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Religion: Paul’s Flying Dutchman

3 minute read

During his 15 years on the Vatican’s ecumenism staff, Johannes Gerardus Maria Willebrands has been a skilled, tireless builder of bridges between Roman Catholics and other Christians. Now he faces the equally delicate task of building bridges within his own church. Even while Willebrands retains the presidency of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Pope Paul VI has appointed the clear-eyed cardinal as the new archbishop of Utrecht and thus the primate of the troubled Dutch Catholic church.

Under the tolerant eye of the now retiring Bernard Cardinal Alfrink, Dutch Catholics were long in the forefront of innovation. Generally asserting autonomy vis-à-vis Rome, in 1966 the Dutch church issued a celebrated “New Catechism,” that invited reinterpretation of traditional dogma. In 1970 its national Pastoral Council went so far as to endorse the idea of women priests and an end to the celibacy rule. In response, Pope Paul named hard-line conservatives Adrianus Simonis and Johannes Gijsen to two of the seven Netherlands bishoprics. The liberals exploded in extraordinary public wrath over both choices and there was even talk of schism.

Thus when Alfrink approached the retirement age of 75, Pope Paul faced a delicate decision. One solution would have been to ask Alfrink to stay on and delay the appointment, perhaps so that Monsignor Karen Kastell, a Dutch moderate in the Vatican evangelism office, could be made a bishop and groomed for Alfrink’s job. The favored candidate of the Dutch hierarchy was Alfrink’s top assistant in Utrecht, Anton Vermeulen. But the Curia found Vermeulen too independent-minded, and Paul may also have been reluctant to appear to recognize any right of the Dutch bishops to pick Alfrink’s successor.

Meanwhile there was Willebrands, 66, whose labors in the Vatican had kept him untainted by the left-right warfare back home. His ecumenical record had given him a progressive aura, but as a trusted Roman cardinal he was also a Vatican insider. However, Paul hesitated to let Willebrands go on the eve of the first substantial theological talks with Eastern Orthodoxy.

Gave In. In late September the Pontiff decided to solve two problems with one Jan Willebrands. The cardinal, already known as Paul’s flying Dutchman, would take over as primate of Holland while commuting occasionally to his Vatican desk. Willebrands would have preferred to devote full time to the troubles back home, but when the Pope persisted he gave in. Said Willebrands last week: “A reasonable obedience is asked of us.”

In Holland there was general relief when Catholics learned that Willebrands, not a right-winger, was coming. Conservative Bishop Simonis saw Paul’s choice of a key aide as proof of his “love for The Netherlands.” Others were less glowing, since Willebrands was not on the list of three nominees submitted by the Dutch hierarchy. Carped the Protestant daily Trouw: “The move possibly indicates a love for the Dutch church situation, but it certainly does not betray much confidence in it.”

When he flies to Holland this month or next, Willebrands will find that Simonis’ once embattled diocese has calmed down, but Gijsen’s domain—where a poll shortly after his appointment showed that a vast majority of priests opposed their new bishop—is as tense as ever. In Holland some married priests continue to wink at Vatican rules and act as ministers in liberal parishes. Attendance at Mass has plummeted 50% in a decade, and in 1973 only seven diocesan priests were ordained. Willebrands has ranked high in speculation on candidates to succeed Paul VI. If he can unify the Dutch church, he might well deserve a promotion.

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