Monday, July 31, 2023

Papal prayer intention for August 2023



For World Youth Day

We pray the World Youth Day in Lisbon will help young people to live and witness the Gospel in their own lives.

First Saint of Day for August; founder of the Redemptorists and Doctor of the Church


St. Alphonsus Marie Liguori

Bishop, Doctor of the Church, and the founder of the Redemptorist Congregation. He was born Alphonsus Marie Antony John Cosmos Damien Michael Gaspard de Liguori on September 27,1696, at Marianella, near Naples, Italy. Raised in a pious home, Alphonsus went on retreats with his father, Don Joseph, who was a naval officer and a captain of the Royal Galleys. Alphonsus was the oldest of seven children, raised by a devout mother of Spanish descent. Educated at the University of Naples, Alphonsus received his doctorate at the age of sixteen. By age nineteen he was practicing law, but he saw the transitory nature of the secular world, and after a brief time, retreated from the law courts and his fame. Visiting the local Hospital for Incurables on August 28, 1723, he had a vision and was told to consecrate his life solely to God. In response, Alphonsus dedicated himself to the religious life, even while suffering persecution from his family. He finally agreed to become a priest but to live at home as a member of a group of secular missionaries. He was ordained on December 21, 1726, and he spent six years giving missions throughout Naples. In April 1729, Alphonsus went to live at the "Chiflese College," founded in Naples by Father Matthew Ripa, the Apostle of China. There he met Bishop Thomas Falcoia, founder of the Congregation of Pious Workers. This lifelong friendship aided Alphonsus, as did his association with a mystic, Sister Mary Celeste. With their aid, Aiphonsus founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer on November 9, 1732. The foundation faced immediate problems, and after just one year, Alphonsus found himself with only one lay brother, his other companions having left to form their own religious group. He started again, recruited new members, and in 1743 became the prior of two new congregations, one for men and one for women. Pope Benedict XIV gave his approval for the men's congregation in 1749 and for the women's in 1750. Alphonsus was preaching missions in the rural areas and writing. He refused to become the bishop of Palermo but in 1762 had to accept the papal command to accept the see of St. Agatha of the Goths near Naples. Here he discovered more than thirty thousand uninstructed men and women and four hundred indifferent priests. For thirteen years Alphonsus fed the poor, instructed families, reorganized the seminary and religious houses, taught theology, and wrote. His austerities were rigorous, and he suffered daily the pain from rheumatism that was beginning to deform his body. He spent several years having to drink from tubes because his head was so bent forward. An attack of rheumatic fever, from May 1768 to June 1769, left him paralyzed. He was not allowed to resign his see, however, until 1775. In 1780, Alphonsus was tricked into signing a submission for royal approval of his congregation. This submission altered the original rule, and as a result Alphonsus was denied any authority among the Redemptorists. Deposed and excluded from his own congregation, Alphonsus suffered great anguish. But he overcame his depression, and he experienced visions, performed miracles, and gave prophecies. He died peacefully on August 1,1787, at Nocera di Pagani, near Naples as the Angelus was ringing. He was beatified in 1816 and canonized in 1839. In 1871, Alphonsus was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX. His writings on moral, theological, and ascetic matters had great impact and have survived through the years, especially his Moral Theology and his Glories of Mary. He was buried at the monastery of the Pagani near Naples. Shrines were built there and at St. Agatha of the Goths. He is the patron of confessors, moral theologians, and the lay apostolate. In liturgical art he is depicted as bent over with rheumatism or as a young priest.

These sisters work very hard for victims of human trafficking


'Reach every victim' and 'leave no one behind': Sisters combat human trafficking

July 30 is the United Nations' World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The theme for this year is "Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind." Our sister panelists shared what their congregations are doing to eliminate this grave offense against human dignity by responding to the question: 

What have you or your congregation done/is doing to combat modern slavery and trafficking?


