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When it comes to bishops, the foremost issue in the minds of many in Germany is that of finances. That’s certainly so for Cardinal Rainer Woelki as he prepares to move from Berlin to Cologne. In what has been presented as his farewell interview in Berlin, the cardinal was asked about his new living arrangements. Exchanging a rented house for an episcopal palace, he said:
“The Bishop’s House in Cologne is a giant box from the 1950s. It was built for an archbishop who lives there with a court, with religious sisters and a secretary. For me the house is far too big. To have to live there is no reason for pleasure. I have had a wall built where in the past the religious sisters used to live, in order to create a somewhat separate living space. That way another apartment is created on the other side.”
You can house a refugee family there.
“That has been suggested. I will consider these and other ideas with my staff in Cologne this autumn.”
While refurbishing and restoration work has been ongoing, reporters were invited to come and take a look at Cardinal Woelki’s living arrangements in the building which also houses several offices of the archdiocese. In the Aachener Zeitung we find a lighthearted report, which starts with considering the cardinal’s bathtub: “The bathtub, always the bathtub. It is white, a bit creme-coloured, quite a small bathtub. [The cardinal] himself is quite tall, but this is the one he wanted,” said Achim Schmitz, head of the construction office.
^The central square of the seminary of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Cardinal Woelki will live in an apartment behind these buildings.
The name of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose allegedly luxury bathroom was part of the problems that led to his leaving the Diocese of Limburg for a rented home in Regensburg, surrounds these considerations. So when it became clear that Cardinal Woelki will have a swimming pool in his basement, expectations of unwarranted luxury appeared. But reality is far more sober. The pool was built in the 1950s for the adjacent seminary and today it is being used for swimming classes by local schools, and to teach a group of Muslim women how to swim.
Still, the renovation is not cheap at 1.45 million euros (1.9 million dollars). But financial director Hermann-Josef Schon is quick to explain that these costs cover long-overdue work as the building has not seen any renovation in 25 years and it covers such necessary things as heating, electricity and water.
So while Cologne is known to be one of Germany’s richest dioceses, little beyond the necessary will go to the daily needs of its new archbishop. Cardinal Woelki is pleased to have what he needs and little more. He will run his own household, without a secretary, housekeeper and only a modest bathtub.
Photo credit:  dpa,  wdr
Together with the events of earlier this week, in which Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had his resignation accepted and Bishop Manfred Grothe was appointed as Apostolic Administrator of the now vacant diocese, the bishop emeritus offers what may be hoped is the closing act of this whole ugly affair. Following a morning audience with Pope Francis, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst comes with a statement in which he admits that he made mistakes and asks for forgiveness from all who were affected by them. Here is my translation:
“During my time as Bishop of Limburg the impression arose among many Catholics and in public that I neglected the service to the diocese and to the unity of the Church by putting my own objectives and interests first and onesidedly enforcing them.
With the knowledge of today I acknowledge that I have made mistakes. Even though I did not make them on purpose, they did destroy trust. I ask for forgiveness all who have suffered or still suffer under my negligence.
In the face of the serious allegations and the subsequent loss of trust I placed the decision about my future in the hands of Holy Father as early as October of 2013. This week he released me from the responsibility for the Diocese of Limburg, to entrust me with a new task in due time. This the Holy Father also emphasised to me personally in a cordial fraternal meeting this morning (28 March 2014).
I consider this decision to be an opportunity for a new start: not only for the Diocese of Limburg, but also for me. In this spirit I ask all of you to see my comments of 11 March 2014 to the Congregation about the report, which was published in the past few days, as a turning point – and not as the start of a new argument.
I hope that it will be possible to understand from a distance, beyond mutual recriminations and injury, what has happened and to gain insights that can lead to a reconciliation. I will pray for that, use all my strength and also ask for prayer.”
In my opinion, this is all we could and should have hoped for to come out of the private meeting between the bishop and the Holy Father.The facts are clear, and no amount of debating will change them. It is good for the bishops to publically acknowledge that, and although his comments against many of the conclusions from the bishops’ report were unwise, at least this soon, we should indeed accept them as a turning point. In an interview yesterday, Bishop Grothe said as much, when he expressed his total lack of surprise at Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s comments. From the very start of the investigation, he explained, the bishop was free to comment, even expected to do so.
Whatever the future may hold for the Diocese of Limburg and Bishop Franz-Peter, it is there that we should now look: ahead, not behind.
Reports that the Vatican would make a statement regarding Limburg’s Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst started breaking this morning, to the effect that he will not be returning to his diocese.
Awaiting the official statement, which Domradio has announced to be commenting on at noon, we can only guess at the details. We can, however safely assume that the heart of the decision will be either that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has indeed mismanaged the funds of the Diocese of Limburg, especially those related to the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts of the diocesan complex, which includes his own apartment (and it is likely that his lies under oath about his traveling to India will also play a part in it), or that the atmosphere in Limburg and Germany as a whole is such that his return is unwise. With the amount of hostility against his person, warranted or not, his work as ordinary of a diocese would have been almost impossibly difficult.
There are also reports that the bishop’s mental health has suffered in the past months, which can also be a determining factor in this decision.
If Bishop Tebartz-van Elst will indeed not return, the Diocese of Limburg is the sixth diocese in Germany to fall vacant.
This is the text of the decision as released by the Holy See today, in my translation:
Regarding the administration of the Diocese of Limburg, in Germany, the Congregation for Bishops has studied in detail the report of the Commission, that was established according to the desires of the bishop and the cathedral chapter, to investigate in detail the responsibilities regarding the construction of the Diocesan Centre “St. Nicholas”.
