by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you first discuss it, and what was their advice?
Father Michel: I was trained as an architect. As such, I worked for several years in the Royal Dutch Airforce and later for an engineering company in the Baltic States on a project for Royal Dutch Shell. I loved my work, which mainly involved construction project management: it was my task to make all the parties who contributed to a project speak together and come to a joint result. That was an exciting task, and I learned many skills which have been of use in my priestly ministry too. I had a beautiful girlfriend, great career possibilities and a really good salary. But something was just not right. It took time before I realised what it was. An old Jesuit priest taught me how to pray and build a personal relationship with the Lord. He was very knowledgeable about discernment and had a lot of patience with me. And so did God! I had a long struggle with the Lord, but he won.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what course did you find most beneficial, and why was it beneficial?
Father Michel: I studied in Rome, where I lived in the English and German colleges. My academic training took place at the GregorianUniversity. The Jesuits have centuries of experience in educating candidates for the priesthood. I remember a great course on the history of the Church, which gave us an overview of 2000 years of Christianity in just a few weeks. And a seminar for which we had to read an inch of documentation every week, on the basis of which we were to write a two-page reflection. This taught us how to think for ourselves and deeply understand the teaching of the Church. We learned about the sacraments and the liturgy, while I gained also much practical experience with the liturgy as an assistant MC during the papal liturgies in Saint Peter’s Basilica with Pope John Paul II. When I was appointed in the parish, I started my doctorate in liturgy and architecture, thus bringing together the result of my studies and experiences in two very different periods of my life.
Gordon: What were your responsibilities as Assistant Priest in the three parishes in Leiden where you served?
Father Michel: I covered all priestly parish duties, assisting at marriages, baptizing children and adults, preparing confirmation candidates, accompanying the dying… There are too many tasks to list here! Next to these, I was given special responsibility for youth ministry. Together with some great young people, I started various groups to cater to as many young people as possible. We organized charity activities, intellectual faith formation, musical ministry, preparation and follow-up trajectory for World Youth Day, and much more. The three days of World Youth Day at home in Leiden had a lasting impact not only on the young people but also on our parishes. We organized pilgrimages to very different places. Thus we went to Krakow in the footsteps of John Paul II, to Istanbul to meet young Christians in a Muslim country, to Suriname where people are joyful in spite of poverty and corruption, and to the Holy Land to meet local Christians. This is also where we started with Tweeting with GOD, about which more in a minute.
Gordon: What were your responsibilities as Vice General Secretary Council of European Bishops' Conferences”
Cather Michel: The CCEE organizes meetings for bishops and their closest collaborators in all the fields that are of common interest to the bishops of the entire European continent. There is another organization (Comece) that gathers only the bishops of the countries that form part of the European Union. For CCEE, I organized every year many meetings where bishops exchanged about vocations in their countries or bishops’ conferences. Or about youth ministry, school and universities, catechesis, dialogue with other religions… Too many to mention here. My role was both to oversee the practical organization of the meetings, and to help the bishops deepen the theme. That led me to deepen my knowledge about all these subjects, while also gaining an insight in the various local churches in the European continent. After finishing my term, the Archbishop of Luxembourg invited me to help him with youth pastoral care in his country, and especially to expand the work of Tweeting with GOD worldwide.
Gordon: What are some of the primary challenges to faith that young people face in the Luxemburg?
Father Michel: Luxembourg is traditionally a Catholic country, where the majority of the population is Catholic. Even today, a great number of processions and liturgical memories are being celebrated. But the participants are largely elderly, and young people often know nothing about the faith. Secularisation has struck hard in the country. Since the separation of Church and state a few years, Luxembourg continues as a rich nation, while the Church is poor. This is financial poverty, but especially spiritual poverty. Much needs to be done for evangelization, and under the current cardinal archbishop, many new initiatives in this regard have started. Catholic migrants, in particular from Portugal, make a great difference to daily ecclesiastical life. It is my hope that their faith and enthusiasm for the Lord will also inspire people of Luxembourgish origin. One of the ways we try to contribute to the evangelization of the country is through the initiative Tweeting with GOD.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of Tweeting with God.
Don Michel: Today, people, and especially young people spend a lot of time online, and in particular on social media. So, if we intend to bring Jesus’ message to the people of today, we’ll have to be active also online. Jesus starts where people are to be found. He visits them, talks to them about their concerns. His main “tool” to convince people is his love for them.
That is what drives him and that is what people find so attractive in him. He is present in their lives. And then, when a relationship has been established, Jesus goes further and explains all that is demanded to live life to the full.
The pedagogy of Tweeting with GOD is based on this. We too intend to start where people are, with their questions, with their ailments, whether spiritual or physical. By witnessing of our own faith in Jesus, without imposing it on others, we demonstrate how it is to walk with Jesus.
We invite to get to know Jesus better, by recognizing the logic of his teaching in the light of the entire creation by God. With every specific answer, we intend to demonstrate how this fits into the great plan of salvation that God has prepared for one reason only: his desire to share his love with us.
Tweeting with GOD is more than just an online activity. From the very beginning, the initiative was concerned with real questions of real people. We started as a faith reflection group in the Netherlands, and the starting point of the discussion was always the questions of the participants. The book Tweeting with GOD is based on the summaries of these discussions. Subsequently, the young participants wanted to share their discoveries about the faith by engaging in dialogue about the faith also online. Tweeting with GOD is often used in faith reflection groups as a basis for discussion.
Precisely the combination of online and offline activities has proven to be very fruitful. The app in particular is a great tool for connecting the book with the online material, using an innovative technique that scans the photograph on whichever page in the book you are looking at. Tweeting with GOD has also proven to be a great reference work for parents, teachers, and pastors who have the difficult task of answering many questions about the faith.
Noticing the importance of the Saints on our social media, we developed a new initiative which we called Online with Saints. The book Online with Saints was launched at World Youth Day Panama, where every participant received an extract from the book in their pilgrim’s backpack. An app accompanies the book so that the images of the saints on the pages start to speak to you in the first person through a video. The app also lets you visit the ‘social media profile’ of a saint and even take a selfie with them. The two initiatives Online with Saints and Tweeting with GOD come together in our faith course manual How to grow in faith. Step by step we explain how you can structure a series of group dialogues about virtually any theme related to faith and life. The manual How to grow in faith is useful for both seasoned teachers and beginning group leaders.
Finally, I wrote a book to answer questions by people from all around the world about questions that are related to daily life, titled Your Neighbour is God | Social questions for a better world. These questions are answered with help of the social teaching of the Church. This teaching forms the basis of the answers in the book Your neighbour is GOD.
All in all, we are reaching out to thousands of people every day, and working together with various international organizations to proclaim and explain the faith to people today, both online and offline. To date, the books have been translated into some 30 languages, so that the content of the faith is available for as many people as possible. It is a great joy to work together with an international team, each one in their own country, to contribute to our Christian task of bringing the Gospel to everyone as Jesus told us to do.
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.