All seats filled as Mainz gets its new bishop

teaser-lebenslaufAlmost a year after the retirement of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, all the dioceses of Germany have a bishop at the helm again – a situation that has not existed for several years. Succeeding the cardinal who led the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years is Father Peter Kohlgraf.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop-elect Kohlgraf has already been active in Mainz since 2012. He has been working as professor of pastoral theology at the Katholischen Hochschule in that city, and assistant priest in Wörrstadt, south of Mainz. Fr. Kohlgraf is a graduate of the Universities of Bonn and Münster, and has experience in pastoral care in the parish and for students as well as education.

The date for the bishop’s consecration is yet be announced, as is the identity of the consecrating bishops, but it would be surprising indeed of Cardinal Lehmann would decline the honour.

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Cardinal Lehmann, seated, and Bishop elect Kohlgraf

With the appointment of Fr. Kohlgraf, Cologne once again shows itself to be one of the ‘bishop factories’ of Germany. Six of the 27 ordinaries in Germany hail from the archdiocese on the Rhine. Other such bishop factories are Paderborn with five ordinaries originating from there and Trier with four. All three dioceses are among the oldest in Germany and located in the central part of western Germany, to the west and north of Mainz.

In an interview for Katholisch.de, the new bishop of Mainz touched on some of the more sensitive topics in an dbeyond the church in Germany. Asked about the trend of merging parishes to create what the interviewer calls XXL parishes, as an answer to the shortage of priests, and if he has any alternatives, Fr. Kohlgraf responds:

“I think there is no standard solution here, either. In the Catholic Church we are faced with the tension that we rightly say that the celebration of the Eucharist is source and summit of the life of the Church. That means that, on Sundays, the Eucharist is the central celebration from which the Church and the community draw life. The question is then, of course, how Catholic life should function in small communities. I myself live in a small village in Rhenish Hesse, in a Catholic diaspora situation. That is this tension in which we exist. We should not merely think centralistic, but must also consider how Church life can function in each location. People must be motivated to live out their being Christian.”

Bishop-elect Kohlgraf’s thoughts here are comparable to those of, to name one, Bishop Gerard de Korte in the Netherlands.

As an academic, the bishop elect has followed the discourse about the priest shortage and possible solutions and especially the idea to ordain married men, the so-called viri probati. On this, he says:

“It should be proven if this really solves our problems. I am not so certain about that. I don’t want to look at this from ideological, philosophical or theological perspectives. But it is not without reason that the priestly vocation has always been an academic calling with a full study program. That has meaning. I think that we must remain able to speak theologically in modern society. That quality will play an increasingly greater part. That does not mean that there are not also highly qualified men among the so-called viri probati. But we must look at how a part-time formation would work in addition to holding a job. There are many questions which are not yet answered. I do not currently see a solution for it.”

It sounds as if Bishop-elect Kohlgraf is not opposed to detaching the priesthood from a mandatory vow of celibacy, but his uncertainty has to do with the practicality of it all, especially the years of study and formation. There are, however, places where part-time formation is practiced, albeit for the permanent diaconate, for example in Bovendonk, in the Dutch Diocese of Breda. Here, men study part-time next to their fulltime job, with the exception of the final years, in which they work fulltime in a parish.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz, [2] Bistum Mainz/Blum

Christus vincit! An Easter wish

easter resurrection
As ever, while Lent sometimes seemed to creep by, the holy days of the Easter Triduum passed in a whirlwind of events, activities and emotions. From the intimacy and promise of the Last Supper, via the agony in the garden and the horror of the Lord’s Passion, all the way to the unimaginable wonder of the empty tomb.

“Do not be afraid!
I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.
Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
‘He has been raised from the dead,
and he is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him.’
Behold, I have told you.”

What we thought was an ending, what we still too often think as a conclusion, is in fact the very opposite: Jesus is risen, and thus something new begins. We have not reached the end of a story, but began a completely new one.

The tomb is empty, Christ is not there. Let’s not linger where life ended, but go forward to the fullness of life, victorious over death.

A blessed Easter!

Back to square one for the monks on Schiermonnikoog

A – hopefully temporary – setback for the four Cistercian monks on Schiermonnikoog, as they decided to abandon their building plans for a new monastery. Initially, as I wrote before, the plans for a low building with a single light tower was met with approval by the island’s inhabitants. The monks cite “serious and harmful division” caused by the plans as the reason to abandon them.