Catherine Ferguson

Catherine Ferguson is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. First a high school administrator and teacher, she completed doctoral work in international studies that took her to Chile, Peru and Mexico. She interned with Pax Christi in Brussels and served as associate director for Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. She was founder and coordinator for UNANIMA International, a coalition of several sisters' congregations doing faith-based advocacy at the United Nations. She served as U.S. provincial leader and as congregational leader and is now a board member of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

In 2001, the UISG (Union of International Superiors General) Assembly focused women religious everywhere on human trafficking: "We commit ourselves to work in solidarity … to address insistently at every level the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children with particular attention to the trafficking of women." 

Then, most in my congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, or SNJM, had little idea about human trafficking.

We had a steep learning curve, but through our international and provincial Peace and Justice Networks and membership in the United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization, UNANIMA International, with its advocacy against human trafficking, we learned … and now, internationally and in almost every region here are only some of the ways SNJMs are active in the struggle.

We acted through UNANIMA International at the U.N. to develop and promote an international campaign to stop the demand. We provided educational events at the Commission on the Status of Women and prepared alternative reports for the Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. 

With others, we join the struggle locally and regionally. Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Lesotho, Peru, Brazil, Canada and the United States have regularly participated in demonstrations and marches to raise awareness about human trafficking. We write letters and sign petitions requesting our various governments enact laws and policies to counter the scourge.

In 2004, our congregation took its first corporate stand — to support ending the human trafficking of women and children who are sexually exploited and pressured into forced labor. 

Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Lesotho, southern Africa, have protected women and girls through awareness raising in their classrooms, parishes and through radio programs.

In Brazil and Peru, SNJMs belong to the national anti-trafficking network of their respective religious conferences with links to the UISG-sponsored international network Talitha Kum. They meet regularly and join anti-trafficking activities. In northeast Brazil, they recently participated in a pamphlet blitz of tourists on the beach. In Peru, an SNJM coordinates the network and was recently involved in forming university students about the situation.

U.S. SNJMs in California's South Bay, Southern California, and Mid-Atlantic regions participate actively in coalitions against human trafficking. The South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking offers an annual Survivors' Retreat helping participants develop career skills and overcome the traumas of their experience. In 2016, when the Super Bowl was held there, they organized more than 65 agencies to counter the spike in human trafficking, which often accompanies major sporting events. Their outreach to hotels, motels, taxi and bus drivers was so outstanding that it became a national model for such efforts.

The SNJMs of Quebec were founding members and continue to be active in CATHII, or the Committee for Action against the Internal and International Trafficking of Persons. Through CATHII, the congregation has provided educational dramas, videos and podcasts telling the stories of trafficking and advocating for policies to bring about its end in various national and international venues.

Siobhán O'Keeffe, a native of County Cork, Ireland, is a Sister of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Chigwell Sisters) who lives in Liverpool, England. A registered nurse with a diploma in person-centered care, she has additional graduate work in theology, justice, peace and mission studies. She offers spirituality and dementia care training to religious communities and other groups and writes and speaks on that topic and on prayer and spirituality. She has also contributed to Global Sisters Report. She has served in nursing home management for her congregation, supports a variety of social outreach projects, and is a member of the Catholic Sisters Cognitive Impairment/Alzheimer's Global Initiative, a project of the International Union of Superiors General and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States.

"Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity." —Pope Francis

The mission of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary is to be "joyful co-creators sharing God's unconditional love in our wounded world." We commit ourselves to prophetic witness to the healing, liberating and empowering love of Jesus to the most vulnerable.

We have felt compelled to respond to human trafficking in the following ways:

  • We pray each day with the whole church for an end to the abomination of human trafficking. We seek the intercession of St Josephine Bakhita for each one.
  • Sisters support victims who have arrived in England in perilous small boats and now seek refuge, companionship and food at Liverpool Foodbanks.

A sister was one of the founding members of the APT — Act to Prevent Trafficking charity in Ireland — whose purpose is twofold: "to raise awareness of the issue of trafficking in persons," and "to work in collaboration with others to prevent the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation."

As it states on its website, "To achieve this purpose, APT does the following:

  • Focuses on developing links with networks of religious women and men in countries of origin of victims and countries of destination.
  • Networks with other similarly committed organizations and action groups, nationally and internationally.
  • Looks for ways to raise public awareness of the issue by offering presentations about human trafficking to schools, parishes and groups.
  • Seeks ways to protect the rights of victims of trafficking.
  • Works with other groups to address the demand for purchased sex, which fuels the trade in human trafficking.
  • Prays and encourages others to pray for those trafficked, for traffickers, and for an end to this violation of human rights."

