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Making headlines is not always easy. I sometimes find myself having completed a blog post with relative ease, only to struggle with coming up with an eye-catching headline. They need to be short, interesting and true to the content of the article they announce and, in essence, summarise. I imagine that these are the same concern of those who write for a living for newspapers, journals and on websites. But in recent days too many have failed to follow the rules…
Yesterday, 20 Roman couples were married in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis. This is pretty rare for Popes to do for the simple reason of their many other duties. Pope Benedict XVI never did it, and Pope St. John Paul II only got around to it once over the 27 years of his pontificate. But as he is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome, witnessing the marriage of some of the faithful of his diocese is a wonderful opportunity to be near to his closest flock: the Romans themselves.
The couples were from all walks of life and a broad range in age, and all had their own stories, as the Pope hinted at in his homily: “The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life!” Rare are the couples whose story is the stereotypical romantic one: they meet, fall in love, get married, have children and live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that none of the twenty couples married yesterday have had such smooth sailing. And that is what inspired many headlines.
“Pope marries sinners,” we read. “Francis overthrows tradition by marrying cohabitating couples!” and more along such lines. The essence of all this was that Pope Francis, they said, in contrast to Catholic teaching and the practice of the Church for years, married people who were living in sin. But was that really true?
The simple answer is no. In reports about yesterday’s ceremony we read that one of the grooms has had a previous married nullified and that a bride already had a child. Others were apparently already living together for a long time before marrying. While it is objectively so that the Church has its concern about children being born outside marriage and cohabitation while not married, these in themselves have never been reason for the Church refusing to marry couples. In fact, it is simply so that the Church gladly welcomes any couple who wants to receive the sacrament of marriage.
Marriage is a sacrament that includes both rights and duties. To oneself, to one’s partner, to God and to the community. It is good for the future husband and wife to be well aware of these, be willing to accept them and know how to include them in their lives together. That is a lifelong process, but it starts before marriage begins.
From the outside we may notice many irregularities – a child outside of marriage, a previous marriage – but we should not jump to conclusions about these 20 Roman couples. All we know is that these irregularities are now regularised, and that is reason for joy.
There is certainly no reason to see sins and new developments where there are none. Pope Francis did not do anything that could not be done before, and nothing that priests across the world don’t do regular (although they would rarely marry forty people in one go). What is remarkable, however, is that it happened. That 20 couples said yes to each other, promised to stand together in good and bad times and let their love bear fruit and new life in all sorts of ways. That’s the true headline.
Photo credit:  Alessandra Tarantino/AP,  Paul Haring/CNS
Bishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.
In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.
In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.
This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.
Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.
Far earlier than anyone expected, and even before Erfurt, which has been vacant for 18 months, Cologne is given a new archbishop. Succeeding Cardinal Meisner, who retired in February, is Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, until today the archbishop of Berlin.
A native son of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki was a priest and auxiliary bishop of that ancient see until he was appointed to Berlin almost exactly three years ago. This German-language video profile of the cardinal gives a hint of why Pope Francis chose him to head Cologne. Responsible for the caritas of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Woelki explains that the care for the poor is one of the three pillars of our faith, next to proclaimation and worship.
“A church without caritas, without diaconal ministry, is not the Church of Jesus Christ and has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
His parents having been refugees from eastern Prussia after the war, Cardinal Woelki is especially sensitive to the plight of refugees. Himself a resident in the subburb of Wedding, where his neighbours are mainly immigrants and labourers, Cardinal Woelki made an effort to meet with representatives of the Roma and other immigrant communities very soon after arriving in the German capital.
The new appointment, despite the generational differences, can be seen in continuity with Cardinal Meisner. Cardinal Woelki worked with Meisner as a priest and auxiliary bishop and is considered to be a confidant of the retired cardinal, whose personal secretary he was before being made a bishop. But Woelki also seems to be on a line with Pope Francis, as he emphasis the need for renewed pastoral approaches to homosexuals and remarried persons.
Like Meisner, Woelki is rumoured not to have been the choice of the cathedral chapter of Cologne, who had, it is said, put the names of diocesan administrator Msgr. Stefan Heße, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen (the latter, like Woelki, also a former auxiliary bishop of Cologne) on the list they sent to Rome. But, as happened in Freiburg in April, the Pope used his freedom to choose another.
Cardinal Woelki is generally quite popular with faithful and media for his clarity and pastoral aptitude in the headline topics of sexuality and the position of women in the Church. Regarding the former he has said he doesn’t want to police the bedroom, and concerning the latter he has entrusted several offices and duties in the Archdiocese of Berlin to women. The Church can not be an exclusively male club, he has said, and at the same time he supports the impossibility of ordination of women. But, as always, there are also topics for which he has been criticised, and these mainly have to do with decisions made regarding the efficiency of managing the Archdiocese of Berlin. Parishes are being merged and united into larger bodies, as they are in more than a few Northwestern European dioceses, and this has led to criticism regarding democracy, influence from the ground up and the distance between curia and faithful. Whether this will be an issue in Cologne, which has some 2 million faithful compared to Berlin’s 400,000, remains to be seen.
Cardinal Meisner headed the archdiocese for 25 years, and since Cardinal Woelki is only 57, we may be looking at another lengthy and influential period in Cologne’s history.
Photo credit: dapd
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.
