Politicising a funeral message

19884123_1597082450303992_1991844372893705580_nPope emeritus Benedict XVI’s message for the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, read out at said funeral by his personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein (at right), has become the most discussed part of the impressive ceremony at Cologne cathedral. And it is a beautiful text, personal, full of fond memories of the late cardinal, outlining Cardinal Meisner as a prayeful man with a deep love for the sacraments, for the Eucharist Lord and for the Church of eastern Europe, but also as a passionate shepherd who found it hard to leave his office “at a time when the Church had a pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint.”

The blogging bishop of Lancaster, Michael Campbell, has a good translation of the Pope emeritus’ words. One line that has been highlighted from this has been the following:

“Yet I have been all the more impressed that in this last period of his life he learned to let go, and live increasingly from the conviction that the Lord does not leave his Church, even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck.”

Although it is a line deserving of attention, it has been abused by too many who wanted to see it as a judgement on the current affairs in the Church, and especially as a criticism against Pope Francis. In my opinion, this is does not do justice to either Benedict XVI’s intentions or Cardinal Meisner’s memory.

What should we take away from that line? That the the ship of the Church is about to be shipwrecked (the original German text speaks of ‘Kentern’ – capsizing)? Or is it that God does not leave His Church? Surely it is the last, as that was the conviction of Cardinal Meisner, one he increasingly learned to live from and be inspired by. Yes, in Germany, and Europe as a whole, the future of the Church does not seem rosy. That is a reality that Cardinal Meisner had to live with, but certainly not one that can be attributed to recent events alone. The papacy of Pope Francis hardly stood at the cradly of the decline. In his own papacy, from the very beginning even, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as well. No one would read the lines quoted as a criticism against his own papacy. Because it’s not, and neither is it aimed at what Francis does or fails to do. Rather, it serves as a realistic image of what Cardinal Meisner struggled with and how, towards the end of his life, he learned to live with it: by seeing and understanding that, no  matter how bleak things seem, the Lord does not abandon His Church. Not when Francis is Pope, and not when Benedict was.

This is a lesson to be learned from the life of Joachim Meisner, not a tool to put two Popes in opposition against one another.

EDIT: In Italian daily Il Giornale, Archbishop Gänswein commented today on the misuse of Benedict XVI’s words, saying that the Pope emeritus intended no criticism against Pope Francis. “The Pope emeritus was arbitrarily exploited with this sentence which alludes to nothing concrete,” the archbishop said. He also repeated that Pope Benedict XVI’s words were written on the request of Cardinal Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne.

Photo credit: Erzbistum Köln on Facebook

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When money and faith clash – Archbishop Gänswein on “disproportionate measures”

Strong words from Archbishop Georg Gänswein about the notorious German Church tax, the Kirchensteuer, in a recent interview. More specifically, the Prefect of the Papal Household criticises the measures taken against people who refuse to pay the tax: excommunication.

The Kirchensteuer is a state tax for the benefit of faith communities (not just the Catholic Church). When a citizen is officially registered as a member of a church of faith community, he is obliged to pay this tax. The only way to avoid paying this tax is to stop being a member of a church or faith community. Archbishop Gänswein explains the Catholic Church’s response to this:

gänswein“How does the Catholic Church in Germany respond to someone leaving the Church? With an automatic exclusion from the Church community, in other words: excommunication. This is excessive and incomprehensible. One can question dogmas, that hurts no one, no one is kicked out. Is not paying the Church tax then a greater misdemeanor against the faith than violations of the truths of faith? The impression created is this: it’s  not so tragic when the faith is at stake, but as soon as money is involved, the game is over. The sharp sword of excommunication when leaving the Church is disproportionate and in need of correction.”

This, and the entire fact of the Catholic Church making use of the Kirchensteuer, does more bad than good, in my opinion. Not only does it create the impression that money is more important than the individual and the various reasons that people may have to not want to pay the Church tax, it also ensnares the Church in the fiscal policies of the state, curtailing its freedom to perform her mission. Of course, money is a necessity, even for the Church, but it should never be a goal in itself. And this whole business of  excommunicating people with a simple stroke of a pen gives the impression of the latter.

Archbishop Gänswein continues:

“When the goods ultimately oppose the good – the faith – there remains only one option: one must free oneself of it. Full coffers and empty churches, this is a terrible gap, that can no longer continue going well. When the cash registers ring and the pews grow ever more empty, there will some day be an implosion. An empty church can not be taken seriously. Who is served when a diocese is extremely rich, but the faith has gradually seeped away? Are we so secularised that the faith barely plays a part anymore, or is even considered to be ballast? Ballast is cast off when it is no longer needed. Are we no longer in a position to proclaim the faith in such a way that people see that it is something great, something beautiful, which enriches and deepens life?”