She served in ministry with Ruhama, an "Irish NGO and registered charity that offers nationwide support to women impacted by prostitution, sex trafficking, and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation." According to its website, Ruhama "advocates and engages in policy work on issues related to prostitution, sex trafficking and the experiences of the women we work with."

We are a member of Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation, or RENATE, "working tirelessly to rehabilitate victims, free the world of sexual and labor exploitation, slavery and forced organ harvesting."

A sister volunteers at the Rahab Safe House in London empowering the women through her compassionate care of each one.

I support an Iranian couple who escaped with their lives from the oppressive Iranian regime. God is ever faithful; they are looking forward with joy to the birth of their first baby later this year. 

May we be ever true to our call to be "joyful co-creators sharing God's unconditional love in our wounded world."

[Editor's note: A version of this response previously appeared here on the author's personal website.]

Caroline Price

Caroline Price from New Zealand is a member of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Melbourne, Australia. Before entering the community, she served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force for 12 years in administration and flight operations. Since making final vows in 1990, she has ministered in New Zealand and in Rome at the Good Shepherd Generalate. She established the congregation's International Secretariat for Justice and Peace, which worked closely with their International NGO Office at the United Nations, and has served as area community leader for the sisters in Victoria, Australia. Currently, she is a member of the province leadership team.

The world acknowledges the International Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30. 

One would think that in a modern, affluent country like Australia, the trafficking of people would not be happening. Sadly, it is not so. Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are modern economies, but trafficking continues to happen. Recent research commissioned by human rights group Walk Free reports there are an estimated 41,000 people living in modern slavery conditions in Australia, an increase from 15,000 from a 2018 report. 

People have come to Australia and Aotearoa or New Zealand [Aotearoa is its Māori name] from the Pacific on work visas and found themselves enslaved. The latest Global Slavery Index notes that worldwide there are approximately 50 million people now living in modern slavery — 10 million more than five years earlier. Around 22 million are trapped in forced marriages, and almost 1 in 4 in forced prostitution — 80% of those are women. These are horrifying statistics.

One of the Good Shepherd Sisters International Position Papers focuses on trafficking and Good Shepherd Sisters are involved with people who are trafficked in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cross-border trafficking is challenging. It is an area of ministry for our sisters and partners in mission across the globe. Our nongovernmental organization, or NGO, at the United Nations focuses on trafficking and advocates for women and children.

In 2021, Good Shepherd responded to cross-border migration in Tijuana, Mexico, setting up Casa Eudes, a community center that supports women and children and helps families rebuild their lives.

Open borders between India and Nepal mean illegal trafficking is rampant. In Nepal, the Good Shepherd Sisters work in trafficking prevention. Through Opportunity Village, they provide opportunities and training in health and education for disadvantaged young girls, women, and the sick in the Pokhara area. Prevention of poverty and trafficking is the aim.

Good Shepherd Sisters also run support programs for trafficked people in Taiwan and Macau. Parts of the congregation are involved in the network with Talitha Kum, an international network of religious congregations. 

Victorian members of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, showing their support for the U.N. World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in 2021 (Courtesy of ACRATH)

Victorian members of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, showing their support for the U.N. World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in 2021 (Courtesy of ACRATH) 

In Australia, Good Shepherd Sisters don't work directly with people who are trafficked; we are members of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, or ACRATH, which assists in education, advocacy and support and works with other NGOs and state and federal governments to address the issue. Recently, advocacy over 17 years bore fruit for a group of workers from Vanuatu who received wages that had been kept from them. In May 2023, the Australian government allocated funds so victims and survivors of human trafficking can access support without involving law enforcement. A momentous achievement! This gives families safety and protects their immigration status. Their stories have informed advocacy over the years.

Advocacy is dynamic and painstaking work, and it does, over time, bring about change! 

