Book: Ten Commandments for the Reform of the Church
Ten Commandments for Church Reform, by John Wijngaards, DD, LSS, editor: Acadian House, 2021
John Wijngaards’ latest book is captioned “Memoirs of a Catholic Priest”. Autobiographical memoirs are a risky business. This is because they rely on memory and memory is a fallible faculty. At the bottom of memory, there are borders between history and history, fact and myth, truth and lie. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that these lines can get blurry at times.
Yet memory is so important, especially for those of us who are over eighty. We are well on our biblical expiration date. Memory has become a salient element of our daily life.
And it is at the heart of our Christian life and our faith. We live to keep the memory of what God did in Jesus Christ alive. Christ told us at the first Eucharist to repeat it in memory of him. However, there are five different faceted memories of this first Eucharistic moment.
From my own experience, I know that every time I tell my story it just gets better and better. Why? Because I control the narrative. I am free to include or omit. The deep red line that separates fact from fiction can turn pale pink at times. And it is only human to call our past “the good old days”.
John Wijngaards has set himself a difficult task. He lived a busy and fascinating life. He tells his story in great detail. It is obvious that he says it ‘as it is’, or that he was. For any Catholic who has lived the post-Vatican II experience, his book is a significant contribution to the historical memory of the Church.
The task he has set for himself is all the more difficult as he questions himself, at least implicitly, about the meaning of all this. His response is to try to encrypt his memories in the key to the Ten Commandments for the Reform of the Church. He traces his life lines, step by step, to end with the formulation of a commandment that has its source in his lived experience. It makes the book exciting to read.
John Wijngaards was born in Java, Indonesia, in 1935 to Dutch Catholic parents. His father was principal of the Catholic school St Stanislas. His first contact with the Catholic Church was through his mother on the day of his birth. Her mother, after a full day’s work, asked the nun nurse to ask the chaplain for Communion, as was her daily habit. The good sister refused because Mrs. Wijngaards was not yet in church. She was ritually unclean (Leviticus 12: 2-8) and could not dishonor the Blessed Sacrament. The priest joined the discussion. They did not prevail. The next morning, Mrs. Wijngaards received Holy Communion in her churchless state.
In 1943, world war made itself felt in John’s life when the Japanese arrived, rounded up all the foreign civilians and sent them to a prisoner of war camp. John’s father was taken from them to work in the Thai jungle to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai. John himself started and received his primary education in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
The war has ended. John’s father survived his ordeal. The family was reunited and returned to the Netherlands. John grew up very close to his brother Carel. When he declared his priestly vocation, John followed. Sadly, Carel passed away suddenly. Jean continued. It was a sad and inwardly tumultuous period for him. He writes honestly about the ambiguities inherent in his vocation. He says he was influenced by the trauma of war. There were unconscious motivations: the guilt of having survived; fear of God’s chastisements; to feel called to put the world back in order.
John was an avid scholar and read deeply and diligently. He became interested in Islam, learned Arabic on his own and became interested in the Koran. But the Koran was on the Index of Forbidden Books, a list of 4,000 books that Catholics could not read without incurring excommunication. The Index was first published in 1559 and remained in place until 1966.
John obtained permission from the local bishop to read and research Islam. By the time the authorization expired, John had begun theological studies. He asked for the authorization to be renewed. He was categorically refused, his banned books confiscated, and his room carefully searched for other possible violations. Thus John, from his experience, manages to formulate the first commandment of the reform of the Church: to allow theologians and other scholars unlimited freedom of research.
John was ordained a missionary priest at Mill Hill in 1959 and sent to Rome for further education. He had already told himself that he was going to be a “priest for the people”, not of the institution. His experience of fighting for this ideal leads him to the second commandment: the first priority of pastoral leaders is to take care of people, not to defend ecclesiastical institutions.
Vatican II met in 1962 while John was studying in Rome. He had ample opportunity to observe the schemes of members of the Roman Curia to prevent the Church from the reforms that many bishops and others were calling for. The experience of Curial Rome with its ingrained bureaucracy and rancid conservatism convinced John of his third commandment: to select insightful administrators in the Roman curia, not narrow-minded bureaucrats bent on blocking Church reform.
In the mid-1960s, John was posted to the Mill Hill Mission in Hyderabad, India, where he was appointed Professor of Sacred Scripture. Over the following years, John witnessed the gradual stifling of church renewal. The main instrument used to thwart the reform was the appointment of bishops who were out of step with the progress of the reform. What he witnessed in the Netherlands and elsewhere, I myself witnessed in Lima, Peru, where I lived between the years 1967 and 1989: the gradual dismantling and disarticulation of a church of nascent liberation having opted for the poor in their struggle for dignity, rights and justice.
John Wijngaards gave us the testimony of a constant concern and struggle for a Church at the service of the world, capable of dialoguing with all seekers of the truth. Each of the commandments of the reform of the Church is articulated from the concrete experience of living in the service of the Church. When Pope John Paul II declared definitively that women could not be ordained to the priesthood, John’s conscience could not stand it. It was a step too far and in the wrong direction. John resigned from his priestly ministry.
Since then, he has worked tirelessly to convince the Church that women have enormous gifts of ministry and leadership to give to God’s people. He became an apostle of the ministry of women in the Church. He continues to do so to this day.
Keywords: Frank Regan, Ten Commandments for Church Reform, John Wijngaards,
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