Changes in Münster as Auxiliary Bishop Geerlings retires

23795750_1127524700712501_5423271941249965540_nFive years before reaching the age of retirement, 70-year-old Bishop Dieter Geerlings retired as auxiliary bishop of Münster today. Health issues forced the early retirement. In 2015, the discovery of cancer forced the complete removal of his stomach, but by the end of 2016, the bishop had taken up all his duties again. But the necessary limitations of his physical situation proved to be incompatible with the life and duties of an auxiliary bishop, it has now turned out. Following his doctor’s advice and after consulting with Bishop Felix Genn, Münster’s ordinary, Bishop Geerlings offered his resignation to the Pope in September. Today it was accepted.

Bishop Geerlings, who is the titular bishop of Tacapæ and served as auxiliary bishop of Münster for seven years, expressed his regret at having to retire early. Responding, Bishop Genn stated:

“I am of two minds. On the one hand I am very grateful to Pope Francis for accepted the offer of resignation, because auxiliary bishops and bishops also need to take care of their health. On the other hand we lose – also when Bishop Geerlings will accept certain duties again – an outstanding auxiliary bishop, who in hindsight has been a great support to me. Dieter Geerlings was and is, also as auxiliary bishop, in the first place a pastor. He was and is always very near to the questions and concerns of the people. He is someone who goes to people and has no fear of contacts. With a keen mind and great expertise he analysed the questions which concern us as Church today. He was always led by this perspective: How can we, as Church today, be there for the people in their specific situations.”

Although Bishop Geerlings has now laid down his duties as episcopal vicar for the region Coesfeld/Recklinghausen and is no longer a member of the curia of the diocese or the German Bishops’ Conference (he was a member of the committees for caritas and migration), he remains, when his health permits, available for confirmations and also remains rector of the church of St. Clement in Münster, member of the cathedral chapter and pastor for the non-German speaking Catholics in Münster.

The retirement of Bishop Geerlings sets, so it seems, an already planned change in the ordering of the Diocese of Münster into motion. Until now, the diocese consisted of five pastoral regions, each under the pastoral responsibility of an auxiliary bishop. Citing the decreasing number of priest, Bishop Genn says that, while fewer priests are available in the parishes, things can’t remain as they were at the head of the diocese. Bishop Geerling’s pastoral region, Coesfeld-Recklinghausen, will be split up: Coesfeld will be added to Münster and Warendorf under the responsibility of Bishop Stefan Zekorn, while Recklinghausen will join Wesel and Kleve, which form Bishop Rolf Lohmann’s pastoral area. Borken and Steinfurt (Bishop Christoph Hegge) and Oldenburg (Bishop Wilfried Theising, not on the map below) remain unchained.

 

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With the loss of one pastoral region, Münster will henceforth have four instead of five auxiliary bishops; still the highest number of any German diocese, though.

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Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

Seminary too small? Close or merge it, says Rome

DSC_0034Through Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, Rome has revealed a minimal number of seminarians that a seminary needs to be “a veritable training community”, La Croix reports. The most recent Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the document outlining the guidelines for the formation of future priests, did urge that seminaries need to be of sufficient size to function as a community in which priestly formations could flourish and develop, it refrained from mentioning an actual number. Last Monday, in a  meeting with the bishops of France, Archbishop Patrón Wong, the secretary for seminaries of the of the Congregation for Clergy, reiterated this guideline, but left it to Bishop Jérôme Beau, auxiliary bishop of Paris, to state a minimum number of 17 to 20.

While Bishop Beau conceivably arrived at this number from a French perspective (in that country, only fifteen of the thirty-two seminaries reach the minimum of seventeen seminarians), it could have repercussions for other countries as well.

The Vatican guidelines make no demands about numbers, merely inviting bishops’ conferences to “consider” a minumum number for seminaries to remain open, and Archbishop Patrón Wong seemingly expressed his personal opinion that seminaries who do not manage to reach that number should be closed or merged.

Should the Congregation for Clergy move from an urging to a demand, what would the consequences for the Dutch dioceses and seminaries be? A question that is especially interesting considering the question that flares up every now and then of whether the Dutch seminaries shouldn’t merge anyway.

There are currently seven seminaries and other places for the training of future deacons and priests in the Netherlands: The Ariënsinstituut in Utrecht, St. Willibrord seminary in Heiloo (Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Vronesteyn in Voorburg, (Diocese of Rotterdam), Bovendonk in Hoeven (Diocese of Breda), St. John’s Centre (Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) and Rolduc (Diocese of Roermond), as well as two seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way, in Cadier en Keer (Roermond) and Nieuwe Niedorp (Haarlem-Amsterdam). Most of these already cooperate closely, with teaching staff working at several seminaries and seminarians from various dioceses living and working in one place. Bovendonk caters especially to late vocations, offering a curriculum for students that is compatible with their day jobs.

Of these seminaries there is only one which would be able to continue independently, and that is Rolduc, and then only if we combine the numbers of the diocesan seminary with that of the Neocatechumenal Way seminary, which makes sense since they already share facilities. Together, they have some 40 seminarians from 17 different countries. Only four of these hail from the Diocese of Roermond itself, while others were invited from India and Sri Lanka by Bishop Frans Wiertz. The Neocatechumenal Way seminary in Nieuwe Niedorp has 16 seminarians, just below the minimum suggested. Rotterdam’s Vronesteyn seminary has 13 students, 8 of whom study at Bovendonk and three in Utrecht. Only five seminarians live at Vronesteyn. Utrecht’s Ariënstituut has 10 students, and Haarlem-Amsterdam’s St. Willibrord seminary has 8, with one young man in a year of orientation for a future entrance. The St. John’s Centre does not offer current numbers on their website.

Merging the existing seminaries into one or two larger ones is an idea that has been floated in the past, with some staff in favour and others opposed. Merging all seminaries into one would result in a community of at least 87 seminarians. More realistically, the Neocatechumenal Way would not be involved in a merger, thus creating a seminary of between 40 and 50 seminarians. Perhaps more likely, if a merger would ever happen in the foreseeable future, there will be two seminaries with student numbers somewhere in the 20s for both.

But this is theory. For it to become reality, something more than a directive from Rome is needed. A merger would present its share of logistical and ideological problems as well, the resolution of which could initially be more divisive than unifying.

 

Photo credit: [1] Eglise.catholique.fr