In five rounds, the German bishops this morning elected Reinhard Cardinal Marx to succeed Archbishop Robert Zollitsch as chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. He is the sixth chairman since the conference came into being in 1966, and with his election it is once more led by a cardinal, as was the case pre-Zollitsch.
One of the first questions that come to mind is how the cardinal will balance this new duty with the many responsibilities he already has. In chronological order, Cardinal Marx is:
Archbishop of München und Freising
- President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences
- Member of the Council of Cardinals that assist Pope Francis in reforming the Curia
- Coordinator of the new Council for the Economy
In addition, he is, like other cardinals, also a member of various dicasteries in the Curia. In Cardinal Marx’s case these are:
- the Congregation for Catholic Education
- the Congregation for the Oriental Churches
- the Pontifical Council for the Laity
- the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
During the presentation to the media, this morning, Cardinal Marx already addressed this question, saying he might have to consider resigning from some of these functions. As chairman of the bishops’ conference, he logically can’t resign as archbishop of Munich. Likewise, it is probably not wise that he resign from the Council of Cardinals or the Council for the Economy, considering their importance and the fact that both are still in their infancy. His presidency of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences is probably fairly easy to retire from, as is the membership of one or more dicasteries in the Curia.
In any case, the question if his coordinatorship of the Council for the Economy would require permanent residency in Rome (as it does for Cardinal George Pell in his new role as president of the related Secretariat for the Economy) is now answered.
Almost a year after his election, Pope Francis is still slowly but surely confirming the heads of the Curia departments. Yesterday it was the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s turn, a dicastery which Pope Francis is said to want to give a higher profile, maybe even raise it to full Congregation status. The Council is headed by Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko and has German Bishop Josef Clemens as Secretary and Spanish Msgr. Miguel Delgado Galindo as Undersecretary. The former two have been at the head of the Council for almost ten years.
Pope Francis also selected a fair number of new members and consultors for the Laity Council. And among these is our own Cardinal Wim Eijk. His seat on the Council is his fourth appointment in the Curia. He is also a board member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a member of the Congregation for the Clergy and of the Congregation for Catholic Education.
In the media, the persons of Cardinal Eijk and Pope Francis are often placed opposite each other: the cardinal as the strict, emotionless ruler; and the Pope as the friendly, concerned father. Reality is quite different. Of course, both have different characters, but they are much closer in their vision than many would have us believe. There are those who are continuously waiting until Pope Francis removes Cardinal Eijk from his appointments in the Curia or even from his Archdiocese of Utrecht. In reality, the Pope has just confirmed his confidence in the cardinal.
Other new members include Reinhard Cardinal Marx of Munich, and among the consultors we find Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, Bishop Christoph Hegge, auxiliary of Münster, and Dr. Marguerite Peeters of the Institute for Intercultural Dialogue Dynamics in Belgium.
Pope Francis released his first Message for World Communications Day today, and while the day itself won’t dawn until 1 June, tomorrow’s feast day of St. Francis de Sales is the traditional date for the release of the Message. Well, we’re only one day early…
The Message is quite Franciscan in its content, repeating some of the things he has stated before and containing a clearly-worded challenge for all involved in the media in general, but specifically in Catholic media.
“We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death. We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert. To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”
The dialogue needs to be the next step to take as Catholic communicators. Of course, there will be some who will take Pope Francis’ words in exactly the way he tells us not to: as if we should not hold on to the truths of the faith in our relations and communication with others. But this truth does not always necessarily coincide with our own ideas and desires. It is good to try and make that distinction.
Read the full Message via the link above or in my Dutch translation.
In an example of how very general words can lead to the oddest of conclusions, local and international media have taken some of Pope Francis’ comments in a three-hour dialogue with religious superiors (held in November, but published only recently) and used them to suggest that the Pope, and in extension the Church, had changed its teaching on ‘alternative forms of family life’. In other words, they claimed that Pope Francis, or rather the image that many have of how they want him to be, is now in favour of same-sex couples raising children, one-parent families and other unions in which children are raised other than complete families with a father and mother.
Jimmy Akin has a good summary and explanation of what the Pope really said.
What can we conclude from this? That, quite simply, people are not hearing what the Pope is saying. The main reason for this is that his words are not being communicated properly, even wilfully changed or erroneously interpreted, by independent media. And related to that, we can say that people are not aware of what the Church is teaching.
I have read some comments which seemed to indicate that the mere recognition of these alternative forms of family is a new thing, and thus a change in attitude. The Church, many think, considers homosexuality to be disordered and is opposed to same-sex relations because she refuses to acknowledge its existence. In that light, Pope Francis words about suitable pastoral care for children in such situations and about the importance of education can appear to be revolutionary.
But they are pertinently not. They are valuable and they must be heard and taken to heart, but they are not new. The need to provide adequate pastoral care and education to anyone, regardless of their state of life or sexual orientation, is not the same as approving of that state of orientation. The Church is not an ostrich, pretending that all the things she doesn’t like aren’t there. No, she openly acknowledges they exist. And in doing so, she can teach: that desires do no dictate what is good for us, that not everything that can be done should be done and that people are called to an ultimate destination in God. That destination is not reached or even known by allowing everything. The journey does not originate in people, but in God. We are therefore called to strive for what is God’s and make what is man’s suited to the Lord. That is process in which we are first and foremost called to see the world so that we can reach out to it.