ACRATH's work gives me hope that through advocacy and support, things can change. It is never easy but consistent and persistent advocacy for the rights of trafficked people is the call for Gospel justice.

Judith Sheridan

Judith Sheridan is a Marist Missionary Sister from Massachusetts. She has worked in nursing or pastoral counseling in the United States, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea and lived and worked cross-culturally with sisters from all over the world. In her congregation, she designed and administered their U.S. Global Justice and Peace Office, co-directed a residence for women victims of trafficking, and served as assistant provincial and provincial superior of the U.S. Province.

When the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (Marist Missionary Sisters) began to research how to serve the victims/survivors of human trafficking in the San Diego area, we discovered that the No. 1 need was housing, leading us to open Mary's Guest House in 2005. Today, so many years later, housing continues to be the greatest need. 

Mary's Guest House can house up to five female guests, and it is staffed by two Marist Missionary Sisters who are on the premises 24-7. Women come to us after they are rescued from dangerous situations and enslavement. They are rescued during law enforcement raids by police, the FBI, or Homeland Security at the borders. Some manage to escape their captors and are helped by a good Samaritan. Then, the Human Trafficking Hotline, or the emergency shelter of Marisa Ugarte assesses them. If they need long-term shelter, they are referred to us for housing and services.

These women come to us bewildered, some unable to speak English and with only a few clothes. They are worried and afraid. Maybe she attempted an illegal border crossing and has been detained for months. Perhaps she was arrested and imprisoned for prostitution until she was certified as trafficked and brought to our house. Women are often in shock or drug or alcohol withdrawal. The situations vary, but it takes time for women to adjust. Many of our residents live in fear for themselves and their families, whom their captors threaten to harm if they escape or cooperate with the police.

In this shelter, I met Renee (not her real name) who bravely escaped abuse under cover of night and across borders until she was captured and sent to a California detention center. Overworked social workers and immigration caseworkers recorded her story in 60 or more pages to prove trafficking to clerks, lawyers, judges, etc. She waited every day for eight months. Since English classes weren't offered, she learned Spanish. When she was freed, she was unprepared for "normal" life. She had no money. 

Renee came to our "safe" house, and it took time to gain her trust. It took caseworkers, immigration representatives, lawyers, doctors, FBI, etc., to assist her during this transitional period. English, GED, job training and employment were essential to help her become self-sufficient and achieve her goals. 

I saw her many times on her knees, Bible on the floor, sobs mixing with her language, revealing a tortured soul before God. Psalms of powerlessness and desperation coming alive. Her trauma relived in her brother fleeing government forces in her homeland, breaking her heart. She couldn't help him.

I sat with her as she fought depression, crying: "I don't know who I am. Who am I?" The words God gave me:

You are a person who has suffered much but has been given deep strength to carry on; your spirit is strong; it is always speaking gentle words of encouragement, affirmation, and hope. God wants peace for you, a beautiful child of God. This is who you are.

Nuala Patricia Kenny

Nuala Patricia Kenny is a native New Yorker and a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is a physician, pediatrician and bioethicist, who practices, teaches and works at several hospitals in Canada. She has received many honors for her work in child health, medical education and health policy. Past president of both the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Canadian Bioethics Society, she was chair of the Values Committee of the 1997 Prime Minister of Canada's National Forum on Health. She has authored numerous papers and several books.

My congregation has a long and proud history of educating and empowering women, which was continued in our 2008 Corporate Statement: 

We Sisters of Charity of Halifax, called to be prophetic women in a world wounded by violence … stand together in a time when we hear the silent cries of victims of human trafficking, especially women and children taken for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor. We commit ourselves to work to eradicate this global human rights violation and affirm the dignity of all human beings.

While many sisters are involved in this work, two notable examples convey its depth and breadth and witness to the need for systemic and cultural shifts in attitude. 

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Sr. Nancy Brown has worked in domestic abuse and for 20 years at Covenant House serving homeless youth. She serves on many committees, including the Canadian Council of Churches Sexual Exploitation Working Group. She has a special calling to ensure Canada keeps its equality law which criminalizes buyers, not prostituted persons, and provides exit strategies, and rejects the legalization of prostitution.