These comments probably continue to make him unpopular among his brother bishops in Germany, but Archbishop Gänswein is unfazed. When asked about the probability of him being appointed to a diocese in Germany, he is clear that that is not going to happen, since no cathedral chapter is likely to choose him.

“It is indeed true: I have made no secret of my convictions. I have somehow been  branded in public as a rightwinger or a hardliner, without there being concrete examples for that. If the reason is that I do not speak in a roundabout way, but with clarity, than I have to say: Yes, that’s right. That is what I stand for. Now and also in the future.”

Nor does he have a desire to return home to be ordinary of a diocese. He is content with his duties at the side of Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

Happy birtdhay to Father Benedict

Father Benedict, as he would have preferred to have been called instead of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, celebrates his 88th birthday today. It’s going to be a private affair, as usual, with his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, visiting.

benedict

The retired Pope is doing well, according to his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, in recent interviews: his mind as sharp as ever, although his legs have begun to give him trouble. Indoors he walks with a cane, outdoors with a walker. But at the age of 88, mortality is a topic that Father Benedict does not avoid. He has spoken about his own death several times with Msgr. Gänswein.

For now, however, we wish Benedict a happy birthday and all the blessings of the Lord for the future. May he live long in comfort, surrounded by those he loves, and aware of our gratitude for his prayer for us.

From the front row – new interview with Archbishop Gänswein

An interesting interview in Christ & Welt, a weekly supplement to Die Zeit in Germany, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein yesterday. It sheds some interesting lights on recent developments in the Vatican, such as Pope Francis’ Christmas talk to the Curia, the Pope’s relationship with the media, the Synod and also retired Pope Benedict XVI and some personal touches. Worth a read:

Cgänswein&W: At Christmas Pope Francis caused some furore with his talk about fifteen diseases of the Roman Curia. You were seated directly next to the Pope. At what point did you stop counting?

Georg Gänswein: As Prefect of the Papal Household I sat, as ever on such occasions, at the Pope’s right. And as ever I had a copy of the talk in my briefcase, but I hadn’t had the time to read it beforehand. When the list of diseases began I thought to myself, “Now it’s going to be interesting”, and it became ever more interesting. I counted until the ninth disease…

What went through your head?

Normally the Pope uses the Christmas reception for the Curia to look back on the past year and look ahead to the coming one. It was different this time. Pope Francis preferred to hold up a mirror of conscience to the cardinals and bishops, among them a few who were retired…

Did you feel like it appealed to you?

Of course I asked myself, “Who does this concern? What disease affects you? What needs to be corrected?” At one point I had to think of my many moving boxes.

Do you mean the anecdote about the moving of a Jesuit with countless possessions? Francis had said that moving was a sign of the “disease of hoarding”.

Exactly. Since leaving the Apostolic Palace after the retirement of Pope Benedict in February of 2013 more than a few of my things are still in boxes in a storeroom. But I can’t see a sign of disease in that.

What did Pope Francis intend with this act of flagellation? It could be demotivating.

That is a question that many of my colleagues also asked. Pope Francis has been in office for almost two years now and knows the Curia pretty well. He obviously thought it necessary to speak clearly and to cause an examination of conscience.

What were the reactions?

It was a treat for the media, of course. During the talk I could already see the headlines: Pope castigates Curia prelates; Pope reads his coworkers the law! Sadly, outwardly it gave the impression that there was a rift between the Pope and the Curia. That impression is deceiving, and does not coincide with reality. But the address drowned that out.

Was the talk criticised internally?

The reactions ranged from surprise to shock and incomprehension.

Perhaps with Francis, the Curia needs to adjust to permanent spiritual exercises?

It has long been adjusted to that. Pope Francis makes no secret of his religious formation. He is a Jesuit, shaped through and through by the spirituality of the founder of his order, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

What are your thoughts about Francis, two years after his election?

Pope Francis is a man who has made it clear from the outset that he deals differently with things that he sees differently. That is true for his choice of living, the car he drives, the entire process of audiences in general and especially for protocol. One could think that he was getting used to things in the beginning and wanted a significant degree of flexibility. By now it has become standard. The Holy Father is a man of extraordinary creativity and Latin American zest.

