Home Page


Some Dutch history

Pope John Paul II's Dutch misadventure

Poster offering bounty (beloning) for Pope John Paul II

The 1985 papal visit in the Netherlands was a disaster. The journey, probably the worst* for John Paul II, was bad from before he left Rome.

Leftist politics in 1985 were ascendant. The general population, too, had become notably secular — and in any case the Dutch politic is famously tolerant. Top-down rule is foreign to Dutch culture (although the country is a monarchy.) Discussion has been instrumental in the history of a watery land made of community decisions and inclusion. The conservatism of the Vatican had become anathema to many of the Dutch. Many inside and outside of the church had protest in mind from the moment of the 1983 announcement of the upcoming visit.

John Paul II's days in Holland would be unlike the typical celebration.

The first obvious problem came on 11 May as the pontiff kissed the ground at Eindhoven: few people had even come out to greet him. Officials had expected 100,000. Instead, fewer than a tenth of that number appeared.

In the streets of Den Bosch later that day, the numbers were similar — flouting a similar expectation.

But the cool reaction was a mild spectacle compared to events the next day in Utrecht.

__   ___   __

There were various leftist movements in mid-80's Holland that were influential and visible — some quite radical by the standards of "normal" times and places.

The squatter's movement in the early 80's counted about 40,000 participants. (In 2006 — largely due to increased building occupancy [due in part to the squatter's movement] — the number is nearer 1000.) Squatters were in some cases quite militant — but even on the average rather assertive. As a movement they demanded and received a tolerance for occupying any building which had been empty and for which no development was in plan.

The squatters are only an example — though a radical one — of the active left in 1985 Holland.

In Holland of 1985, there occurred plenty of regular demonstrations against all that was conservative and right-wing — demonstrations that were not merely the province of the radical fringe.

The Netherlands was not ripe for a papal visit that year — at least not in the affirmative sense.

However, since John Paul II was to visit Belgium and Luxembourg that May, the church in Holland could only do one thing — invite him. You can't tell the Holy Father that his timing would be inopportune.

"It should never have happened," said Father Van Munster, an important organizer of the visit... "but there was no way to stop it." — VPRO's Andere Tijden

From the moment in 1983 when the Pope's upcoming visit was reported, there arose organizations dedicated to preventing the occasion, or — when it was clearly unavoidable — to articulating protest of the church's conservative ideas.

By the time the papal entourage landed in Eindhoven, many were prepared. At first, they just stayed away — there are speculations about why that happened, but the raw fact of nearly-empty streets tells a story on its own.

The satirical TV show "Pisa" had a segment called "Popie Jopie" that became its most notorious. It featured a song by that name, and a video, hier te zien op YouTube

And then there were the protesters.

"Whoever thought that it couldn't get more painful than the first day wished they could go back to the empty streets of Den Bosch."2 — VPRO

There was a gathering scheduled for the second day of the Pope's visit at the Utrecht "Jaarbeurs," the convention center. The Pope would confer his blessings, and members of the Dutch church would speak in his audience.

The streets of Utrecht surrounding the Jaarbeurs were filled with protesters. They shouted slogans: "Weg met de paus (Pope go home;)" displayed banners of similar opinion; hung from lamp-posts — it was chaos.

Somebody began to hurl stones — and the occasion devolved into rioting and police battles.

The Pope and his entourage were unable to get into the Jaarbeurs through the main entrance, and had to avail of access at the rear of the complex.

Inside the Jaarbeurs, all appeared to be much more like a normal papal visit.

The atmosphere was peaceful, again, with the streets of Utrecht locked outside the doors.

People from different sectors of the Church spoke to the Holy Father with respect. They read — more to the point — from documents that had been approved.

But there was another surprise....

The pope's Dutch troubles weren't over yet.

Before the 1960's, the Catholic church in Holland was unusually well-ordered. This was due in part to the minority status of Catholics within Dutch Christianity. Demographically, the Catholics were concentrated in the southern part of the country; and within local communities the Catholics tended to have their own schools, newspapers, and such organizations. Catholics had their own political party, and soforth.

Because the sectarianism kept the Catholics a distinct community, the accord between them, and between them and Rome, was pretty tight — before the 1960's.

The Catholic church in Holland had taken the 1962 "Second Vatican Council" to heart, with a result in 1966 of the "Pastoral Council" in Noordwijkerhout. This "Pastoraal Concilie" went somewhat further than the liberalizations of 1962 Rome — and meanwhile the sympathy for change had cooled in the Vatican.

Progressive Catholics wanted a practical, Dutch expression of the intentions of Vatican II. The Pastoral Council of 1966 brought many of their desires to the fore. They wanted humane consideration of homosexuality, anti-conception, marriage of priests (and the abolishment of compulsory celibacy,) and a more democratic manifestation of Church heirarchy.