In New York, Sr. Joan Dawber has collaborated with women religious to provide housing for women survivors of human trafficking. She founded LifeWay Network in 2007; by 2016, two houses offered safety and security for 16 women. They provide survivors with the resources needed to rebuild their lives. Each survivor is provided with a safe, supportive and nurturing housing environment, helping them to move towards a renewed life of freedom and independence. She helped found the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations Stop Trafficking of Persons project, which provided support for safe housing and educational programs from its beginning because collaboration is essential in cultural change.

Sister Joan is also one of the founding members of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, "a collaborative, faith-based national network that offers education, supports access to survivor services," and advocates to eradicate this example of modern-day slavery. As a member of Talitha Kum International, they are connected to a global network of women religious working to end human trafficking.

As educators, our sisters know that it is critical to educate the general public on this complex and tragic issue. Their educational programs have worked with schools, parishes, women's groups, businesses, hospitals, law enforcement officials and policymakers. 

They have also worked with episcopal groups at the highest levels. In April 2019, Sisters Nancy and Joan participated in an international Conference Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking in Rome, promoting a Christ-like response to women victims of sexual violence and exploitation.

Who knew? The Vatican has a competitive cycle team


Rien Schuurhuis and other competitors in GlasgowRien Schuurhuis and other competitors in Glasgow 

Archbishop of Glasgow roots for the Vatican Cycling Team

While the Pope is about to leave for World Youth Day in Lisbon, the members of the Vatican Cycling team are preparing for the World Cycling Championships in Glasgow. The event, which for the first time will be attended by the Vatican media, will take place during the WYD.

By Mario Galgano and Andrea Rego

A year ago, the Vatican’s very own Sports Association, Athletica Vaticana, for the first time in the history of International Sport, officially participated in the Road World Cycling Championships of the International Cycling Union (UCI) on 25 September 2022 in Wollongong, Australia.

The Vatican’s Cycling Team was represented by Dutch professional cyclist, Rien Schuurhuis, fondly known as “the Pope’s Cyclist”. The team aimed to testify to the authentic values that are part of the history of cycling, with particular attention to the most vulnerable people who participate in social inclusion initiatives.

The world of cycling has never experienced such an event that will take place from 3 to 13 August 2023 in Glasgow. The Vatican cyclists are mainly taking part in two important races.

A warm welcome from the archbishop

The Archbishop of Glasgow, William Nolan, is looking forward to welcoming guests from the Vatican. In an interview with Vatican Radio/Vatican News, he said,

“I would like to welcome the Vatican Cycling Team here in Glasgow to participate in the World Cycling Championship. It is a great sporting event, and like all sporting events, it helps bring together people from all cultures, languages and religions to participate in events that contribute to building friendship between us all.”

“I hope that the participants are welcomed by the people here in Glasgow and the presence of the Vatican here will help to highlight the good that can be achieved through sport, which in fact contributes to building bonds of friendship between all of us. “

Testimony of the ‘Pope’s cyclist’

Rien Schuurhuis, who represented the Vatican last year as well described it as “an incredible honour” to represent Athletica Vaticana in its debut at the Road World Championships of the International Cycling Union.

Born in Groningen, the Netherlands, on 12 August 1982, Rien recalled that cycling was always a part of his life. His daily routine included cycling to work, to school, to shop, and even to church.

Aged 40, he looked back on the days when he used his first allowance to buy a bicycle. He believes the love for cycling was always present in his heart.

Rien is convinced that ‘Sport transcends age, language and beliefs.’ His ‘cycling friendships’ have taught him to immerse in different cultures and have helped him grow as a person.

Cycling, and sport in general, he said, have served as "a great way to integrate into communities around the world." In 2009, Rien moved to Australia with his family and since then has lived in India, the French Pacific and now resides in Italy.

Rien said, “Cycling taught me to give my best. Living in Australia has taught me how sports can unite. Half of Australia’s population was born or has a parent born abroad, with an incredible mix of cultures and languages. Sport creates a bond that transcends all these differences.”

He looks forward to the race and acknowledges the team for its efforts and the team spirit that made it all possible. 

