Religion: The Gijsen Affair

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To the easygoing Roman Catholic burghers of the Dutch diocese of Roermond, their new bishop came on like a thunderclap. Last January, when Johannes Mathias Gijsen, 39, was named to the see from the rectorate of an old-folks home, hardly anyone knew who he was. They soon found out. In the next six months, Gijsen sacked his deputy bishop and two vicar generals. He issued a ukase telling his pastoral council that it would have to follow whatever policy he laid down. That policy included a strict stand against birth control, opposition to any democratic procedures in the church, and a stand on abortion more rigid than that adopted by his fellow bishops. "If a 13-year-old girl gets raped by a psychopath and gets pregnant," he pronounced, "abortion is certainly not allowed. She would have to say: Til have to carry the cross of the Lord.' "

Gijsen (pronounced roughly Highsen) also informed the pastoral council and the diocesan chapter—a group of priests who work directly with and advise a bishop—that he no longer had any use for their advice. The diocesan's personnel staff forthwith resigned. A poll showed that the majority of the diocese's priests had decided they simply could not work with Gijsen. Some no longer consider him their bishop at all. Said one deacon: "We have to deal with a problem named Jo Gijsen who happened to become a bishop."

What the discontents had to deal with was the fact that Gijsen was chosen —if not imposed—by Pope Paul VI himself. The Pope personally selected Gijsen over a list of candidates proffered by the diocesan chapter to fill the seat of retired Bishop P.J.A. Moors, 65, a moderate who had carefully mediated between conservative and progressive factions in his diocese. The Pope was known to feel that conservatives were not adequately represented in the predominantly liberal Dutch hierarchy, and Conservative Gijsen was his choice to redress the situation. The Pontiff emphasized his point by consecrating Gijsen in Rome and summoning The Netherlands' primate, Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink, to join in the ceremony.

With his commission thus firmly in hand, Gijsen came home to rule the diocese like an autocrat, pleasing some of the conservative laymen but alienating his mostly progressive clergy. The diocesan chapter is now so outraged that it has appealed to the Vatican for intervention. Last month, Cardinal Alfrink himself flew to Rome to offer his services as a mediator.

Whatever is done—and any dramatic move by the Vatican is highly improbable—Gijsen himself is clearly a man distressed. A few close to him say he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown—his third. Among his last public words was an almost poignant lament: "If the Pope would only tell me, 'Boy, you have made a big mess out of this,' I can tell you, I would thank our dear Lord on my bare knees to be rid of this job." Of all possible solutions, that seems the least likely.