Rome has spoken (maybe) – two of the seven bishops explain themselves [Updated]

At the time of my writing this there is no official word from Rome yet, but strong rumours started to surface yesterday that Rome has issued a decision in favour of the seven German bishops who had serious doubts about the proposed pastoral guide concerning Communion for non-Catholics, that the German Bishops’ Conference had voted for in February. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rumours say, has studied the matter and the final decision is explicitly endorsed by the Holy Father. The official statement may become public, but it appears that the question was deemed important enough to lead to an unusual swift decision, made all the more significant by papal involvement.

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210While the letter by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Schick and Bishops Zdarsa, Hanke, Ipolt, Voderholzer and Oster received much attention in the media, the signatories themselves treated it as a normal matter of correspondence. Cardinal Woelki, who was visiting Ukraine when the news broke, expressed his surprise at the hype and the talk about dissent. Presenting the questions about intercommunion to Rome was not so much a matter of going against his fellow bishops, but rather came from the importance of the matter: “With several bishops, we were convinced that it would be good to universally coordinate the solution that we have discussed and established here, with an eye on the unity of the Church and the common ground with the other particular churches.” Cardinal Woelki is not so much opposed to the proposals from the conference, to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion with their partner on a case-by-case basis, but does not think it is a decision that should be made by the German bishops alone.

osterThe most extensive explanation for signing the letter comes from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. In an article published in the diocesan magazine and on his personal website, he emphasises that the debates within the bishops’ conference have always been fraternal and respectful. He then goes on to explain his reason for signing the letter to Rome.

“The Eucharist is so central to us Catholics, that it expresses the basis of our entire understanding of faith and church. Someone who is able to say “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, says yes to the communion with the Pope and the bishops and with the saints that it implies. He says yes to the special priesthood, the prayer to the mother of the Lord and for the dead – to name just those points which distinguish us, for example in the understanding of what a church is, from our Evangelical brothers. In essence our being Church is expressed in its most dense and concrete way in the Eucharist.”

The proposal from the German bishops includes the idea that a non-Catholic with a strong desire to receive the Eucharist, and after confirming the Catholic understanding of it, can do so. They claim that this is one of the exceptions in which a non-Catholic can receive, normally in an emergency and danger of death. But Bishop Oster rightly states that a person with the desire to receive with his or her spouse is not automatically in danger of death and “has time and opportunity to enter into the Church, as he or she already shares the same understanding of Church and Eucharist.” The bishop wants to know if this desire is indeed a serious necessity or even danger which would allow a non-Catholic to receive Communion.

The proposal also creates some strange ecumenical discrepancies:

“At the same time the proposal states that the Catholic spouse can not join in the Evangelical Last Supper, since the understanding of this Last Supper is so clearly different. This means that, according to the logic of the proposal the Evangelical partner can receive both Eucharist and Last Supper, but the Catholic can not. The Evangelical partner is trusted to somehow uphold both understandings of faith, but not the Catholic, since they do not go together. I think it is very difficult to communicate this!”

Bishop Oster also no romantic notions of how such a change would be generally received by the faithful:

“Experience with past regulations show us that what are depicted as singular cases here, will be perceived by the general public as a broad permission, in the sense of: “Now the others can finally come to Communion with us.”

The first reactions support this reading, the bishop says, and that may lead to a trivialisation of the Eucharist. “After all, we rightly call the Eucharist “the most holy”, and how we treat it is, in my opinion, very important.”

The bishop of Passau ends his article with a second reminder that, despite what some media claim, there is no schism among the German bishops, and nor will there be.

“I am fully convinced that the bishops who think differently also want what is best for the Church and ecumenism. For us signatories the unity of the bishops’ conference, as well as progress in ecumenism, is also important. But we wonder if the path chosen can be taken in this way – and very much want to receive a deeper explanation.”

EDIT (19-4): The German Bishops’ Conference released a statement today in which it declares that any reports about a decision against the pastoral document from the bishops about intercommunion are false. The Holy Father has, however, issued an invitation to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the conference, to discuss the issue in Rome. Cardinal Marx has gladly welcomed this invitation. Who will take part in this discussion remains to be seen.

Photo credit: [1] Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

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For Hildesheim, the new bishop comes from Rome

csm_Heiner_Wilmer_2_9bf3e15c8cWhat’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:

“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.

There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.

On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.

On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.