Cardinal Eijk gives interview on new/modern-day martyrs


Saint Titus BrandsmaSaint Titus Brandsma 

Cardinal Eijk on the courage of answering Nazis' hate with God’s love

In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, remembers new martyrs who, faced with enmity and atrocities during the Second World War, embraced their crosses with love, such as Dutch new martyr, St. Titus Brandsma. He also shares his personal story of renouncing his career as a physician, to follow the Lord in the priesthood, a decision he “never regrets.”

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Heroic and holy journalist, priest and martyr of the 20th Century, Saint Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest and theologian, combatted Nazism, even until it cost him his life. Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, remembers his legacy, killed “in hatred of the faith” in the Dachau concentration camp in 1942, after refusing to publish propaganda, speaking out against Nazi tactics, and opposing anti-Jewish laws they were promulgating. Cardinal Eijk argues Titus is not a saint because he was a martyr, but was a martyr, because he “was already a saint.”

In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II declared Titus Blessed, saying that he “answered hate with love." Pope Francis canonized St. Titus Brandsma in 2022.

In this interview, Cardinal Eijk reflects on Brandsma’s impact, as well as the holy witness of a predecessor Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht, who, with great love, countered the Nazis’ horrors. He also underscores the value of Pope Francis’ recent establishment of a Vatican Commission to gather the testimonies of all modern Christian martyrs for the faith, within the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, in view of the Jubilee of 2025, with the objective of drawing up a catalogue of all Christians who have shed their blood to confess Christ and bear witness to the Gospel.

The Archbishop of Utrecht also speaks on how regular Catholics, in all vocations, can learn from the martyrs and serve Christ, even as he had done as a physician, prior to his future of service to the Church in Holland.

Regardless of his love for medicine, the Cardinal has no regrets about joining the priesthood, saying, “no one and nothing can remove that inner deep spiritual joy that Lord gave me, and it is anchored at the bottom of my soul.” 

Your Eminence, Pope Francis has recently dedicated a Commission, within the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, to the new martyrs who lost their lives among such incredible and varied circumstances, out of uncompromising love for Christ and the Gospel. In your view, what is the value of the Church remembering them in this way?

I believe Pope Francis has several reasons for attaching a great interest to the martyrs through this commission. In the first place, we must not forget that Christian faith is the most persecuted faith in the whole world nowadays. Some thousands of Christians lose their lives every year because of their faith to Christ. We should not forget that. It is a shame that one does not speak about that in Western Europe, but it is a fact well established by various organizations.

Second point: you know, we also have in Western Europe, a kind of silent persecution of Christian faith. There's difficulty showing or expressing your faith publicly in Western Europe. I think less in the United States. But people working in business or in hospitals or, for instance, in schools, if they are convinced Catholics, they have to be prudent about expressing their faith. That's a very important point.

The third reason is this: people nowadays are not interested in systematic explanations of the Christian faith. But their main question - when they're still interested in faith – is: “how does your faith in Jesus operate, function in your own life? How is your own experience with Christ?” Personal biographies say more to today's people about the Christian faith than the systematic explanation of faith. People are touched by the personal experience, the personal severances of people!

When I give catechesis about, for instance, how to pray or how to live with Christians, I always introduce something of my own experience, my own illnesses, my own difficult experiences during my life, and the way in which I found my source of joy and hope and courage in Jesus. That says more to people than a systematic explanation of faith. People like to see films or read about heroes. Well, in a certain sense, a martyr is a hero, between inverted commas, in the eyes of today's people.

They are not heroes, in our view. They are saints who had such a love for Christ that they were even prepared to give their life for him. But how can the love for Christ bring people so far that they give their life for Him, that they can endure even the severest torments for Him, that is saying more, as I said, than a systematic explanation of faith. That’s why it is very important to look at the example the martyrs give to us.

Is there a new martyr who has inspired you in your service personally?

My example is a martyr in a certain sense, Cardinal Johannes de Jong, my predecessor as Archbishop of Utrecht during the Second World War, a very good man! Not a hero, but he became so during the Second World War.

