Speech held at the International Catechetical Congress, Vatican City,
Your Eminencies, your Excellencies, dearly beloved brothers in the priesthood, sisters and brothers in Christ. It is a great honor for me to be allowed, on behalf of the bishop of Haarlem, in the Netherlands, and his vicar for catechesis, to give you a short account of some recent developments in the area of catechesis in our Diocese. I will set this against the background of the turbulent developments of the last few decades, which the church in the Netherlands has experienced, and which is particularly noticeable in the predominantly urban Diocese of Haarlem. After briefly sketching this history, I will go on to describe a new start which is being made, and I will mention a number of changing social factors which are important in this context.
After this short overview, I will sketch the catechetical policy that is being followed in our Diocese, with good results. I will give an example of how it is working.
About 20 years ago, a Dutch church historian termed Dutch Catholicism a
"religion of affluence".1 Although this term is a little blunt, and could be given more nuance and detail,2 it is useful enough in this context. The characteristics of this "religion of affluence" are:
- strong emphasis on one's personal development
- in connection with that: a diminishing interest in, and not infrequently an open aversion to, the church's authority;
- a sharp decrease in church attendance, as a consequence of this individualistic approach.
In the area of catechesis, this attitude was evident in the almost exclusive use of so-called experiential catechesis, a method whose aim is to explore the universal human religious experience. Unfortunately, people often got stuck at that level and did not get as far as seeing the significance of this in Christian, let alone Catholic, religious content. This may have helped their further development as human beings, but it was of little or no help to their religious development. In retrospect, the assumption was too easily made that there was sufficient religious knowledge available for people to build on. The camel was sent into the desert, but no one noticed that his humps were empty. The journeying people of God, as the catholic part of the Netherlands liked to call itself in those days, turned out to be all but bereft of any Knowledge of Scripture or Tradition. This situation could not go on. Impulse for change came from both inside and outside.
In January 1980, at the invitation of Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, the Dutch Bishops assembled in Rome in a special synod. The decisions taken by the synod paid some attention, albeit limited, to catechesis. Specific mention was made of the shortcomings of experiential catechesis.3 But also amongst the catechists themselves, warned by worried members of the faithful, the shortcomings were recognized. They saw that knowledge of the faith was disappearing, particularly amongst the young, as a result of the fact that in many schools it received little or no attention. In the church catechesis, in the parishes and deaneries, an ideological bias had catechesis in its grip. "The most important thing is what you yourself believe". The Church doctrine was seen more as an obstacle than a source of faith. Here and there, one could even come across virulent anti-ecclesiastical feelings. "I'm a Catholic, but not a Roman Catholic" was the catch phrase which matched this point of view. Just imagine what it would be like to be Bishop in such a diocese. The Bishop at that time, the late Mgr. Theodorus Zwartkruis, came back to Haarlem from the Synod with tremendous worries.4 He knew his Diocese very well, and was more aware than anyone else of the extremely tense polarization. This made it all the more difficult to carry out the decisions of the synod. And for the time being catechesis was not accorded any particular priority.
In the meantime, the climate in the Netherlands and in our Diocese has changed. I would like to mention a few factors which play a role. The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 had an enormous impact in the Netherlands. A few months later, a populist politician, who had won the support of a lot of people in a very short time, was murdered by a gunman in Hilversum, a town in our own Diocese, well-known in the Netherlands as the center of broadcasting. The bewilderment in the Netherlands was perhaps as great as on the 11th of September. Former certainties, apparent certainties, were wiped away. A sharply declining economic situation has exacerbated the strong feeling of uncertainty which many people in the Netherlands are suffering from. The scapegoats are sought mainly amongst the Muslim community in the Netherlands, which is particularly large in our Diocese. Nevertheless, many people who are not taken in by such simplistic explanations are now more inclined than they were before the dramatic events I have just mentioned, to reconsider the meaning of their lives. The "religion of affluence" is reeling. Finally, it should be remarked that young people are more open to the answers which the Christian faith offers for the most fundamental questions.
