A Prognosis of Life: A Story from the Netherlands

Bishop Jan Liesen before being installed as the Bishop of Breda at St. Anthony’s Cathedral (Web)

“Are you the last Bishop of the diocese?
Will the Church now finally go to rest and be over with?” 

Jacqueline Marie | June 7, 2023

On Nov. 26th, 2011, a reporter asked the newly appointed Bishop of Breda, Jan Liesen, Are you the last Bishop of the diocese? Will the Church now finally go to rest and be over with? 

While historically a very Catholic diocese in the Netherlands, now only 1% of self-identifying Catholics attend Mass in Breda. Born in the diocese, Bishop Liesen spent most of his priesthood outside of North Brabant.  

In 1968, a decade before he went to seminary, all seminaries in the Netherlands (about 30 in total) closed, including in Breda. This shift had an immediate effect on vocations: in one year, ordination dropped to 0. When Bishop Liesen first felt the call to the priesthood as a young man, he didn’t even know the route to take.

He ended up travelling a province over to attend a new seminary in Limburg that had just been founded by the Bishop there – a bishop who was intent on forming men for the priesthood following the vision of Vatican II. For some, the new seminary was viewed unfavorably as other Bishops had been closing their seminaries. At that time, Bishop Liesen‘s own Bishop in Breda had no plans for him. So, he remained in the Diocese of Roermond and was very happy for years as a priest, first in the parish and later as a teacher in the seminary.

Dioceses of the Netherlands

Bishop Liesen has not been a stranger to struggle. His chosen episcopal motto “Deus Providebit” (God will Provide) was inspired by the story of Abraham in Genesis 12-14. Bishop Liesen has had key moments in his life where this motto has rung true. Moments where he was called to leave everything behind, go into the unknown and learn to trust the Creator. Times where he has had to come to “surrendering to what God wants, not what I feel is comfortable.” This posture directed his response when the Papal Nuncio called and informed him in 2010 that the Pope wanted him to become a Bishop: “Yes, here I am to do your will, so if that is the path God chooses, I will do it.”

In 2012, when he arrived in Breda, he found a Church focused on maintaining the small number that were left. There were liturgies held by parishioners, one parish welcomed him with tea and coffee laid out…on the altar. The actions weren’t recalcitrant so much as the result of a remnant of people trying to hold on in the best way they thought possible. He knew changes were needed, but didn’t see an immediate way forward. Time was needed to listen and get to know people more intimately. Time was needed to pray and listen to God.

In 2018, they discovered the books from DR. Bishop Liesen relates that it started with parishioners who felt “after us there is nothing” but “in this book they found a realistic alternative, it doesn’t have to be as it is now, it can be different.”

When Bishop Liesen read the book, he felt, “this is authentic. This a conversion not of the mind but of the heart. This is really going back to Jesus Christ and Him building up His Church: this is what we need.” The focus shifted to becoming a missional diocese. “The more we did it, the more enthusiastic we became.” In 2019, they sent delegates to the DR Conferences in the UK and in Fulda in Germany. Then in March 2022, they held their own Missionary Parish Conference in the Netherlands and Fr. James Mallon came and spoke. Bishop Liesen could feel the momentum growing – amidst the struggle, a flame was being birthed for renewal in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.

"It changed the atmosphere completely. It was no longer a business-like meeting where you had to know each other to do your work. It was about Jesus, it was about being his friend, him being our Saviour. It changed completely.”

Becoming a missional diocese was no small task: it meant a switch in vision, staffing and parish organization. Bishop Liesen wanted the diocese to be an example for the parishes, so that if they chose to take up their missional identity, they had an example at the diocesan level.

Then in June of 2022, as they were closing out their year in the diocesan office, and Bishop Liesen headed out to give a retreat in Germany…he did not feel well. He chalked it up to overwork. But by the time the retreat started he knew something was wrong. When he returned home, his doctor gave him the prognosis: stage 4 metastatic colon cancer. It was terminal – he was told he had less than a year to live.

Photo: Ramon Mangold (Web)

“I couldn’t believe – you know, we were so ready, so on fire to work for the renewal of the Church. Why is this happening? I found it very hard to understand that.”

He felt the vastness of the future stretched out before him, like Abraham once again called into the unknown. He chose to surrender: “if this is the path God asks me to go, I am ready to go.” It looked as though his part in this renewal was drawing to an end.

Yet, despite Bishop Liesen being away in the hospital, the plan they had made to bring renewal to the diocese continued.

Now in the diocesan office: “The whole mentality has changed, the way people interact…everyone shares in this.” Today, teams of 3-4 people from the diocese visit the parishes. Bishop Jan states “we don’t write letters anymore to the parishes, often we go there and speak to them eye to eye.”

Stories of a quiet stirring have begun to emerge from the Netherlands – Catholics, which are now a small minority in the country, starting to reawaken to their faith. In the diocese, Bishop Liesen says “There are so many small things happening and it all begins to shape into something good.” Several parishes are starting to seek out their missionary identity, and there are priests that want to take up the call of evangelization – and bring the love of Jesus to the people.

“A huge blessing has been the discovery of Alpha…it has brought such beautiful fruits.” He gives an example: “every year the new members (of the parish council) are called together, and we prepare them for their task. We introduce them to the diocesan office, and I speak with them. In that meeting everyone introduces themselves… each one was saying ‘I am so-and-so and I come from this parish.’ All of a sudden there was one who said ‘I am so-and-so and I come from this parish and I volunteer to be on the parish council because through Alpha I discovered that Jesus is my friend.’ I could see the eyes of the others pop open: ‘what is happening here, what are they saying?’ Traditionally people who come forward to do this kind of thing for the parish are people with a lot of professional experience who want to put that in service of the parish but they are not necessarily on fire…but this person spoke about friendship with Jesus, and then another said it!…it was beautiful. It changed the atmosphere completely. It was no longer a business-like meeting where you had to know each other to do your work. It was about Jesus, it was about being his friend, Him being our Saviour. It changed completely.”

This work is in its infancy. He says, “I know we are not there, not by a long shot. It is not even our own work, but something is changing in a hopeful way.” The Diocese of Breda is reliant on the Holy Spirit to empower leaders and open hearts. Change is coming.

And Bishop Liesen? He just received a new diagnosis… his cancer is shrinking; his health is returning.

“I experienced that the confrontation with death turns everything upside down and makes you think about what is really most important. That was the start. It has again become clear to me that, even more than the awareness of inevitable death, the love of Christ is able to put everything in its right place. The prognosis has now improved greatly! There is now not only treatment, but – even though there is still a way to go – healing is possible.”

A decade ago, a reporter declared the terminal prognosis for the Church in Breda.

A year ago, the doctors saw the same thing for Bishop Liesen.

But God had other plans: what looked like the end, “God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

Deus Providebit – God will provide.

 Pray for Bishop Jan Liesen and the Church in the Netherlands!