No Accusations, But Respect: “When people are suffering, I spring into action. And I take an interest. I only take to heart the individual road of that young man or woman.” Father Jan van Kilsdonk could not have characterized himself better. Van Kilsdonk did so just before his death in 2008, in more than sixty hours of conversations with author Alex Verburg. With these conversations as a basis, Verburg wrote a remarkable and compelling portrait of one of the most colorful clergymen The Netherlands have ever known.
From 1944 until 1947, Van Kilsdonk worked as a chaplain amongst imprisoned members of the national socialist movement (NSB), the Dutch branch of the Nazi Party (“You do not convert guilty people by accusing them, but by showing them some respect”). After that, he left for Amsterdam to become a teacher of religion and a student pastor.
Van Kilsdonk’s views on the teaching profession are clear: “A teacher is a magician, and if he is not, he is very little. In former days, people spoke of pedagogic eros, and that is something of..., well, it is a feeling. Later on, I did feel some of that pedagogic eros as a teacher of religion. Something happened to these boys, and suddenly they felt ‘something’ was over their heads, but it did get to the point where that wasn’t the case anymore.”
Some of his pupils were Huub Oosterhuis, literary critic and scholar Kees Fens, and gay priest Antoine Bodar. Bodar was castigated for being dangerously loose-tongued: “you have a knack for bragging and piety.”
Already at a young age, Van Kilsdonk’s contrary opinions were a thorn in the flesh of “Rome.” The father put mortal sins, such as premarital sex, into perspective, gave same-sex couples his blessing, argued against celibacy, spoke in defense of boylovers, AIDS patients, and female priests. His opinions on masturbation were also in direct opposition to the ecclesiastical doctrine: “Sexuality was something you kept under control. There was a norm. When a pupil of approximately fifteen, sixteen years of age came to you with something like that, my mercy consisted of saying: ‘Well, my son, you may confess to this if you wish, but you should not consider this something that is now taking you further from Our Lord.’ I would tone it down. Not to ridicule it, but just because I did not want to burden someone with a feeling of guilt.”
‘My Eyes Were Opened’
In his fourth year as a teacher of religion, one of Van Kilsdonk’s former pupils committed suicide: “that boy had kept a large diary. In that diary, he accused and mentioned by name all teachers, including me, of not paying any attention to his homosexuality. Even though, according to him, he had sent out all the signals. His parents came to tell me, and it made a deep impression on me. So deep, that my eyes were opened.”
Shortly after the boy’s death, Van Kilsdonk was appointed student pastor. He started organizing dancing parties for homosexual students in Amsterdam, and founded the controversial spiritual home for students, the “Studentenekklesia.” Also within this spiritual home, Van Kilsdonk fought taboos, such as those surrounding homosexuality. Homosexuality was “a discovery made by the Creator,” the father stated.
Doucé and Brongersma
Van Kilsdonk conducted the funerals of many colorful characters, including Flemish father Joseph Doucé and Dutch journalist and former senator Edward Brongersma, but also of sports journalist Hans van Wissen and writer Frans Kellendonk.
Van Kilsdonk had become friends with father Doucé, who founded the Centre du Christ Libérateur in Paris, a center for pastoral care for sexual minorities. Doucé had to pay for this care with his life. In 1990, he was brutally murdered: “someone can have a very high price to pay for his association with publicans and sinners as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.”
Van Kilsdonk also befriended Edward Brongersma. Brongersma is mostly known for his books on loving boys. The former politician wrote about “very normal and sensible friendships” and “meetings with boys, never children, but boys of approximately fifteen years old.” Because of these stories, Van Kilsdonk developed “an enormous eagerness to take lessons in the school of human experiences and the heart.” In any case, Brongersma chose euthanasia, pushed by a quickly changing and harsh social climate, and Van Kilsdonk conducted the funeral.
The “Studentenekklesia” founded by Van Kilsdonk eventually came under the umbrella of theologian and poet Huub Oosterhuis. To his sorrow, Van Kilsdonk had to watch how the student pastorate changed into a political-cultural gathering: “the joys and sorrows of theirs souls do not come to the surface there.”
Before that, the contrary Van Kilsdonk had already become a legendary figure in the student world of Amsterdam. Because those who, like me, studied in Amsterdam in the 70s and 80s, could not escape the father. He was visibly present on many locations: “I literally received thousands of men and women, and boys and girls, who did not find enough happiness, and sometimes even worse. As a father, I have experienced everything that life has to offer. [...] Basic human love and respect, that is what the pastorate is all about. If you cannot muster that, you are unfit for any service. [...] In the pastoral conversation, ‘I breathe in what I am told, and I breathe it out again.
That is how I help to heal wounds. That is my inner calling.’”
Alex Verburg, Pater Van Kilsdonk, Raadsman in delicate zaken: Memoires, Amsterdam: Atlas Contact, 2013, 224 blz., ISBN 9789045022031
Photo: Jan van Kilsdonk in 1965 (foto Eric Koch / Anefo)