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In a meeting with Pope Francis on Saturday, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, bishop of Mainz in Germany, spoke about some of the current events gripping the Church in Germany since last year. He advocated caution and expressed concern in two of these cases: the continuing ‘leave of absence’ of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his Diocese of Limburg, and the German bishops’ efforts to broaden access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried faithful without taking current Canon Law and teaching into account.
About the first topic he said, in an interview for Domradio.de:
“Francis is amazingly well and correctly informed about that. I told him that I consider the Bishop of Limburg to be a very wise, highly educated and courteous person in whom I have never noticed any sign of wasteful swank. However, the procedure [against him] was burdened with a policy of secrecy fueled by a media campaign. I am worried that if we do not reach a solution soon, the atmosphere of optimism which was triggered by the Pope’s election will be threatened. For the process encourages mistrust and a hostile mood against the church.”
Once again it seems clear that those who know Bishop Tebartz-van Elst personally do not recognise him in the image that his opponents and the media have created. Related to this, Archbishop Georg Gänswein also said that he expects that the ongoing investigation by the German Bishops’ Conference will be concluded positively for Bishop Tebartz-van Elst.
About the second topic, Cardinal Lehmann said:
“The question of receiving the sacraments is one that can’t be avoided, it must be addressed, but not in the first place. The Church must concern itself about people in broken and damaged relations – and these especially include the divorced and remarried. They have their own place in the Church. But one must accurately consider the specific situations. One can’t proclaim only mercy in all cases, justice is a part of mercy. This relationship must be reflected upon carefully.”
No one is blaming the German bishops for exploring new avenues of pastoral care for people in broken relationships, including persons who have civilly divorced and remarried. Cardinal Lehmann, while being a bit general in his comment, seems to be indicating that one sweeping reform of the whole practice of pastoral care is not something to be desired. Specific cases need to be considered well. Leaving the decision to receive the sacraments to individual person’s consciences, as the bishops are suggesting, is the opposite of that. It is very timely that the cardinal explains that mercy is far more than just being nice. Surely allowing everyone to receive the sacraments is very nice, but is it merciful? Justice, in service to the wellbeing of the faithful, is also merciful. Doing the right thing, while not necessarily pleasant at the time, is merciful in the long run.
Joachim Cardinal Meisner, archbishop of Germany’s largest and most venerable archdiocese of Cologne, looks ahead to his upcoming retirement and other current affairs in the Church in Germany, via an article in the Aachener Zeitung today.
Cardinal Meisner, who turns 80 on Christmas Day, expects his retirement to become effective no later than February. Pope Francis has already indicated to be willing to grant it. He may want to wait, however, on the 25th anniversary of Meisner’s installation as archbishop of Cologne on 9 March.
The cardinal also spoke about the most recent, and quite serious, development in the German Church: the one-sided decision, independent of the world Church’s teaching authority, to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. Prelates in the Curia, among them Synod of Bishops chief Archbishop Baldisseri, have indicated that the topic should be discussed and looked again closely once more, but no chance in Church law or teaching has come about (and likely won’t for the foreseeable future, if ever). Cardinal Meisner says about this:
“I consider that wishful thinking. I think it’s the Church’s teaching. The Pope won’t change anything about that. That’s my firm belief.”
He also speaks about Limburg’s Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whom he continues to support, although not unconditionally so. He is very critical about the bishop lying about flying first-class to India.
“That is – I should say – a stupidity. [...] He should not have done that.” He has urged Tebartz-van Elst to repay the 20,000 Euro settlement in the legal proceedings against him, saying, “Pay it, and then it’s gone!”
But Cardinal Meisner also reveals that members of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s family in his native Kevelaer at times also felt the attacks against the bishop. Nieces and nephews were sometimes unable to attend school, and other family members were accosted in the street. No matter what happened, the Cardinal says, this is truly unfair to everyone involved.
After retirement, Cardinal Meisner wants to take up residence in the chapter house across from the cathedral, assisting priests and providing pastoral care for as long as time, and the Lord, allows him. And as for his successor? “That’s no longer any of my business.”
Photo credit: dpa
Following a week in Rome, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst met with Pope Francis on Monday, and today we learn the result of that meeting, which the bishop called “very encouraging”. Below is my English translation of the official press release, which contains some significant information.
The Holy Father has at all times been informed fully and objectively about the situation in the Diocese of Limburg.
In the diocese a situation has developed in which the bishop, H.E. Msgr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst can’t exercise his episcopal service at this time.
After the “fraternal visit” of His Eminence Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo this past September, the German Bishop’s Conference, pursuant to an agreement between the bishop and the cathedral chapter of Limburg, has established a commission to carry out a thorough investigation into the construction of the bishop’s residence. Pending the results of said investigation and the related responsibilities in this matter, the Holy See considers it advisable for H.E. Msgr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst to remain for some time outside the diocese.
Upon the decision of the Holy See the appointment of city dean Wolfgang Rösch as vicar general, which was planned by the bishop for 1 January 2014, becomes effective today. Vicar General Rösch will manage the affairs of the Diocese of Limburg in absence of the bishop with the authority associated with his office.
First of all, we learnt hat the Holy Father “has at all times been informed fully and objectively”. We may therefore assume that the decision was made on the basis of facts instead of media assumptions. The fact that the Pope not only heard Bishop Tebartz-van Elst on the matter, but also Archbishop Zollitsch and Cardinal Meisner is evidence enough that he got the real story.
Furthermore, we find that the bishop will spend the course of the German Bishop’s Conference investigation into the matter outside the Diocese of Limburg. Other sources inform us that he will be in a monastery somewhere. Some have seen this is evidence that Pope Francis is paving the way for a quick succession when the investigation is over, but in my opinion it would simply be a precaution against stirring up the situation even more. If Bishop Tebartz-van Elst would be to return to Limburg immediately, many would use that against him, seriously impeding both his own work as bishop and the work of the bishops’ commission into the finances. In essence, it keep things quiet enough for everyone to do their work. And it allows the bishop the time to reflect on any thing he did wrong, to pray and eventually to return home strengthened and refreshed.
Msgr. Wolfgang Rösch (pictured above), in the meantime, sees his upcoming appointment as the new vicar general of the diocese moved forward. Current vicar general, Msgr. Franz Kaspar was to continue in his office until the star of the new year, but has to make way for his successor now.
A short history of Msgr. Rösch:
54-year-old Msgr. Rösch was until now the area dean of Wiesbaden. An engineer by trade, he studied philosophy and theology in Frankfurt and Rome. He was ordained in Rome by Bishop Karl Lehmann (now a cardinal) of Mainz in 1990. After various appointments as parish priest, Fr. Rösch was appointed by Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, to lead the diocesan seminary in 1997. He held that position until 2003, before returning to the parishes in Königstein and Wiesbaden.
The press release above states that Msgr. Rösch (the monsignor title comes with the office, and will be relinquished should the vicar general take on another appointment) will perform his duties “with the authority associated with his office”. What is that authority?
Canons 475 to 481 of the Code of Canon Law describe the function and authority of the vicar general. He assists the bishop in the exercise of his duties and has the same executive power as the bishop, except for those rights and duties which the bishop has reserved for himself or which are solely his by law. This means that the authority of vicar general Rösch is somewhat more limited than that of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst. In essence, he will be able to manage the daily affairs of the diocese, but is limited in making changes and introducing new policies.
It is perhaps striking that Limburg’s auxiliary bishop (yes, there is one, who has remained outside the media frenzy quite effectively), Msgr. Thomas Löhr (pictured at right), has not been tasked with managing the diocese in the ordinary’s absence. Then again, while it is usual for an auxiliary bishop to be vicar general, it is not mandatory.
Lastly: despite what too many media outlets have claimed, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has not been suspended. He remains the bishop of Limburg with all the rights and duties attached to that office. The current ‘time out’ merely means he can’t exercise those duties until the Holy Father, or those speaking for him, decide otherwise. The bishop may at any time be allowed to resume in his episcopal ministry. There are no sanctions undertaken against him.
Photo credit: Bistum Limburg
There is a lot going on in the Diocese of Limburg, not least when it comes to the speculation about what Bishop Tebartz-van Elst did and did not do. Whatever the truth of all this may turn out to be (and that is, it would seem, now up to either Pope Francis or Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s Congregation for Bishops – or both), it seems that the bishop is by no means the only one who bears responsibility for the excessive costs of the St. Nicholas centre, which includes the bishop’s private appartments.
The most striking name involved is that of Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset (pictured), until about a month ago the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. Not only was he aware of the construction plans for the diocesan centre in Limburg an der Lahn, but he also agreed to the plan of splitting the project into ten smaller ones, thus avoiding seeking Vatican, as is mandatory with plans costing more than 5 million Euros. All this according to internal reports that German press agency KNA got their hands on.
Not only does this indicate that Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, in Germany media these days often called the “luxury bishop” or even the “bishop of bling”, is not automatically the sole responsible party (although he carries the major part of the burden out of his responsibility as ordinary), but it may also shed a light on Archbishop Périsset’s retirement eight months before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75…
Oh well, all this may turn out to be mere speculation, but it is striking. One thing is certain: the situation is not as clear-cut as we, and the media, would perhaps like. It seems ever more likely that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, consciously or not, has made some serious errors of judgement. But others who he called in for advice and assistance, certainly aided him in that.
Especially the German media have found a rich source of articles, opinion pieces and reports in Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the embattled bishop of Limburg. Now that he has travelled to Rome to speak with both Pope Francis and Archbishop Robert Zollitsch (as president of the German bishops’ conference responsible for setting up an investigative body to look into the problems keeping both the Diocese of Limburg and its bishop occupied), it would seem prudent to outline what exactly is going on. There are after all, so many words written about the case(s) that it’s hard to keep track of fact and opinion.
In short, there are three problem areas which have either raised the ire of clergy and faithful or caused serious questions being asked:
First there is the bishop’s style of management which is deemed to be authoritarian. Although a bishop has authority over the local Church, the style of this authority is important, and although it is a matter of perception, and Bishop Tebartz-van Elst may certainly not have intended to present himself as such, this is certainly something to be avoided.
Second is the case of the bishop’s flight to India. In a dispute with national newspaper Der Spiegel, the bishop presented official affidavits twice, claiming not to have flown first class. This now seems not to be true, as the court in Hamburg has charged Bishop Tebartz-van Elst for perjury.
Lastly, the St. Nicholas Centre near the cathedral of Limburg. A complex including the bishop’s private appartment, a chapel, meeting rooms, the diocesan museum and rooms for other functions, it exceeded projected costs by a factor of six. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, consequently, is accused of leading a life of excessive luxury, and this claim seems not to be wholly unsubstantiated. On the other hand, other bishops’ housings in Germany are no less luxurious or costly, it seems.
All this plays on the background of the initial steps taken by the Holy See to work towards a solution: the visit of Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo, former Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. The purpose of that visit was not to arrive at textbook solutions, but to listen to all sides of the conflict and try and achieve some form of reconciliation or, at the very least, the intention of all involved to work towards reconciliation. The joint declaration from Bishop Tebartz-van Elst and the cathedral chapter of Limburg, which I wrote about here, certainly reflects a desire for clarity and a joint effort towards a solution.
What the future will bring remains to be seen. There is little doubt that the meeting between Bishop Tebartz-van Elst and Pope Francis will be a deeply personal one. Regardless of the personae created by the media of both men, I suspect it will be a private and deeply pastoral conversation. Will the Pope dress down the bishop for his perceived life of luxury? That is what many who have an almost allergic reaction to anything and anyone perceived as orthodox think and hope. But that’s because they have an image of Pope Francis as, as Father Z is fond of putting it, “the very bestest and most wonderfulest ehvur”, who fires all nasty rule-loving clerics everywhere, in between kissing babies and blessing puppies.
In the meantime, let’s pray that all involved can maintain a semblance of openness, honesty and clarity as the conclusion (whatever it may be) of this crisis comes closer.
Photo credit: Uwe Anspach/DPA
Judging from their joint declaration, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo (pictured) has succeeded in achieving soe measure of resolve in the ongoing dispute between Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst and the cathedral chapter and other bodies of the Diocese of Limburg.
Both the bishop and the cathedral chapter have made assurances, the first to allow openness about the expenses of the new bishop’s house as well as making more use of the advisory bodies at his disposal, and the second to follow the bishop’s direction in a spirit of loyalty.
Cardinal Lajolo will be reporting to Pope Francis, as the declaration, translated below, states, but the general tone of the Assurances make it unlikely that the Holy Father will decide on drastic measures, such as, as some have suggested, a new appointment for the bishop (although his name is still being mentioned for Cologne, a see that will most likely become vacant before the year is out).
Joint Declaration from the Bishop and the Cathedral Chapter of Limburg at the Closing of the Visit of Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo to the Diocese of Limburg:
The paternal concern of the Bishop of Rome, Pope France, who “leads in love”, has been convincingly expressed in the fraternal visit of Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo.
We have gratefully received the urgent appeal of the Holy Father to us in the Diocese of Limburg to seek peace and maintain unity.
- The purpose of the visit was to gain a clear and nuanced picture of the situation in the diocese and to move all to mutual understanding and harmony.
- Over the course of the week, the cardinal has held numerous conversations with the bishop, the cathedral chapter, representatives of the council of priests and synodal bodies, and also with other religious, priests and laity, and will inform the Holy Father about this in detail.
- The bishop has assured that he will immediately allow all costs for the construction projection on the cathedral hill to be published in the diocese and will make available a special audit by a commission, which he has requested from the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. The commission’s final report, which will determine and record all costs, funding and means, will be published.
- The bishop has once more expressed his firm desire to make regular and reliable use of the advisory bodies in the management of the diocese, as provided for in general and particular Church law.
- In accordance with the wish of the Holy Father, the cathedral chapter will attentively and loyally follow the bishop’s path.
