Obituary: Bishop Hendrik Bomers

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The Independent Culture
HENDRIK BOMERS, the controversial Bishop of Haarlem, found it difficult to adapt to life in the troubled Catholic Church in the Netherlands after years of service in Ethiopia. Largely absent from his homeland from the mid-1960s, he observed only from a distance the transformation of the Dutch Catholic Church into a hotbed of innovation and experimentation that aroused concern in the Vatican. Brought back by Pope John Paul II in 1983 to shore up the conservatives in the hierarchy, he found himself mistrusted and shunned by liberal Catholics.

Bomers was born in the village of Eibergen near Groenlo and brought up in a large Catholic family (he is survived by six brothers and two sisters). He entered the noviciate of the Lazarist fathers in 1957. The Lazarists, an order founded in the 17th century by St Vincent de Paul and also known as the Vincentians, worked mainly among the disadvantaged and in the Catholic missions. At the time he entered, it had some 6,000 members, many of them from the Netherlands.

After ordination as a priest in 1964, Bomers took his degree in philosophy from the Catholic university in Nijmegen in 1966. He then worked for three months at St Mary's Church in Chelsea.

In 1967 Bomers departed for Africa. For six years he lectured in philosophy at the Interdiocesan Seminary in Addis Ababa. He then took over as regional superior for the Lazarist order in Ethiopia, a post he held until 1978. From 1973 to 1974 he was also in charge of the order's work providing food aid in the area during the widespread famine. At the end of 1977 he was appointed Apostolic Vicar for Gimma in Ethiopia with the rank of bishop, the consecration taking place in Groenlo the following July.

Bomers' years in Ethiopia coincided with the 1974 ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie and the imposition of a hardline Communist government. Bomers was fearless in condemning what he considered government exploitation of the people, despite concerns for his physical safety from his family and fellow clergy. He was spied on, put under house arrest and sometimes detained by the Ethiopian authorities. But he responded with vigour, whether to the local governor, the police or the army. "Don't you see what misery the revolution causes among the poor population? I am not an enemy of the country, as you charge me with, but a friend of the people."

In 1983 Bomers was appointed as coadjutor bishop of Haarlem, with the right of succession to the ailing Bishop Theodoor Zwartkruis. Shortly afterwards he took over as full bishop, being installed in January 1984, a post he retained until his death.

"Six years ago, when I was appointed missionary bishop in Ethiopia," he declared at his installation service in Haarlem cathedral, "I chose my episcopal motto in view of the situation of the Church there. After the announcement of my appointment but before I had taken over the responsibility, part of the Vicariate was struck by severe persecution of the Church. All missionaries were summarily expelled from Kaffa province. In those circumstances I found no words as encouraging as those of St Paul: `The Word of God is not fettered.'

"Now that the Holy Father has given me a new task, I didn't want to replace this by another motto."

Bomers was concerned by what he saw as the secularised Church he found and blamed liberal trends for the decline in church attendance. Although welcoming lay participation, he believed this should be under the direction of the Pope and the bishops. Bomers was criticised by some for vigorously defending the official line of the Vatican and many liberals regarded him as a Catholic from the 1950s.

The polarisation of the Dutch Catholic Church and the isolation Bomers felt took their toll. He would exclaim: "Why can't we all simply be Roman Catholic? If we stick to the doctrine and the rules of the Church, we shall overcome the discord, and church attendance will increase too."

Hendrik Joseph Alois Bomers, priest: born Eibergen, the Netherlands 19 April 1936; ordained priest 1964; consecrated bishop 1978; Bishop of Haarlem 1983-98; died Haarlem, the Netherlands 12 September 1998.