efforts to that end must never cease. Structures of sin have no place in the Body of Christ.

It reminds me of a parishioner whose daily intercession at Mass was for the “holiness of our priests” – simultaneously a prayer of gratitude for the many holy men who serve the Church, and a plea for the conversion of the rest.

Amen, indeed.

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