Given that a situation exists in the Diocese of Limburg which prevents the fruitful exercise of the episcopal office by Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Holy See has accepted the resignation as offered by the bishop on 20 october 2013 and has appointed an Apostolic Administrator in the person of Monsignor Manfred Grothe.
The outgoing bishop, Msgr. Tebartz-van Elst, will be given other duties in due time.
The Holy Father asks the clergy and the faithful of the Diocese of Limburg to accept the decision of the Holy See willingly, and strive for a return to a climate of compassion and reconciliation.
The full report of the German bishops on this matter is set for publication at 3:30 this afternoon.
The new Apostolic Administrator of Limburg, who will work in conjunction with Bishop Thomas Löhr, auxiliary bishop of the diocese, and Msgr. Wolfgang Rösch, the vicar general appointed as Bishop Tebartz-van Elst began his leave of absence, is Bishop Manfred Grothe (pictured). He is the senior auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Paderborn, which borders Limburg to the north. He led the bishops’ investigation into the whole affair.
Paderborn’s Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker sees the appointment of Bishop Grothe as a “great sign of confidence” from Pope Francis. He said, “I am certain that Auxiliary Bishop Grothe will be a good companion for the Church of Limburg on the road they start today. His decades-long experience, his great knowledge and above his factual nature, which is yet directed towards the people, make him ideal for the task before him.”
It is interesting to note that the Holy See does not expound much on the reasons for accepting Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation. But what it does say is interesting. The communique does refer to the investigation conducted by the German Bishops’ Conference and studied by the Congregation for Bishops, but merely notes that “a situation exists in the Diocese of Limburg which prevents the fruitful exercise of the episcopal office by Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst”. These are very factual statements. Regardless of whether or not the bishops concluded that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has made grave mistakes, it is by now virtually impossible to be a diocesan ordinary. This is as much due to the situation created by himself (of which only the lying under oath is proven and admitted, which is serious enough), as to how he has been portrayed in the media. In many cases this portrayal has been objetive and necessary, but in a fair number of cases it has not. The words of support from, for example, Cardinal Lehmann, but also those of Cardinal Müller and Archbishop Gänswein, should therefore not automatically be construed as an error of judgement on their part, but, together with the Holy See statement, as an acknowledgement of the fact that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation will not be solely due to what he did or did not do wrong.
The full report from the bishops’ commission, published this afternoon, is a lengthy tome, and while I am able to make a working translation of short German texts, this, I have to be honest, is a whole different animal. Summaries and analyses of what exactly went wrong are therefore better left to others. The fact remains that things went seriously wrong and while the intentions of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst may have been good and honest, the execution of the entire construction project most certainly was not. It is, however, good to remember that he inherited this whole affair to a certain extent, as the initial plans, with a number of inherent financial miscalculations, were drawn up by the cathedral chapter in 2004, a full three years before Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was appointed as ordinary of Limburg. But he did authorise new plans and their execution, and made sure that he was the sole responsible party.
In a very ill-advised move, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has now issued a statement denying a number of conclusions from the commission’s report, stating that he was, from the very start, dedicated to ensure “quality and sustainability”, especially in the context of unfortunate experiences with other construction projects in the diocese. In my opinion, this is a counterproductive and unwise move. For the Diocese of Limburg and its faithful, and also for its former bishop, a period of trial and uncertainty has ended. As Bishop Manfred Grothe indicated, now is a time to look ahead. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst may consider his intentions to have been righteous and his efforts to have been all he could do, the fact remains that things went wrong, or so the commission concludes. In denying these conclusions, the bishop is not only fighting the commission and his brother bishops, but also the opinion of the world. And that last one is a difficult opponent, which can not be changed or defeated by full-on assault and denial. It only becomes stronger. The bishop had better chosen another approach, of penance and regret, instead of this. Nothing good will come from it.
Later today, the German bishops will elect their new chairman. While their spring assembly lasts until tomorrow, this is by far the most eagerly anticipated part of their deliberations. A total of 66 electors will be voting: 63 ordinaries and auxiliary bishops, as well as the administrators of 3 vacant sees. Limburg’s Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is not present; his place is taken by Administrator Msgr. Wolfgang Rösch. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the departing chairman of the conference, also votes for his own successor, as he is the administrator of Freiburg im Breisgau.
^Archbishop Zollitsch at the opening Mass for the Bishops’ Conference’s meeting.
There are no clear favourites in this election, but whatever the choice, it will constitute a generational shift. But this shift has been typical for the German Bishops’ Conference since about last year. A fair number of bishops and archbishops are retiring or have already done so. Among them are, for example, the aforementioned Archbishop Zollitsch, Cologne’s Cardinal Meisner and in the near future, Mainz’s Cardinal Lehmann and Hamburg’s Archbishop Thissen.
Despite the lack of favourites, there are a few names which have been mentioned more than others: Berlin’s Cardinal Rainer Woelki and Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx (who may have to let this one pass, as he has his share of responsibilities already: ordinary of Munich, Coordinator of the Council for the Economy, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences and member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals…). Other names are Osnabrück’s Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen and Trier’s Bishop Stephan Ackermann.
Whatever the choice, the expectation is that the new chairman will take Pope Francis’ program and run with it, which means a stronger focus on charity and evangelisation and, I fear, a greater risk of bishops getting head of themselves on issues like marriage and Communion (a topic the bishops are also discussing in this meeting), which we’ve already seen happen in Germany.
^Two electors with their own choice to make: Cologne’s auxiliary Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp and Administrator Msgr. Stefan Heße are also set to vote for the new archbishop of Cologne.
The election is set to take place this morning, and per the schedule available at Domradio.de, the presentation of the new chairman is scheduled for 10:30 local time.
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