Danger and salvation – At Bishop Bentz’s ordination, Cardinal Lehmann about the office of bishop

udo bentz ordinationIn his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he  shares a common Christianity.

There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.

Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:

lehmann“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!

What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.

Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies.  I want to try and do so with you.

For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).

During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.

Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.

“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that  the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.

As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.

What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.

Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.

Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.

That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.

As bishop, I have been able to experience  this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.

With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.

Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”

bentz

Refugees, pastoral care, mercy and a selfie – the German bishops’ plenary has begun

Evidently some of the auxiliary bishops (and one ordinary) have too much time on their hands at the autumn plenary of the German bishops… Time enough to take a bishops selfie.

They may be excused however, as the selfie was taken during the standard photo opp on Tuesday, where all the bishops pose for an updated group photo of the conference (shared at the bottom of this post).

german bishopsFrom left to right: Dominik Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne; Matthias König, auxiliary bishop of Paderborn; Reinhard Pappenberger, auxiliary bishop of Regensburg; Herwig Gössl, auxiliary bishop of Bamberg; Franz-Josef Overbeck, bishop of Essen; Heinz-Günter Bongartz, auxiliary bishop of Hildesheim; and Andreas Kutschke, diocesan administrator of Dresden-Meißen.

Portrait_Hesse_webAt the plenary, which continues until Thursday, the bishops have mainly discussed the refugee crisis in Germany and the role that the Church can play in providing shelter and assistance. It is estimated that dioceses, parishes and Catholic aid organisations have already made close to 100 million euros available for this goal, of which 66.5 million will be spent for projects in Germany itself, while the remained will go to aid projects in countries of origin. The average expenditure in past years was 73 million euros. The bishops have elected Hamburg’s Archbishop Stefan Heße as special envoy for refugee questions beyond the competence and responsibility of individual dioceses. The archbishop’s first focus will be on providing shelter. For that purpose, more than 800 buildings that are property of the Church have already been made available, but that number does not include private initiatives or those of religious communities.

Other topics to be discussed at the plenary are the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy and the Synod of Bishops, now only a few weeks away. Preparations are virtually done by now, so nothing new is expected to come from this plenary.

The conference today released a document focussed on renewing the pastoral care offered in the dioceses. As Bishop Bode, chairman of the pastoral commission, explained, the new document, titled Gemeinsam Kirche sein – Wort der deutschen Bischöfe zur Erneuerung der Pastoral (Being Church together – Words from the German bishops for the renewal of pastoral care) is based on a new reading of the Council documents Gaudium et spes and Lumen gentium, with new developments in society in mind. The document, which also focusses on the common priesthood of the faithful, as well as the ordained priesthood, which both represent the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the various charisms present in the Church, can be downloaded for free or purchased here.

Opening today’s session with the celebration of Mass, Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Woelki gave the homily, in which he spoke about the two major elements in Christ’s public ministry: proclamation and healing, aspects that we are also called to make visible in our Christian life, despite any hesitation or fear we may feel.

woelki32The cardinal also explained that the Church in Germany is materially better off than ever before. She does much, employs many people and is a pillar in society. But that’s not what the Church is: she is a community of faithful.

“And exactly that, the shared content of faith, has largely dissipated into thin air. The fact that only one third of Germans believes in the resurrection of Christ should already worry the Churches somewhat, considering the fact that two thirds of the population are Christian, at least on paper. But it is even worse. Even among the faithful the core content of the Christian message is rejected en masse. 60 percent does not believe in eternal life. In contrast, one German in four believes that encountering a black cat brings bad luck. Between Flensburg and Oberammergau more people believe in UFO’s than in the final judgement. Welcome to the German diaspora. This diaspora, dear sisters and brothers, is no longer far away – in Hildesheim or the east of the republic; this diaspora is our pastoral reality everywhere.

[…]

We live in this time. But how do want to work in this time? Today’s Gospel reminds us that we are also sent – just like the young man then – “to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). The aim is to make the Church visible as a witness of God’s mercy.

[…]

The aim is to heal the wounds in people’s souls with mercy – that is the purpose of every word of eternal life; and in an unsurpaasable way the incarnate word of eternal life, in which we believe and which alone is decisive in our lives: Jesus Christ, who answered Peter’s question how often one should forgive, “not seven wrongs, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Jesus asks us to forgive and give ourselves, to be tools of forgiveness, since we have first experienced God’s  forgiveness, to be generous to all in the knowledge that God also maintains his good will towards us. In this sense, no one really needs a second shirt – except perhaps as a participant in an autumn plenary meeting of the German bishops – but rather an open heart, that lets itself be moved by the mercy of God.”

german bishops conference

Photo credit: [1] Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp, [3] Ralph Sondermann