- The bishop is confident that the conference and councils will contribute in this way to resolve the current problems in a spirit of openness and fraternity.
Limburg, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 14-9-2013
Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Dean of the Cathedral Günther Geis
Photo credit: picture-alliance/dpa
Although it is pertinently not an Apostolic Visitation but a ‘fraternal visit’, the dispatch of Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo to the German Diocese of Limburg indicates that the standoff between bishop and faithful there is being taken seriously in Rome.
In a letter dated 3 September, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops expresses his fullest confidence in Bishop Franz-Peter Tebarzt-van Elst and underlines the purpose of Cardinal Lajolo’s forthcoming visit:
“Being very familiar with the situation of the Church in the German dioceses from his time as Apostolic Nuncio, the cardinal will enter into a fraternal dialogue with you, Your Excellence, with the cathedral chapter, but also with other relevant persons, with an alert eye on the needs of your local Church, help to distinguish the spirit and, where appropriate, to fraternally exhort, mainly in order to support and encourage your episcopal ministry towards peace and unity.”
As the above quote points out, Cardinal Lajolo was Apostolic Nuncio to Germany from 1995 to 2003. He was later recalled to Rome to work in the Secretariat of State and was later the President of the Governorate of the Vatican City State from 2006 until his retirement in 2011.
Limburg’s Bishop Tebartz-van Elst met with Cardinal Ouellet on 28 August in Rome and requested that an Apostolic Visitation be made to his diocese. Such a measure would mean an official investigation of, in this case, the finances of the bishop and the diocese, as well as the conduct of the bishop and the parties opposed to him. The visitor would then draft a report to authoritatively identify the root of the problems and recommend solutions. THis visit will not go that far, although Cardinal Lajolo will, as Cardinal Ouellet’s letter says, meet with all parties involved to resolve the situation amicably, so that Bishop Tebartz-van Ekst may continue his ministry in peace and unity.
In Germany, few bishops have received as much attention as the bishop of Limburg, Msgr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst. This attention is the result of an escalation of tensions within the Diocese of Limburg, located in south-central Germany. At the heart of these tensions lie questions about the bishop’s expenses, mostly concerning the building of a new bishop’s house and a costly flight to India. Another factor is the perceived orthodoxy of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst in a liberal diocese, and his perceived lack of communication.
Last week, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst travelled to Rome to meet with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. The purpose of the meeting was undisclosed, although it is assumed to have been related to the situation in the diocese.
On Saturday, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst wrote the following letter to all faithful in the Diocese of Limburg, a conciliatory gesture that will hopefully start easing the tensions:
To all the priests and deacons in the Diocese of Limburg,
To all coworkers in the pastoral care,
To all religious communities,
To all Synodal departments,
To all Catholics in the communities, pastoral areas and parishes in the Church of Limburg,
The Bishop of Limburg
31 August 2013
Dear sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Limburg,
I know that many of you, in these past days, have been concerned about the future of our diocese, that there are many unanswered question and also discontent and criticism. That is why I turn directly to you today.
It is hardly possible to answer every single question in this letter. A closer look at and review of many details concerning the costs of the new bishop’s house (Diocesan Centre St. Nicholas) will be necessary. I gladly inform you that everything will be done to answer this question as clearly as possible. And even more importantly: I want to invite you all, every single parish community in our diocese, for a visit to the Diocesan Centre St. Nicholas in Limburg and for a personal meeting with me. That is not possible within a few days, so I have to ask you for patience. It will cost time, but I gladly take that time. The bishop’s house is our common house, and it is open to you all.
Some of what has been said and written in the past few weeks has hurt me. Other things have also caused me to think and have contributed to me seeing some decisions in a different light. Looking back, I would have done some things differently. It is true, even a bishop is not immune to doubts and must be able to bear criticism.
That is why I want to especially turn towards those who are observing me from a critical distance. Let us approach one another! I appreciate your skeptical and critical questions. But even more than that, I need your trust. No Christian community can come alive where only suspicions and mistrust rule.
I have already met this week with representatives of our synodal bodies in the diocese and held many conversations. Together we have considered how we can deepen our established synodal dialogue. For the future we both need dialogue and unity. Episcopal care consists precisely of concern for this cooperation.
I ask you all in these undoubtedly difficult days for your prayer for our diocese. And also I personally need your prayer. Be assured that I also include all of you in my prayers. Let us travel the road which lies before us together, in full faith in the risen Lord. Not we, but He is at the heart. And how comforting on our way is this Word of the Lord: He is with us, always!
With heartfelt greetings and blessings
+ Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst
Bishop of Limburg
(Original German text available here.)
Photo credit: Martin Oeser/ddp