Together with the Protestant pastor, he used to bring three messages to be read from the pulpit on Sunday Masses, instead of the sermon, which were read in two Protestant churches and in the Roman Catholic churches. He was a brave man, a courageous man, in doing so, although he was tormented in his conscience. He knew that the Nazis would not capture or attack him. They wouldn't have the courage because the Catholic Church was very, very strong at the time in the Netherlands. But he knew beforehand, the Nazis would punish others for these messages. These messages said that Christian faith was incompatible with the ideology of the Nazis. Through these messages, he protested the deportation of the Jews, and that was very dangerous.

“These messages said that Christian faith was incompatible with the ideology of the Nazis. Through these messages, Cardinal de Jong protested the deportation of the Jews, and that was very dangerous.”

After the last message was read from the pulpit, for instance, Edith Stein and her sister Rosa were captured and brought to a concentration camp, first in the Netherlands, and then Dachau, where they died by gas. The messages he wrote and asked the parish priests to read from the pulpit, other people were punished for that. Nevertheless, I found him to be a very brave archbishop. Pope Pius XII had a lot of admiration for him, and that’s why he created him a Cardinal in 1946, the first Archbishop of Utrecht to become a cardinal. But I see in him a very great example: in expressing the Christian faith, also the difficult parts of faith, with regard to medical ethics, sexual ethics and marriage morality. He did so openly, and had the courage to do so.

Last year, Cardinal de Jong received a as a kind of honor, as “Righteous among the nations,” according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. So, I'm very proud of this predecessor. And in a certain sense, he is a new martyr, a martyr of our time, since the Second World War is not that long ago. The truth was that the Nazi ideology was incompatible with Christian faith, but it was very dangerous to say so, and we suffered very much, because other people had to receive the punishment for that.

And staying with the Second World War in your country of the Netherlands; St. Titus Brandsma, who embraced the faith even until it would cost him his life at a concentration camp, left an immense legacy. What impact does his witness hold?

You know, Saint Titus Brandsma, was a frail man, not big. You would not think before the Second World War he would become a martyr. A very courageous man, a very brave man, he turned out to be, during the war. But he died as a martyr because he was already a saint.

He was what I call a practical mystic. He was a very practical man and an incredible organizer. He promoted his own maternal language, the language of the province of Frisia. He founded Catholic schools. He governed the Catholic University of Nijmegen as Rector Magnificus from 1932 to 1933. People who met him said he was a very ordinary man, very humble, willing to help people, listen to them. They described him as a man of science, philosophy, but also a common believer.

I say he was pretty practical. He had an inner contemplative life, but you must not think of visions, great revelations and so on. They were important in the life of many saints, not in his life. I mean just his very simple inner life of prayer. Titus Brandsma spoke with Jesus in his soul and a very confident way. The message of his life is this that is feasible for every Catholic. Every one of us can have this kind of contemplative inner life, this simple life of prayer, of speaking in your inner soul with Jesus without others hearing it. It was this inner relationship with Jesus, full of confidence, full of love, which gave him the courage. 

At the instigation of the Cardinal De Jong, Brandsma went to the head of the editorial board of Catholic Newspapers in order to stimulate them: “Do not accept advertisements of the Nazis.” And, of course, Gestapo discovered that very soon. Therefore he tried to hide himself. But he did not succeed in that for a long time.

What followed?

Titus was caught and was killed in Dachau by a nurse who at the command of a physician gave him a lethal injection of phenol. There is a witness who said that this nurse was so under impression of the example and the witness of Saint Titus Brandsma, that she decided to convert, and she became a good Christian herself, a good Catholic. In this way you can see how it's an example of a prisoner in a concentration camp can have effects on the people who are tormenting him. Like Jesus forgave the people who killed Him at the Cross, Father Brandsma did the same.

“Like Jesus forgave the people who killed Him at the Cross, Father Brandsma did the same.”

We always pray the “Our Father,” praying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and that was what Father Titus did. That's a very significant example for us today, because we, like people of all times, were inclined to hate our enemies. Brandsma, a frail man, with weak health his whole life, suffered greatly during his imprisonment in the concentration camp. When he was beaten and terribly mistreated there, that undermined his health. Nevertheless, he was full of love, full of forgiveness.

