“Christ in our hearts” – Archbishop Burger’s letter for Advent

In his first Advent letter as archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Archbishop Stephan Burger, who today had his first official audience with Pope Francis, looks back on the past six months, and writes about the first and most important task of the Church: to be a Christ-bearer, to carry Christ in our hearts as the foundation and linchpin of everything we do as Church and as individual faithful.

erzbischof_stephan_burger_q“Dear sisters, dear brothers!

I have only been your archbishop since 29 June of this year. The past weeks of familiarisation have been characterised by many conversations and numerous encounters. During them, so many people have encouraged me in my episcopal service. At the same time I know I am supported by the prayers of countless people. That is encouraging and does me good. Heartfelt thanks for that. Prayer for others and with others is indispensable. It is the crucial source of strength for our Christian life. In prayer we consciously take the time for God and give Christ room in our hearts.

Now that we are travelling some distance together in the coming years we are looking ahead towards what concerns us in the pastoral care units with their communities, what moves and engages us in the deaneries, in the diocese and also in the world Church. Many have the concerns about the future of our local Church foremost in mind, the question of passing our Christian faith on – also to people who are far removed from the Church, or are even critical about her. So may letters and e-mails that I receive, as well as several conversations, are also about these questions.

I take these questions very seriously. They are close to my own heart. As a priest, I have experienced these developments closely and I know how much the local Church is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is also clear that we can no longer do much that, until now, has been good and useful. In the face of the high numbers of people leaving the Church, we can not close our eyes to reality. We are all the more called to once again be aware of what distinguishes and characterises us as Christians. The time of Advent, which is now beginning, can give us an important impulse. Jesus urgently calls us to be vigilant and attentive. For whom? For Him; for His coming; for the acts of God in our daily lives.

It is important to me that in all that we do we keep in mind whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. Without Him our lives are empty. Christ and Christ-bearer. It is not our first task as Church to create mere structures, to organise Church administrations or to Ensure the economic viability of the Church. All of these aspects are important and also belong to the Church. However, in the first place we are called to live and witness to the faith bestowed upon us. To bear God, “doing such deeds for those who wait for him”, as the reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us, in our world. That means in the first place to keep alive the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our personal relationship with Christ is the linchpin of everything we do. In this context I also understand my episcopal motto: Christus in cordibus – Christ in the heart.

Christ is placed in our heart at our Baptism, we receive Him with every Holy Communion, He who loves us from His heart, who opened His own heart for us on the Cross. He takes up residence in our hearts as we have found a home in His.

The more we live from this inner bond with Christ, the more our life and actions will radiate to others. Our Christian identity does not end after the service, but starts in a new way at the door of the Church: When we return home to our families, to our place of work or our circle of friends. God’s love will shine out through us everywhere. That has very real implications for how we act in the councils, groups and circles. Through the faith in Jesus Christ our fellow men become brothers and sisters. Through Jesus Christ I receive the strength to love where there is hate, to forgive where there is insult, to connect where there is argument, to give hope where there is despair, to kindle light where darkness rules, to bring hope where grief resides. Evidence that Christ has been accepted into hearts is given by many of you who work for the refugees who are now asking for entrance to our country and who rely on our help. For this sign of your solidarity and for your help of any kind I tell you from the heart: God bless you.

Wherever we manage to make our cooperation more human, more just and friendlier, Jesus Christ can continue His work in our world with us and through us. There His act of redemption can be seen and experienced. Redemption, that is not a word for the museum, but a word that must be translated in our daily lives: God wants to redeem us. He wants to redeem and free us from everything that makes us dependent, that narrows us and makes us narrow-minded. It is crucial that we only orient ourselves on the Divine love.

Dear sisters, dear brothers, in these days of Advent we are called anew by te Gospel, to be vigilant for the tracks of God in our daily lives, to be sensitive for the actions of Jesus Christ in our lives and our living together. It is important to recognise where I meet Jesus. That is how we open our hearts for Him. That is what it means when we sing: “Gates, lift high your heads,” or “raise high the ancient gateways”. It is the gate of our hearts, the gateway to our lives. With Christ in our hearts we go towards the future with confidence. It is His way with us. I want to go this way of the imitation of Christ consciously with you and do my best to be a Christian with you and a good bishop for you – to paraphrase it according to the words of Saint Augustine.

So that you may bear Christ in your hearts and bear Him to others, the triune God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Freiburg im Breisgau, 29 November 2014

Yours,

Archbishop Stephan”

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.

“No conditions but one profession of faith” for full unity between Catholic and Orthodox Churches

“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”

This passage from Pope Francis’ message to Patriarch Bartholomew I today struck me as a very happy and hopeful one. The Orthodox Churches are so close to us in faith, sacraments and apostolic succession that the most immediate hope for full unity, the goal of ecumenism, is with them. And they have much to give us: a sense of mysticism that we have sometimes lost, especially in the west; of sacramentality and new ways of considering the Divine and how we relate to God in our worship and daily life.

The principle that Pope Francis refers to at the start of passage regards Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II Decree on Christian Unity, and specifically the 15th and 16th chapters thereof. The conclusion of Chapter 15 summarises the principle that is deemed so essential for full communion:

“The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians.”

Chapter 16 adds to that the importance of the laws and customs of the Orthodox Churches:

“Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.”

The liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Orthodox Churches, as well as their laws and customs are no obstacle for full unity. Indeed, they are essential for the further purpose of that unity: the fullness of Christian tradition, worship and evangelisation. The word of God will resound all the stronger.

francis bartholomew

Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring