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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
So, the obligatory Pope Francis interview blog post… I’m not going to analyse it very much. Others have done so much better than I ever could, but, as ever, the warning for everyone wanting to know what the Pope said stands: read his words, not those reported in most mainstream media. The interview can be read in English here and in Dutch here.
There are a few things I can and will say about it, though. First of all, the way that this interview was published, simultaneously in several languages, is worth noting. On Twitter, Father James Martin SJ joked:
To achieve the surprise release of the interview with Pope Francis, 16 Jesuit journals had to keep a secret. Pope Francis’s first miracle?
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) September 20, 2013
But in all seriousness, prepping several translations and publishing them in various journals and magazines at the same time deserves to be noted, not least in the Vatican. It prevents the rise of rumours, misunderstanding and avoids the risk of not being noticed (as many documents on the Vatican website, which are published in several languages, still are for many faithful).
Personally, I found the interview a bit dense to read, but refreshing. In all honesty, I a still getting used to Pope Francis. He is so different from Pope Benedict XVI, who was the Pope for all of my Catholic life (all of five years…), until last March. A serious reading of the interview shows that Francis and Benedict are not that different after all, although their personalities and priorities certainly are. Shocking as some oneliners may seem for too many, they, not even the Holy Father’s comments about topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage, really are not at odds with what the Church has been teaching for centuries. Pope Francis simply emphasises other things than his predecessors wanted or succeeded to do. And in doing so, he may well succeed in explaining these teachings, this faith of ages, anew. And in that light, how painful, how shameful it is that too many media outlets simply take the chance to put Pope against Pope – as if Benedict was the old meanie whose policies are now being reverted by good Pope Francis. Rubbish.
This interview is exciting. It allows us to get to know Pope Francis on a far more personal level than before. From his preferences in music and films to his prayer habits and his certainties (and doubts) in the faith. Our faith, our Church, is built on a relationship, of course: the relationship between man and God. Relationships also play an important role on other levels of the Church. And how we relate to our Pope is one of those levels. If we know him, we can form a relationship with him, even if it is a one-sided one since he can impossibly know all of us.
So, thanks, Holy Father, for sharing a glimpse of your life and personality. It’s so easy to be critical of an anonymous man in white, but we can follow a person, with wishes, hopes, dreams, doubts, fears and faith.
Last month I wrote about a curious manifesto from the hands of a group of professors who criticised the general trend of parish mergers in the Dutch dioceses. I wrote then,
“[t]hey warn that mergers, which are ongoing or planned in virtually all dioceses, will destroy the “flourishing, sparkling and adult faith communities, in which lay faithful contribute in modern ways, adapted to local circumstances to faith life and liturgy, in open communication with local authorities” that have sprung up in the second half of the previous century.”
Although the manifesto failed to engender much attention in our outside the Church, apart from certain modernist circles (keen as they are to agree with anything that criticises one or more bishops and their actions), Bishop Gerard de Korte of Groningen-Leeuwarden did offer a response today, both in the Nederlands Dagblad and on the diocesan website.
It goes without saying that the bishop is unable to agree with the manifesto’s claims. He especially disagrees with the claim that the parish mergers and general scale expansion is some authoritarian policy, enforced from above. He writes,
“Our country has seven independent dioceses and each bishop has their own approach. Without wanting to write an apololgy, I want to indicate briefly how I have started the process of mergers in the Northern diocese. Following my installation as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden in September of 2008, I conducted a tour of meetings with the pastoral teams and parish councils of my diocese. It soon became clear to me that the more than 80 parishes were not future-proof. Cooperation and mergers are called for to keep as many faith communities as possible afloat. The existing parishes are incorporated in 19 new parishes, which largely coincide with existing parish cooperations and partnerships. This plan, by the way, was not enforced from the top downm but was first allowed to develop for a year. I and my staff have explained the plan as clearly as possible in 19 information meetings, and allowed teams and councils to respond. Their remarks were included in a definitive plan which has to be completed in 2018. Adminstrative upscaling can, by the way, coincide very well with pastoral downscaling. In any case, I didn’t want to authoritatively enforce anything, but I have always wanted to work to create as large a support base as possible.”
This to illustrate the reality of the process, which is quite distinct from perceptions that may exist in several quarters. But to reunite reality and perceptions, Bishop de Korte pleads for an intensive dialogue. “Communication and perseverance”, he writes, are especially required now.
Mergers and upscaling are not a goal in themselves:
“Without wanting to sound panicky, we can say that the advancement of the Gospel is at stake. [...] The purpose of the new diocesan organisation and parish structure is the (renewed) introduction of Jesus Christ and His Gospel in our part of the world. There is not time to lose for this task, and it requires every faithful. Especially now, every faithful is called because of their baptism. The faith if the baptism must be lived. That way we can evangelise, with actions and words.”
Much talk yesterday about the heavy-handed Vatican forbidding the American cardinals from holding daily press briefings to inform people of what goes on at the General Congregations. But, as always, is there any basis about such a reading of the events?
As Fr. James Bradley rightly points out, the highest authority in the Vatican at the moment is the College of Cardinals. No one can bar them from doing anything, apart from standing orders from the former Pope, or themselves. Certainly, within the College there may have been some pressure upon the Americans to stop the briefings, but there is no reason to assume that anyone forced anyone else. In fact, given the situation in which information was apparently leaked to the media, a fairy strict communications shutdown is understandable. Of course, the daily briefings by Fr. Lombardi will continue, but the cardinals will devote themselves to the internal forum, which is of course the most important these days.
We should ask ourselves if we have any real need to know the details of the daily proceedings. Of course it’s interesting, but I don’t think that such a process of electing a new Pope should be sidetracked by too much focus on external communication and media briefings. The outcome is important, and those 115 cardinals (expected to be finally complete today) need our support in prayer and thought, not our need for answers and our thoughts about what they should do and who they should vote for. Leave that to the Holy Spirit.
In these events, the general congregations and the conclave, we must not forget the element of faith. Faith in the Holy Spirit, that He will guide His Church and grant her the shepherd she deserves and needs, and faith in the cardinal electors, that they will decide and vote according to their conscience and open to the whisperings of the Lord.
Photo credit: Cardinals O’Malley, DiNardo and George, Gregorio Borgia/AP
Sometimes we will disagree with our bishops about some decision they made, or even about some topic which they believe should be discussed. In such a situation we have two options, really: we can hold on to our own opinion and attack the bishops, or anyone else, for daring to disagree with us; or we can express our different opinion, even enter into discussions to try and change their opinions, while at the same time accepting the teaching authority of the bishops.
International Catholic media outlet Gloria.tv has chosen the first option, and has done so in an utterly unacceptable way: by depicting six German bishops with a swastika superimposed over them, in response to the bishops’ intention to discuss the morning-after pill at their plenary meeting.
In response, the German Bishops’ Conference has expressly distanced itself from Gloria.tv and will no longer contribute any content to their website. A move which is, considering the tasteless depiction (doubly so in Germany) shared above, only understandable. Of course, Gloria.tv has in turn distanced itself from the bishops for their perceived intention to allow abortive drugs in Catholic hospitals.
I am as yet no aware what the bishops have said or decided about that issue, which started after Cardinal Meisner stated that the morning-after pill is allowed in some instances, so I won’t go into that here. I will say that, should the bishops decide that that pill is allowed, I would want to see some very good proof that it does not lead to the death of the unborn child. But the mere fact that the bishops talk about it? That is certainly no reason to attack them, let alone in such an insulting manner.
If one’s opinions and beliefs, regardless of what they are, are reason to vilify others. Gloria.tv is not helping itself by doing this, and is merely sowing division. Their concern is honest, but their methods are premature and cross the boundaries of common decency and, indeed, Christian charity.