After a few years of diplomatic unease, the Vatican ruled in 1970 against the Pastoral Council. The Pope underlined his message soon thereafter by naming a number of conservative bishops, beginning with the man who would in 1985 be Cardinal Simonis (in 1971 named the bishop of Rotterdam.)

The Vatican had been unprepared for the strident calls for liberalism within the Dutch church during the 1960's, and this conflict was unresolved in 1985.

Cardinal Simonis tried to intervene at the Utrechtse Jaarbeurs and tone down the atmosphere of protest against the papal visit.

Simonis worried about the slated participation of the theologian Catharine Halkes, known for her feminist opinions. He declared that Halkes could only speak if accompanied on the program by a more "traditional" Catholic woman. Halkes did not concede.

The press cried "censorship," but Cardinal Simonis held his ground. Halkes was off the program of speakers.

Instead, another woman, the little-known Hedwig Wasser, took the podium. Wasser spoke on behalf of the National Council of Missionary Societies (Nederlandse Missieraad,) the primary body in the administration of foreign Dutch-Catholic matters. She gave her speech from prepared notes about various pertinent allied organizations — notes that had been fully vetted.

But Ms. Wasser did not finish her delivery when she came to the end of her prepared notes.

Ms. Wasser spoke directly to the Pope and began by saying:

"Do we present a credible version of the Gospel message if we preach with a raised finger in place of an extended hand?... If there's no room for — but in fact an exclusion of — discussion about unmarried partners, divorce, marriage in the priesthood, homosexuals, and women?"3

Pope John Paul II could do nothing but sit there and listen, in all his eminence.

Ms. Wasser did exactly what Cardinal Simonis had attempted to prevent — she said that which one could not say.

At that moment, Simonis thought (in his own words): "Now the pope's visit has gone wrong." ("Ik dacht op dat moment: nu is het pausbezoek mislukt.")

Monsignor Bär, in 1985 the bishop of Rotterdam, saw it otherwise: "It's also necessary that people say to the pope what is in their heart.... I have no problem with that.... And I think that if I must be completely honest, neither has the pope."

After the riots of Utrecht and the confrontation there with Ms. Wasser's conscience, the remainder of the visit was mostly smooth for the pope and his organizers. The only remaining debacle was a glitch in the catering logistics. The Holy Father during his four days received an identical dish "at least five times."

Father Van Munster, the organizer, had asked what the pontiff likes to eat — "sole with puréed asparagus."

Apparently everybody in catering logistics got word about the one menu arrangement that the Vatican had specified — but obviously none of them knew that everybody else had only the same information.

Van Munster: "I think that the good Holy Father was unable to look at sole for months."4

Nearly everybody was glad when the visit was over. Cardinal Simonis: "There has never been a day that I breathed such a wonderful sigh of relief as when we boarded the plane to Luxembourg."5


__   ___   __

1. "Het had nooit mogen gebeuren... [maar]... Het was niet tegen te houden." — Andere Tijden, a VPRO television program.

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "should never have happened" ...

__   ___   __

2. "Wie dacht dat het niet pijnlijker kon worden dan de eerste dag, verlangde nu terug naar de lege straten van Den Bosch." — Andere Tijden, a VPRO television program.

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "the empty streets of Den Bosch" ...

__   ___   __

3. "Gaan we geloofwaardig om met de boodschap van het Evangelie, als een opgestoken vingertje gepredikt wordt in plaats van een toegestoken hand? Als geen ruimte maar uitsluiting wordt aangezegd aan ongehuwd samenwonenden, gescheidenen, gehuwde priesters, homoseksuelen én vrouwen?" — Andere Tijden, a VPRO television program.

NB: "opgestoken fingertje" probably doesn't mean "the middle finger," because that's not a normal
Dutch gesture.

Here's another statement by Hedwig Wasser:
"Women don't want half the cookie. They want another cookie."
(Vrouwen willen niet de helft van de koek. Ze willen een andere koek.)

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "Hedwig Wasser" ...

__   ___   __

4. "Dus ik denk dat die goede heilige vader in de eerste maanden geen tong kon zien." — Andere Tijden, a VPRO television program.

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "sole and asparagus" ...

__   ___   __

5. "Er is nooit een dag geweest dat ik zo'n geweldige zucht van verlichting heb geslaakt als toen we in het vliegtuig naar Luxemburg zaten." — Andere Tijden, a VPRO television program.

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "sigh of relief" ...


Transcript of a television broadcast of an episode of Andere Tijden"," (Other Times.)

• Katholiek Nieuwsblad (Catholic Newspaper)

*"Worst" journey is a bold superlative.

Known as the "travelling pope," Karol Józef Wojtyła visited more than 100 countries as pontiff.

"Never before during a papal visit were the streets so empty, and at the same time the stone-throwers so nearby." —

__   ___   __

  ↑ Return to "maybe the worst" ...