They are not weighed down by an ideologically tainted past as far as the Church is concerned.
The present Bishop of Haarlem, Mgr. Jozef Punt, intends to promote catechesis vigorously in our Diocese. He distinguishes three levels
- the parish
- the deanery
- the diocese
To give an example of our working methods, I would like to explain briefly how we have approached adult catechesis at the level of the deaneries. Every teacher knows that in a difficult group, he has to get the leaders on his side. So we invited the deanery catechists to come and talk. During this exchange of views, we proposed that together with us they should draft a policy document on catechesis for the Diocese. They were truly amazed. We argued that the catechesis in our Diocese was also their responsibility. So it was important that they supported the diocesan policy. And for the Diocese, it is valuable to develop policy in cooperation with the people who have to carry it out. After all, it is easy to write a policy document, but if it is only thought up behind the desks of the Curia, then it is almost certain to end up in the bin, probably after violent arguments with the people concerned. In the beginning, we had to spend a lot of time winning trust. Polarization and distrust built up over decades are not going to disappear in two weeks. But they can disappear in a year, as we found out. The sharp distrust we met with in the beginning has given way to a warm, cooperative attitude. The key to this was, and is, to keep focusing on communication at the level of faith. This helps to break down ideologies. Of course, every now and then we had to insist on our point of view, sometimes against that of the catechists. One person left the group; but even this took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
A mood of doubt has given way to a new impulse. The policy document came out last year. It is called "Salt of the Earth".5 With thanks to you, Cardinal Ratzinger, for the title,6 which - by the way - you have to thank Our Lord himself for.7
In the policy document, we work out how we can train adults so that they are able to give religious education to adults and children in the parishes. At the end of the document, we make a number of recommendations. Some of these have already been taken up
In the diocesan seminary, a course is offered for those who want to work as catechists. The deaneries offer a course for lay volunteers in the parishes. We have asked a number of experts to develop a specialist course for those who wish to concentrate on catechesis. This course can start in January 2003. The idea is that this course will eventually also be given in other dioceses. Finally, we asked other experts to develop a project for catechesis for people who have little or no knowledge of the Faith. The progress they are making is a cause for optimism. The first location where this course will be given is in the city of Amsterdam.
It is sometimes difficult to work in an atmosphere of polarization. But it is not impossible. Avoiding ideological battles and attempting time and again to speak to one another at the level of the faith we have in common, turns out to be a fruitful way of working. Of course, sometimes you have to dig deep to come to the faith which is held in common. Over the years, layers of dust and stones may have blocked the spring. But all that digging is worthwhile. An atmosphere has emerged in our Diocese in which many people are once more eager to cooperate in catechesis, in a way that the Bishop and his staff would like them to. People are once more curious about and open towards the faith of the Church. Maybe this is also a new beginning for a better climate in other areas in our Diocese, where the troubles not are over yet.
May we ask for your prayers for our work in the Diocese of Haarlem, in the beautiful Netherlands? Thank you.
Franciscus Geels pr.
1) Bots S.J., Dr.J., Zestig jaar katholicisme in Nederland. Published in De Rots, vol. 11 No..7/8, 1981.
2) See, inter alia, Rogier, L.J., Vandaag en morgen. Bilthoven 1974; Weiler, Prof. Dr.A.G. Vernieuwing in trouw, Beschouwingen over de ontwikkelingen in kerk en samenleving, s.l., 1988.
3) Documents. Bijzondere Synode van de Bisschoppen van Nederland Rome, 14-31 January 1980. Secretariat of the Netherlands Province, 1980.
4) Personal communication with the author.
5) Zout der aarde. Aanzetten voor een beleidsplan parochiecatechese, Bisdom van Haarlem. Haarlem, June 2001.
6) Ratzinger, Cardinal Jozeph. Zout der aarde. Christendom en katholieke kerk aan het einde va het millennium. Baarn, 1997.
7) Matt. 5,13.