Many still ask where we are going?

If you listen attentively to the words of the Pope, you will hear a clear message in them. Nevertheless, the question continuously arises of where Francis wants to lead the Church, what is his goal?

One year ago you said, “We are still waiting for substantial standards.” Can these now be seen?

Yes, much more clearly than a year ago. Consider the Apostolic Letter  Evangelii gaudium. In it he has presented a compass for his pontificate. In addition he has published important documents and given major addresses over the course of the year, such as in Strasbourg for the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Contours have become clearly visible and clear priorities were set.

Such as?

The most important priority is mission, evangelisation. This aspect is like a red thread. No internal navelgazing, no self-reference, but sharing the Gospel with the world. That is the motto.

Do you understand Francis George, the retired archbishop of Chicago, who criticised the fact that the words of the Pope are often ambivalent?

There have indeed been cases in which the Vatican spokesman had to clarify matters after specific publications. Corrections are necessary when certain statements lead to misunderstandings which can be collected from certain sites.

Does Francis have a better grip of the media than his predecessor Benedict?

Francis deals with the media offensively. He used them intensively and directly.

Also more skilful?

Yes, he uses them very skilfully.

Who are actually his closest advisors?

This questions always and consistently goes around. I don’t know.

With the Synods on the pastoral care for families this past and the coming autumn, Francis created a focal point. Especially the question of allowing divorced and remarried faithful access to the sacraments causes much disagreement. Some also have the impression that Francis is more concerned with pastoral care than with doctrine…

I do not share that impression. It creates an artificial opposition which does not exist. The Pope is the first guarantor and keeper of the doctrine of the Church and at the same the first shepherd, the first pastor. Doctrine and pastoral care are not in opposition, they are like twins.

Do the current and the retired Pope take opposite views in the debate about divorced and remarried Catholics?

I know of no doctrinal statements from Pope Francis which are contrary to the statements of his predecessor. That would be absurd too. It is one thing to emphasise the pastoral efforts more clearly because the situation requires it. It is something else entirely to make a change in teaching. I can only act pastorally sensitive, consistent and conscientious when I do so on the basis of full Catholic teaching. The substance of the sacraments is not left to the discretion of pastors, but has been given to the Church by the Lord. That is also and especially true for the sacrament of marriage.

Was there a visit of some cardinals to Benedict during the Synod, with the request that he intervene to rescue the dogma?

There has not been such a visit to Pope Benedict. A supposed intervention by the Pope emeritus is pure invention.

How does Benedict respond to the attempts by traditionalist circles to recognise him as an antipope?

It was not traditionalist circles who attempted that, but representatives of the theological profession and some journalists. Speaking of an antipope is simply stupid, and also irresponsible.  That goes in the direction of theological arson.

Recently there was excitement surrounding a contribution in the recently published fourth volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger. The author changed some conclusions to the topic of the divorced and remarried in a stricter sense. Does Benedict want to involve himself with this in the Synod debate?

Not at all. The revision of said article from 1972 was completed and sent to the publisher long before the Synod. It must be remembered that every author has the right to make changes in his writings. Every informed person knows that Pope Benedict has not shared the conclusions of said contribution since 1981, which is more than 30 years! As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he has expressed this clearly in various comments.

The timing of the publication of the new edition to coincide with the Synod was then anything but happy…

The fourth volume of the Collected Works, in which the article is printed, was supposed to be published in 2013. The publication was delayed for various reasons and happened only in 2014. That a Synod on the topic of the family would take place at that time, was absolutely unforeseen when the planning of the publication of the separate volumes was made.

Upon his retirement, Benedict XVI said that he would be living “hidden from the world”. He continues to make appearances, however. Why?

When he is present at important Church events, it is because he is personally invited by Pope Francis, for example when he took part in the consistory of last February, the canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII in April and also the beatification of Paul VI in October. He has also written a greeting for the inauguration of the Auditorium Maximum of the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, which was named after him. Pope Benedict was invited for that, but did not accept that invitation.

In the greeting, which you read out on his behalf at the time, he however makes clear theological statements. “The elimination of truth is lethal for the faith,” he wrote.

The greeting was an impressive contribution to the topic of “Truth and Mission”. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet during the reading in the crowded auditorium. Content-wise, it was a theological classic. Pope Francis, who had received the text from Benedict beforehand, was much impressed and had thanked him for it.

Does Benedict sometimes speak about his retirement? Is he relieved?