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^A impression of the monastery according to the now abandoned plans

Since their arrival in early 2015, the monks have expressed no greater wish than to be able to live in peace with the population of Schiermonnikoog. Over the course of the past years they have endeavoured to introduce themselves to the people and be as open as possible about their plans. That is why the building plans were not even formal yet when the monks abandoned them just before Easter.

The criticism against the plans focussed on the ease with which the monks were seemingly able to formalise their plans – Schiermonnikoog is a national park, so having building plans approved can be a lengthy and bureaucratic process – as well as the height of the tower, planned to rise some 14 meters above the dunes in an area otherwise marked by holiday homes. Somewhat more surprising, the monks were also criticised for the luxury of their planned accomodations…

The change of plans does not mean that the monks plan to leave the island. Soon they will be looking at alternate plans – and possibly an alternate location on the Island as well.

Happy 100th to Bishop Ernst

ernstThe fifth-oldest bishop of the world today marks his 100th birthday. Bishop Huub Ernst was bishop of Breda from 1967 to 1992, and apostolic administrator of the same diocese from 1992 to 1994.

In 2016 the bishop marked the 75th anniversary of his priestly ordination, at which tike he reflected:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

This grateful and simple approach to his priestly ministry is also reflected in the bishop’s episcopal motto: a simple “Shalom“.

Bishop Ernst marks his birthday in private. On 4 April he was visited by Bishop Hans van den Hende, president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, on behalf of the other bishops. Bishop van den Hende was bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, after first serving as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Ernst’s successor, Bishop Muskens. Bishop Ernst was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop van den Hende in 2006.

For Scandinavia, a nuncio used to great distances

Pope Francis today appointed a new apostolic nuncio to Sweden and Iceland. These two non-adjacent countries will undoubtedly soon be joined by Finland, Norway and Denmark as the new nuncio’s area of operations. The Nordic countries, although they each have their own nunciature in name*, have always shared one nuncio among them.

Monseñor_James_GreenAn expansive territory to cover, made even more expansive by the Scandinavian bishops regularly meeting in Germany, it is now under the diplomatic responsibility of no stranger to large distances. Archbishop James Patrick Green, 66, comes to Scandinavia from his previous posting in Peru, where he has been the nuncio since 2012. His other postings include the southern tip of Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) from 2006 to 2012, and China, where he was Chargé d’affaires, from 2002 to 2006. Earlier in his diplomatic career, he also served at the nunciature in the Netherlands.

Archbishop Green was born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1950, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by its then-archbishop Cardinal John Krol. In 2006, upon his appointment as nuncio to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (Lesotho and Swaziland would follow later), he was consecrated and named as titular archbishop of Altinum.

Archbishop Green is characterised as “accessible, friendly, gracious and impressively capable”, and is credited with creating a stable episcopate in southern Africa. In Scandinavia, with only six serving bishops, he will have rather less chances to do so. The most senior Nordic bishop, Helsinki’s Teemu Sippo, is 69, followed by Stockholm’s Anders Arborelius at 67, and Copenhagen’s Czeslaw Kozon, who is 65. Although a bishop can retire before the age of 75 for health reasons, the expectation is that it will be another six years before Archbishop Green needs to get to work to collect information for a new bishop. The nuncio himself is still nine years away from retirement, so it is possible that he will be reassigned before that, especiallty considering that he never spent more than five years at his earlier assignments.

The Catholic Church in Scandinavia is growing, mostly due to immigration from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines. It is still numerically small, though, and exists in highly secular societies: many people nominally belong to the Lutheran church which, until fairly recently, was the state church in most Nordic countries, but most will consider themselves atheist or agnostic. The immigrant population differs in that respect from the native Scandinavians, and this will undoubtedly affect how the Church acts and is perceived.

The appointment of a new nuncio was no surprise. Archbishop Green’s predecessor, Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, nuncio since 2012, had already announced his early retirement. At 70, he retires for health reasons.

*Finland was the first in 1966 to get a full diplomatic representation in the form of a nuncio, followed by Iceland in 1976. Denmark and Norway followed in 1982, leaving Sweden to change the old offices of the Apostolic Delegation of Scandinavia into the Nunciature of Sweden. The nuncio still resides in Stockholm, in the northern subburb of Djursholm, although the general secretariat of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference is located in Copenhagen.

Phot credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold