In the June issue of the Journal for Dutch Church History I saw in the book review section a piece about the recently published biography of Herman Verbeek. The author is a certain Stefan van der Poel, who is totally unknown to me, but the name Herman Verbeek sounded familiar. He is described as a “colorful priest in the Groningen-Leeuwarden diocese and as a “priest, politician and publicist.” Verbeek became best known as one of the leaders of the PPR (Political Party of Radicals) in the 1970s. Afterwards he was also a member of the European Parliament for several years.
My meeting with Verbeek took place in the early 1980s. I was then, for some time, the representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Council for Contact and Consultation concerning the Bible (RCOB). This was an ecumenical advisory group in which about twenty Dutch churches and religious organizations were represented. From 1967 until early 2008, this council consulted regularly with the leadership of the Protestant and Catholic Bible societies in our country, mostly regarding future Bible editions and related activities.
I vividly remember how I entered for the first time the meeting room in a monastery on the outskirts of Amersfoort, where the council usually met. In the meeting room was a large round table, surrounded by about twenty chairs (or “seats” is perhaps a more appropriate word). Since I was a bit late, I slid into one of the last open seats. As soon as was seated, the person sitting to my left bent over to me and introduced himself. He introduced himself as “Verbeek” and said, “I am here on behalf of the Catholic Church,” whereupon, of course, I also introduced myself and said that I was representing the Adventists.
Several months later, at the next meeting of the council, I was well on time, and there were still plenty of free seats around the table to choose from. But, as usually happens, I almost automatically chose the place where I had sat before. It wasn’t long before Verbeek arrived. He too chose the same spot where he had sat the time before. After exchanging a few words, he asked, “Aren’t you afraid to sit next to me?” “No, why?” I replied. At that, he opened his bag and pulled out a copy of the Adventist evangelistic magazine Houvast. He opened it at the main article, which was devoted to the danger of the Roman Catholic Church, with ample attention to Daniel’s prophecy about the historical career of “the little horn” and the future misdeeds we can still expect from this power. The article was illustrated with a few drawings of an ugly monster, with a hideous horn on its head, showing a portrait of the Pope. It was one of the most painful moments I have ever experienced, because it had occurred to Verbeek that I was both the author of the article and the editor-in-chief of the magazine.
I don’t remember exactly how I extricated myself from this precarious situation. I do know that it was the last time I wrote such an accusatory article. Since that time, fortunately, things have changed in the way most Adventists talk and write about other Christians. Only in publications that appear on the extreme fringes of the church are the kinds of pictures that I used some forty years ago still sometimes to be seen.
I hope that Verbeek, after seeing and speaking to me with some regularity thereafter, eventually saw me not as a hopeless sectarian who ridiculed the church he represented, but as a fellow Christian who had something to say that was worth listening to. Even though as Protestant Christians we had (and still have) objections to many Roman Catholic views, that does not give us license to unsympathetically (and often carelessly and partially incorrectly) condemn Catholics Christians. As far as I know, there has never been a thorough study of the results of the traditional anti-Catholic approach. Did this approach encourage people to listen, or rather the opposite? I suspect the latter. I think back to my experience with Herman Verbeek with shame, and I am still vicariously embarrassed when I see in my church how at times other Christians continue to be dismissed as enemies by some of my fellow believers (and even by some leaders). Respect for others and dialogue should be the key concepts in our contacts with other Christians. Many years ago my meeting with Herman Verbeek helped me to begin to realize this.