He is at peace with himself and convinced that the decision was right and necessary. It was a decision of conscience that was well prayed and suffered over, and in that man stands alone before God.

You struggled with Benedict’s historical retirement in February of 2013. How do you look back on this step now?

It is true that the decision was difficult for me. It was not easy to accept it internally. I struggled to cope. The fight is now long since over.

You swore to be loyal to Benedict to the death. Does that also mean that you’ll remain at his side, and also in the Vatican?

On the day of his election as Pope I promised to help him in vita et in morte. Of course I did not take a retirement into account at that time. But the promise is still true and remains valid.

Bishops should be shepherds. As archbishop in the Roman Curia, do you sometimes feel like a shepherd without a flock?

Yes, sometimes. But I am getting more and more invitations for confirmations, anniversary Masses and other celebrations. Initially I responded somewhat defensive to those and accepted only a few. But that has changed lately. Direct contact with the faithful is very important. That is why I accept pastoral duties whenever it is possible and compatible with my other obligations. That is both good and necessary. And it is also the best medication against one of the diseases of the Curia mentioned by Pope Francis: the danger of becoming a bureaucrat.

Picking and choosing – finding a new archbishop for Berlin

berlinIn all likelihood we’ll see a new archbishop of Berlin appointed this year, and the Archdiocese is certainly doing what they can to speed up the process. On a special website it is asking everyone, faithful or not, to say who they think should be the successor to Cardinal Woelki, who was appointed to Cologne in July.

Domkapitular Monsignore Tobias PrzytarskiFrom the numerous suggestions, which also include the names of Lutheran Bishop Margot Käßmann and former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, some trends become visible. In addition the those who simply want Cardinal Woelki back, there are some Berlin clergy who appear frequently among the suggestions. Top of the list is Bishop Matthias Heinrich, auxiliary bishop of Berlin since 2009. Apostolic Administrator Tobias Przytarski (pictured at right) and Episcopal Vicar Stefan Dybowski are also named. Other names from outside Berlin are those of Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Father Klaus Mertes, S.J., the school director who uncovered the sexual abuse scandal at Berlin’s Canisius College.

gänsweinAnother familiar name, mentioned often in connection with that of Cardinal Marx, is that of Archbishop Georg Gänswein (pictured at left). The personal secretary of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and the Prefect of the Papal Household is suggested as archbishop in Berlin or, if Cardinal Marx goes to the German capital, of Munich.

Not all the names suggested are likely to be among the list presented to the Congregation for Bishops or the Berlin cathedral chapter, but they do indicate that the Catholics of Berlin want someone worthy of succeeding Cardinal Woelki, who certainly made an impression in his three short years as their archbishop.

The influence of the website and the suggestion posted on it will be minimal, as the concordat that covers the process of election of new archbishops in Berlin is pretty strictly regulated. The cathedral chapter of Berlin, the Apostolic Nuncio and the bishops of the dioceses that include territory of the former country of Prussia (which is the majority of German dioceses) can all nominate candidates. At most, the names suggested will inspire them or remind them of candidates they did not think of themselves. The suggestions will not, in any way, be used in a democratic way.

Learning how to bishop – Bishop Oster in Rome

Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau shares the photo below on his Facebook page. Germany’s youngest ordinary met Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Archbishop Georg Gänswein over lunch yesterday and brings back the retired pontiff’s heartfelt greetings and promises of prayer to Passau, the diocese in which Benedict was born in 1927.
oster benedict gänswein

Bishop Oster is in Rome as part of the annual “training course” for new bishops who were appointed in the past year. With him from Germany are Archbishop Stephan Burger and Bishop Michael Gerber from Freiburg, Bishop Ansgar Puff from Cologne, and Bishop Herwig Gössl from Bamberg (pictured below while attending one of the seminars earlier this week).

gerber, burger, oster, puff, gössl

The training week is organised by Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s  Congregation for Bishops, and is attended by some 130 bishops from across the globe. Various cardinals and other Curia members offered seminars on such topics as the Church’s social teaching (Cardinal Turkson), the spirituality of bishops (Cardinal Amato) and the workings of the Synod of Bishops (Cardinal Baldisseri), the reforms of the Curia (Cardinal Ouellet), and finances (Cardinal Pell), but they also heard the sobering stories of bishops from Iraq and Syria. The ten days of the training is, as Bishop Oster says, also a time of reflection, prayer and community and will be closed tomorrow with an audience with Pope Francis.

No return for Bishop Tebartz-van Elst

franz-peter tebartz-van elstReports 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.

Grothe_webThe 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.