But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”

The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.

Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in  1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.

Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”

Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:

“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.

[…]

Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”

From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.

“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”

Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.

The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.

With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.


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Breakaways – seven German bishops go against the conference’s grain

In Catholic social media, the German episcopate is frequently represented as a singular monolith, and a liberal one at that. Following their recent decision to explore ways in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholics can receive Holy Communion together with their partner, cracks start to appear in that image. Although the decision, which I wrote about here, was made after a two-thirds majority of the German bishops voted in favour of it, seven bishops have expressed their concerns to the Vatican.

sevenbishops

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, and Bishops Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Stefan Oster of Passau (above) have signed a letter in which they asked the Holy See to clarify the extent to which a bishops’ conference can decide on the accessibility of Holy Communion. They wonder if the decision is not contrary to the doctrine of the faith and the unity of the Church, and claim that the bishops exceed their limits of competence when they say that non-Catholic spouses can receive Communion, albeit under certain circumstances (a formulation that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has denounced as mere lip service). The letter was sent to Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, responded with a letter to all German bishops – a decision motivated by the fact that the letter concerns a decision made by the entire conference and was sent to the Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio. In his response, he emphasises that no decision has been made to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion, but that there is a working document which may still be amended or changed. The cardinal also reminds the authors that bishops’ conferences and individual bishops have the right, according to canon law, to determine when Holy Communion can be given licitly to non-Catholics.

It is a rare event for members of a bishops’ conference to go beyond their elected president and appeal directly to the Vatican, especially in the case of a majority decision. But on the other hand, it is the ordinary, not the bishops’ conference, who has final say about and responsibility over what happens in his diocese. The concerns of the seven bishops is directly related to their duties as shepherds of their diocesan flocks, and deserves to be taken seriously. Will there be an answer forthcoming from the Holy See? It is not unlikely, even in a time when honest concerns about matters of doctrine have remained unanswered. But unlike the dubia cardinals, the seven German bishops are not appealing to the Pope, but to two curial departments. And it is especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s duty to clarify matters of doctrine and, in this case, to delineate the limits of freedom of bishops’ conference. In that sense, this may be something of a test case in the relationships between bishops and conferences, as well as conferences and the larger world Church.

Photo credit: [2] dapd/sjl


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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”

The road to full humanity – Bishop Hanke’s Advent letter

In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.

hanke“Dear sisters and brothers!

Anticipation for the birth

A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!

The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation

The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”[1]

Humanity as personhood in crisis

A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself,  as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.

Worldwide crisis of humanity

Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.

But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:

Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide

We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless [2].

Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender

In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.

This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.

On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.

God created humanity as man and woman

At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).

Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.

Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage [3]. This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other.  As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life [4].

From the manger shines the light of true humanity

Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.

Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.

Encounter as the key to incarnation

The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.

Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.

Incarnation in hospitality

Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.

Incarnation in friendship

A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.

Incarnation in marriage

The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.

The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.

All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.

Yours,

Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”


(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.

Francis continues Curia confirmations

More than a year after the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis is still slowly confirming the heads of Curia departments in their offices. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, they also did and it was up to the new Pope to either confirm them again or select others to take over their duties. Usually, confirmation is a matter of days after a new Pope is installed, but Francis took his time.

ravasiToday he confirmed the staff of three departments: the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz as Prefect), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as President and Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot as Secretary) and the Pontifical Council for Culture (Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (pictured above) as President, Bishop Carlos Alberto de Pinho Moreira Azevedo as Delegate and Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou as Secretary). Interestingly enough is that these are not all officials of these departments. None of the undersecretaries – Father Sebastiano Paciolla and Sister Nicoletta Spezzati of the Congregation for Consecrated Life, Msgr. Indunil Kodithuwakku Kankanamalage of Interreligious Dialogue and Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca y Alameda of Culture – are mentioned. Perhaps this is intentional and an indication of Pope Francis’ efforts to slim down the Curia.

van looyThe Holy Father also appointed a whole raft of new members of these departments – cardinals, bishops, priests, but also religious superiors and lay persons. Among the new members of the Congregation for Consecrated Life are Bishops Lucas Van Looy (right) and Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt. Bishop van Looy (72) is a Salesian of Don Bosco and bishop of Ghent since 2003, while Bishop Hanke (59) is a member of the Order of Saint Benedict and became bishop of Eichstätt in 2006. Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, lastly, was appointed as a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.