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”


Bishops react to Laudato Si’

They’ve all received the encyclical in advance, with a personal note from Pope Francis, so more than a few bishops were ready to offer their thoughts and opinions as soon as Laudato Si’ was launched yesterday. Here are a few reactions I came across in my corner of Europe.

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg writes: “The Biblical call to subdue the earth, can no longer be used by anyone as a justification for the plundering of nature and the wasting of resources.”

hesseFrom Hamburg, Archbishop Stefan Heße comments on the fact that Pope Francis addresses his encyclical to all people in the world: “He makes clear what urgent future issues must be solved for the entire world and for all people. That is not possible without a radical change in mentality”. And later, “Thus he underlines that the problems, which concern all, can also only be solved by all.”

101020marx250Cardinal Reinhard Marx, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference, said: “This encyclical is a great work of the Pope, which I gladly make my own. Today the Pope speaks to the conscience of the world and also of the Church, whether it is convenient or not. His message is not comfortable, it wakes us up and warns us to take responsibility. There is a great concern from the Pope not to separate ecological and social problems, commitment to the environment and to the poor, under any circumstances. In the sense the often used label of environmental or climate encyclical falls short. It is rather about an entanglement of the issues of environment and development.”

overbeckBishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen continues in much the same vein as Cardinal Marx: “With this text Pope Francis once again places himself in the tradition of his patron saint, as he – like Saint Francis – emphasises the interconnectedness of the world … It’s about the triad of God – Man – Creation, but also concretely about, for example, the various connections of climate change … This make the Encyclical a strong sign of the responsibility of our universal Church for the world, of which I hope, with an eye on the UN climate summit in Paris this autumn, that it does not miss its effect.”

dekorte2In the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke at a press conference to present the Encyclical, and emphasised the fact that the Pope wants to address all people: “The Encyclical is a new impulse for the efforts of Catholics for a more just and sustainable world. But the words “our common home” in the Encyclical’s subtitle makes clear that the Roman Church wants to address all people. Not just other Christians and other believers, but all people of good will (par. 13). Together we are one human family (par. 52) … Addressing all people, believers and unbelievers, indicates that the best of the world religions and philosophies needs to be tapped to reach a global ethics of Creation. Mobilising the spiritual and ethical power of all people is extremely important. Christians have faith in Gods Spirit who blows where He wants and can renew people. The Spirit breaks through lethargy and despondency and gives us joy and peace (par. 222 etc).”

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienHildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle starts with the criticism of Pope Francis against modern economic systems: “These exclude a large number of people alive today, does not take future generations sufficiently into account and creates a throwaway culture, which exploits resources without concern for the people or the environment and accepts with open eyes the changes in the climate. Opposite that, the Pope places the worth of individual people, his relationship with Creation and with the Creator in the heart of it. He connects these theological statements with an invitation to fundamental economical change and concrete action of individuals …

BischofGenn_Klauser_05-2009Bishop Felix Genn of Münster emphasises that the Encyclical is not just an environmental tract: “Certainly environmental problems are at the heart of Laudato Si’, but it is much more than an ‘environmental Encyclical’. It concerns the common home of Creation. In essence, Pope Francis answers the question which each of us should also ask: “What kind of world do we want to leave for those that come after us, the children who are now growing up?” This then leads to us asking about the reason for our existence and about the values that form the basis of our coexistence: “Why do we got through this world, what do we work and tire ourselves out for, what does this earth need us for?” Only when we ask ourselves these questions, so Pope Francis thinks, in my view quite rightly, the care for the environment will produce effective results.”

bode_purpur_240Lastly, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, one of the German delegates to the Synod of Bishops, connects the Encyclical with the theme of the Synod’s upcoming meeting: “And so the Synod in October about the questions of marriage and family should not supersede the concerns for the human family and its home, Creation. Marriage and family are, after all, an essential component of an integrated ecology.”

German bishops stand for frank and faithful words

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Just to show that not all German bishops  intent on upending all Catholic teaching, as some media would have us believe, here is a translation of a letter sent by five bishops to the bishop of Passau, msgr. Stefan Oster, after the latter criticised the call from the Central Committee of German Catholics (the ZdK) to start blessing same-sex relationships as well as new relationships of divorced Catholics. The ZdK is a lay movement recognised by the Bishops’ Conference to promote the lay apostolate in the Church. Bishop Oster criticised their proposal by pointing out the Biblical basis of marriage and the understanding of Biblical revelation. He also pointed out that the “use” of Pope Francis to support the calls for change has no basis in reality.

“Honourable Lord Bishop Oster, Dear Brother Stefan,

Wethank you for taking position against the proposal presented at the ZdK’s spring assembly, titled “Building bridges between doctrine and life – Family and Church in the modern world”. Weagree woleheartedly with your remarks on the teaching about the Christian view of humanity regarding the importance for man- and womanhood, and especially its importance regarding Christian marriage, based as it is on the teaching of Jesus in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

In German we are living in a strongly secularised society. This situation should not discourage us or make us want to adapt to the opinion of the majority, but it should be seen as an opportunity to rediscover the unique nature of the Christian vocation in today’s world. A frank and faithful proclamation of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel and the development of a relationship with Him as the richness of our lives, as you have undertaken in your repy, are an essential prerequisite.

We are convinced that many faithful are also very grateful for your frank words.

In fraternal solidarity, the bishops of:

Augsburg: Dr. Konrad Zdarsa
Eichstätt: Gregor M. Hanke OSB
Görlitz: Wolfgang Ipolt
Regensburg: Dr. Rudolf Voderholzer
Würzburg: Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann”

Stations of the Cross on Good Friday

As in other years, this Good Friday I will be posting the Stations of the Cross on my blog throughout the day. For this edition, I have taken parts of the Stations as the will be prayed in Rome this year. Every station will feature a short passage from Scripture, an image of the relevant station as they are in the cathedral of St. Joseph in Groningen, a “thought from Jesus” as composed by Bishop Renato Corti, emeritus bishop of Novara in Italy, and a short prayer by yours truly.

I hope it can be a short moment of reflection for some throughout this day on which we remember the death of our Lord.

For Lent, the cardinal once more on church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIn his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.

In the letter, the cardinal writes:

“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”

Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:

“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”

This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.

Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.

The fluidity of doctrine – looking back at the Synod

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.

Forget the sensational headlines – What the Synod is really about

Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.

Peter+Erdo+Synod+Themes+Family+3tjyhEsy4E_lThe Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.

In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.

We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.

The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.

The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.

Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe