The cathedral in Roermond, in the Catholic southeast of the Netherlands, was filled to the last seat. More than twelve hundred people were there to see Harrie Smeets receive his episcopal consecration on Dec. 8.

In a nearby church, around three hundred more people followed the ceremony on a big screen. At the end of the Mass they heard the new bishop say that the Church should not let itself be pushed back into a corner.

“The Church in all times, but especially in these times, should not let itself be put in a museum cabinet, as if it were a relic from a bygone era. Nor should the Church protect itself with bulletproof glass, being all too well pleased with herself. Instead, she should be out there in the world,” the new bishop said.

Smeets, only 58-years-old, also said that in recent months many had asked him about his plans for the future.

“’Thy will be done’, that’s my answer. Whatever Gods wants. It’s not a question of having all the answers to whatever will happen in the future. Whoever is counting on that, should prepare himself for disappointment. Perhaps on more than one occasion,” he said.

“You might ask, however, if we as a Church are open to God’s word and are letting it come to fruition in our own lives. The point is not what we are doing with God’s word, but what God’s word is doing with us, with you and me,” the bishop went on to say.

Very unreal

In an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad prior to his consecration, Smeets confessed that he wasn’t exactly clamoring to become a bishop.

“Of course, I had heard my name come up once in a while, but I was always pleased when these rumors died down. I thought to myself: ‘It will surely come to nothing.’ It is very unreal. You get the question in the end, and at first it’s just too big of a thing to wrap your head around,” he said.

However, he didn’t need much time to think on it: “The Church asked and I have always said ‘yes’. When I was ordained to the priesthood, I said I would be available to whatever the Church needed and so, for this task as well. Although I do think it’s quite the adventure. I have never asked to be a bishop, but because they asked me, I know: I have people standing beside me and around me who think, expect and believe that I can do this. I can rely on these people. Knowing that other people trust me, gives me strength and makes me realize I am not alone in this.”

Not liberal nor conservative

It’s remarkable that pretty much everybody in the Netherlands seems to be thrilled with this new bishop, on the liberal as well as on the conservative sides of the Church. Perhaps because Smeets wants to bring people together and refuses to be classified as one or the other.

“To those who would like to do so, I’d say: ‘You’re welcome to try.’ But don’t be disappointed if I don’t fit the bill. I try to position myself in the middle and to be a part of the world. Because the Church and the world are not separate entities that exclude one another. The teachings of the Church are definitely important, and one should hold on to them, but it’s equally important to try and stand by people,” the bishop said.

Difficult situation

He is well aware of the difficult situation of the Dutch Church.

“In the past fifty years the only thing I’ve seen and heard is: ‘It will only get worse.’ Of course, I see that the Church is crumbling away, that it’s very hard and that it will be very hard. But I also see signs of hope, for example the Polish migrants in our area who seek to connect with our parishes. A few months ago two people from my own former parish took their religious vows: One took his temporary vows in the Dominican order, the other took his final vows, also with the Dominicans. People are saying that the Church is at death’s door, but in the meantime a ‘smaller’ Church goes on.”

Katholiek Nieuwsblad then asked: Still, people keep on abandoning the Church. How are you going to deal with this situation?

“I would rather do this organically, instead of restructuring from the top-down. In my parish in Maastricht I had the difficult task of closing one of the churches. This is something that’s more easily done in a city, because the local church is not so much at the heart of the community, but it’s very different in a village. I worked in a rural area for fifteen years. There is a loyal and hard working group of faithful in all of these villages. If you push these people too hard and say: from now on you all have to work together, you’re destroying the life of the Church in those villages. But I do not mean to say that everything will remain exactly the same. Difficult steps will need to be taken,” Smeets replied.

When asked if the prospect frightens him, the new bishop said, “Yes.”

“But I have climbed other small mountains before. If you take it one step at a time, you can get quite far in the end.”

This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad. It was translated for Crux by Susanne van den Berk.