Your Eminence, you've dedicated your life to serving Christ as a shepherd in the Church. But even prior to this, you were a physician. Can you tell us more about your serving in this way, as a doctor, and how the martyrs of today, how they can bring the church forward through their sacrifice?

People sometimes say to me, “Oh, you are a late vocation”, but my answer is always “no, I am a late answer!” I already had my vocation to become a priest when I was prepared for the first Communion.

I felt in my heart, a very strong desire to become a priest myself. The Lord gives us a calling, makes known that he calls us to a certain state of life like the priesthood, by putting a strong desire to that in our hearts. This was a desire that always remained in my heart. Then I went to high school gymnasium, a Catholic School of a Congregation, during the second half of the 60s, when many priests left the priesthood. Many of the fathers left the priesthood, but at the same time they remained teachers at the school. Like every one, I discovered my own sexuality, as well. So I thought: “well, these teachers are not able to maintain celibate life, how will I then be able to do so?  I'm not more than they are,’ and I started to doubt a little bit…

In addition, in the last years of my gymnasium, my mother was suffering from cancer. I visited her frequently when she was admitted in hospital, and started to get acquainted with the world of medicine, the world of healthcare. That brought me to the idea to study medicine, to become a medical doctor, and I did so at the University of Amsterdam. I was very, very glad with the study, which was a very interesting study for me!

“My mother was suffering from cancer. I visited her frequently when she was admitted in hospital, and started to get acquainted with the world of medicine, the world of healthcare. That brought me to the idea to study medicine, to become a medical doctor, and I did so ...”

But I was always thinking, ‘well, shall I not interrupt the study, my studies in medicine, in order to go to the seminary?’ There was a great temptation, too big, for me at that time, because in one year I would have my medical degree. The professor of internal medicine offered me to work in his section of the hospital, and then I could become an internist, the most beautiful discipline of medicine, for me. I decided to accept this offer. I had to hurry a little bit in order to finish my studies in time. I liked working in the hospital. Nevertheless, the strong desire of becoming a priest remained in my heart and at a certain moment I said to myself,  “Now I have to do something.”

“I have to decide whether I remain or remain in medicine, or whether I will give in to this desire”.

As a doctor, how did you continue discerning your priestly vocation?

I did a retreat with a Jesuit to retreat in order to make a discernment about my vocation, and by the end of that spiritual retreat, it was very clear for me: I had the vocation to the priesthood. Once I reached this certainty, I decided to go to the seminary. I could not leave the hospital immediately, as they needed me another half of year. I went to the seminary and never regretted it.

People something say, “Oh, that is a great sacrifice,” but I don't experience it so much as a sacrifice, not because I did not like being a medical doctor, because that was the ideal, one of the man ideals of my life, but the priesthood gave me a great joy, and that joy, during my lifetime, became ever more internalized. It is more, not an emotion, but rather a spiritual joy, anchored at the bottom of my heart. When I was at high school, I thought “well, is celibate life for me?” But later on, I discovered that it is a gift of God to us.

God gives us the celibate life. He makes it possible for us with His grace, which we receive in ordination, to maintain this state of life.

When I go to a medical doctor, I see all these new methods of diagnosing diseases and new treatments, sometimes I think, “Oh, it would be nice to have experienced all these new developments, of having the possibilities to apply these new methods.” But in my heart, I don't regret the choice for the priesthood. I never, never regretted it. I can say in all honesty, ‘yes, I don't regret it.’

I'm glad that God called me to the priesthood. It was a very difficult life as a priest and especially as a bishop because of the critical reactions of the media, and so on. You have to get used to that. Now, I am in a somewhat older bishop, I am 70 years old, with some experience, and have been a bishop now, for practically 24 years. So, it does not hurt me so much. In the beginning, however, that was difficult. Nevertheless, no one and nothing can remove that inner deep spiritual joy that Lord gave me, and it is anchored at the bottom of my soul. 

“Nevertheless, no one and nothing can remove that inner deep spiritual joy that Lord gave me, and it is anchored at the bottom of my soul.”