We must find the courage to speak clearly, a Dutch cardinal tells Greg Daly
When the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Learning Network decided to build its annual conference this month around the theme of ‘Powers and Powerlessness: Responding to the Challenges of Modern Healthcare’, one obvious potential speaker was the Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht, Wim Eijk.
A doctor by training, and someone who as a cleric has continued to grapple with questions of medical ethics, the Dutchman is one of the Church’s most important voices in this area, though as he admits himself, it wasn’t always obvious that he would have become a priest.
“I studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam in the ‘70s,” he tells The Irish Catholic, “and in the last year that I was studying, the professor of internal medicine offered me a place in his ward so I could specialise in internal medicine, which was my ideal. I was already thinking about becoming a priest, but that seduced me. The seduction was too great for me, so I yielded and I accepted the offer.
“But after having worked there for one-and-a-half years, the desire to become a priest remained and that was for me the reason to do a retreat of a week with the guidance of a Jesuit. By the end of that week I had arrived at the conclusion that God was calling me to the priesthood,” he says.
While he might have been stepping away from the medical coalface, what he encountered there has stayed with him and played a key role in his path in the Church, he continues.
“When I worked in the university hospital in Amsterdam, at the end of the 70s, I was confronted with requests for euthanasia – I refused to do it, because of my Faith,” he says, noting that it was possible to change some people’s minds around this, while others maintained their requests, which would be handled by a senior doctor.
“Moreover I was confronted with the fact that some acts, by treating symptoms in incurable patients, could shorten their lives, with the same effect as when you omit life-prolonging treatment, and therefore I was very interested in these topics,” he adds.
We have to preach the faith, otherwise people will not hear the word of God”
“When I was in the seminary the bishop said to me, well perhaps you can already start to study medical ethics in some way or another, and again that resulted in me writing a dissertation at the medical faculty of the University of Leiden,” he says.
“I wrote that during my seminary years and I finished it when I was an assistant priest. I defended my thesis in June 1987, and afterwards the bishop decided to send me to Rome in order to specialise in philosophical ethics and theological ethics, so I did my licence and doctorate in philosophy. My doctorate was on genetic engineering in human beings, so again a medical-ethical topic.”
One might wonder how a Catholic voice could ever be heard around these questions in a world which increasingly seems deaf to the Church, and the cardinal observes that if the world is deaf to the Church, the Church has often failed to speak clearly.
“First of all the crisis in Holland had started already during the Council, and even before it – we saw the first signs in the second half of the ‘40s, so now we’ve been dealing with the problem for almost a century,” he begins.
“I went to grammar school in 1965, and for the first two years I received good catechesis, but in the third year it was no catechesis anymore,” he says. “So the hours of religion were discussion hours and you could smoke at the time, but nothing on religion – it was carefully avoided. I regretted that very, very much because I was a firm believer, and I remained that at the time.
“By the way, I saw many priests leaving the priesthood – there were teachers, and it was mostly over the summer, where after the summer you did not say ‘Father’ to them, but ‘Sir’. These priests leaving the priesthood were not exactly very stimulating for my vocation.”
Despite these problems, all was not lost, he says, explaining how individuals could still be signs of clear Christian hope.
“Then in August 1969 a new parish priest was appointed in my parish – the little village where I was born – and he was a firm believer and a faithful priest. He wore a collar, he prayed the breviary, he celebrated Mass according to the Roman missal, and he was I think the man who saved my vocation.
“We can say that, well, ever less people are believing, but when he came he saved the parish because the diocese was thinking about closing down the church, and he managed to restore it to make it a believing community,” he continues. I’m sure it was very helpful that we had many immigrants, ever more immigrants, who filled the church and helped to maintain it. This was a stimulating environment for me.”
In other words, he explains, courageous Catholics really can make a difference, and indeed must make a difference.
I was confronted with the fact that some acts, by treating symptoms in incurable patients, could shorten their lives”
“It is very possible that Catholic voices can be heard in a secularising society,” he maintains. “St Paul says faith is realised by preaching, and we have to preach the faith, otherwise people will not hear the word of God and god gave us the mission the duty to preach his word. We do this in word and deed, and as Catholics we should not be afraid to witness our Faith. As John Paul II said from the very beginning, in his first sermon when he became Pope, ‘do not be afraid’.
“He did not mean that we should never have fear, because fear is a normal emotion in people and we need fear sometimes as a signal that we have to do something. He meant instead ‘don’t fear to announce the gospel, the truth that you find in Jesus Christ’,” he says.
St John Paul II was also important to his own vocation, he says, adding how he was inspired from the first by the Polish Pope’s courage, at a time when the Church in the West was declining, in speaking out against the atheist communist system that was then so powerful across the world.
“Benedict XVI, when he went to Czechia one time in the airplane he had interviews with journalists. One journalist asked him ‘Holy Father, you’re going to the most secularised country of western Europe, there’s only a small Catholic minority – what can they reach?’ And he said, be aware of one thing: a creative community can change a whole culture.
“He referred to Arnold Toynbee, the British philosopher of history, who investigated the fall and the rise of 24 civilizations, and he concluded that the rise of a civilization was always due to the activities of a creative minority who took the initiatives which were necessary to find answers to the specific challenges of the time. And that’s what we need to become – a creative community.”