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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In Hildesheim, Bishop Trelle retires

As expected, Pope Francis ended that three-week period in which no German dioceses were without a bishop, by accepting the retirement of Bishop Norbert Trelle of Hildesheim. Bishop Trelle turned 5 on the 5th of this month and his retirement was announced by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, apostolic nuncio to Germany, during the celebrations for the bishop’s birthday.

csm_170909-Bistum_Geburtstag_Bischof_17_5545932ffd^Bishop Trelle, centre, is pictured here with Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who preached during the birthday Mass, and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the nuncio.

Now heading the diocese of the senior auxiliary bishop, Nikolaus Schwerdtfeger, who is to call a meeting of the cathedral chapter to elect a diocesan administrator, who will manage affairs until a new bishop has been appointed, within eight days. That election is usually a speedy process, as the retirement of Bishop Trelle has long been foreseen. A likely candidate to be chosen as administrator is the vicar general, Hildesheim’s other auxilary, Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz.

Karte_Bistum_HildesheimBishop Trelle has stood at the head of the Diocese of Hildesheim for almost 12 years. Appointed in 2005, he was previously an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for more than 13 years. Like other bishops in and around Germany, he was confronted with dwindling numbers of faithful, which led him to reducing the number of parishes from 313 to 119, and closing some 50 churches. Priests in Hildesheim are now rarely attached to a single parish or location, but are responsible for clusters of parishes and communities, working in pastoral teams.

In January of this year, Bishop Trelle consecrated a new church, in Hannover, the first such consecration in more than 20 years.

Among the high points of Bishop Trelle’s time was the renovation of Hildesheim’s cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, completed in 2014, and the celebration of the 1200th aiversary of the foundation of the diocese.

In 2015, Bishop Trelle was the first bishop of Hildesheim to officialy apologise for historical errors and misdeeds, including the diocese’s role in wars of religion, persecutions, failures in the Nazi era, as well as sexual abuse by clergy.

Hildesheim is the third-largest diocese in Germany, extending from the North Sea coast between Bremen and Hamburg southward to the heart of the country near Göttingen. It was established in the 9th century, expanded over time until the 1960s, and then losing bits of territory to Erfurt, Magdeburg and Hamburg in the 1990s, following the German reunification.

Photo credit: bph/Gossmann

New bishops in summer

Everything, including the Church, slows down over summer. As a result, there are few appointments and consecrations of bishops in August. Nonetheless, Germany gained two of them: Msgr. Peter Kohlgraf was consecrated as bishop of Mainz on 27 August and Msgr. Franz Josef Gebert became the third auxiliary bishop of Trier last Sunday.

These two consecrations fill out the roster of German bishops: there are no vacant sees or auxiliary bishop positions among the 28 (arch)dioceses in the country. This, however, is not a situation that will continue for long: Würzburg’s Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann is already 75, while Hildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle reached that age today. Both dioceses can therefore expect a new bishop relatively soon (barring any exceptional circumstances, such as in the Austrian diocese of Innsbruck, which has been awaiting a new bishop since November of 2015).

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^Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, flanked by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Stephan Burger and Cardinal Rainer Woelki, greets people gathered after his consecration.

Bishop Kohlgraf is the successor of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who headed the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years until his retirement in May of 2016. It is a public secret that the cardinal had wanted his auxiliary Bishop Udo Markus Bentz to succeed him, but the latter’s appointment as Bishop Kohlgraf’s vicar general can be seen as a form of continuity with the Lehmann era. The previous vicar general, and diocesan administrator during the year-long sede vacante, Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, has been appointed as episcopal vicar for, among others, migration and integration, thus indicating some of the initial points of focus of the new bishop.

Bishop Franz Gebert was appointed to fill the position left by Bishop Helmut Dieser, who was appointed as Bishop of Aachen in September of last year. Like other German dioceses, Trier has a standard number of auxiliary bishops, in this case three, as episcopal vicars for individual pastoral areas are made bishops as a rule. Bishop Gebert headed the diocesan charity office before his appointment as auxiliary bishop, and will continue in that role as episcopal vicar for the caritas. Additionally, he will be responsible for pastoral visitation in the Trier area on behalf of Bishop Stephan Ackermann.

csm_bischofsweihe_gebert_3_sep_-131_fbd3adae86

Bishop Franz Gebert (front row, second from right) poses with the other bishops hailing from the Diocese of Trier: front row: Leo Schwarz (auziliary bishop emeritus), Robert Brahm (auxiliary bishop), Stephan Ackermann (ordinary), Franz Gebert, Jörg Peters (uxiliary bishop), Alfred Kleinermeilert (auxiliary bishop emeritus). Back row: Helmut Dieser (bishop of Aachen), Felix Genn (bishop of Münster), Georg Bätzing (bishop of Limburg).

Photo credit: [1] Stefan Sämsmer, [2] Bistum Trier

Bishops coming, bishops going – a look ahead at 2017

On the threshold of 2017, a look ahead at what we may expect when it comes to the leadership of the various dioceses in Northwestern Europe.

266px-BisdomGroningenLocatieThere have been years when the changes were rather significant, but 2017 does not look to be one of those. At the start of the new year, three dioceses are without a bishop: Groningen-Leeuwarden in the Netherlands (map at right), Mainz in Germany and the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway. It is a safe bet that the first two will receive their new bishops in 2017, but Trondheim may well be left as it has been for the past seven years: without a bishop, and with the bishop of Oslo serving as Apostolic Administrator. But on the other hand, for a see that just built and consecrated its new cathedral, and which, like the rest of Norway, has seen a significant increase in Catholic faithful, this does not seem like a situation that will continue forever. So who knows what the year will bring.

In Groningen-Leeuwarden, the new bishop will succeed Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was appointed to ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March. Almost ten months in, the vacancy is the longest for the Dutch Catholic Church in recent years. The new bishop of Mainz will follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who led that ancient see for 33 years.

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienThere are a few bishops who will reach the age of 75 in 2017, and thus will offer their resignation. In Germany, these are Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann of Würzburg on 12 May and Norbert Trelle (at left) of Hildesheim on 5 September. Joining them is Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond in the Netherlands. He will be 75 on 2 December, but I would not be surprised if his retirement will be accepted earlier, as the bishop has been struggling with eye-related health problems.

There is one bishop serving past the age of 75. Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent has been asked to continue serving for another two years, so that Belgian see will remain occupied for the duration of 2017.

A less certain area to make predictions about is the appointment of auxiliary bishops. I expect, however, that two German dioceses will receive one auxiliary each. The Archdiocese of Hamburg has been without auxiliary bishops since October, when Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke retired. As the archdiocese is being reorganised, the number of auxiliary bishops will be decreased from two to one, and we may well see one of the three new area deans (representing the archdiocese’s constituent areas of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg) to be made a bishop. Further south, the Diocese of Münster has confirmed its request for a new auxiliary bishop after Heinrich Timmerevers was appointed to Dresden-Meißen in April. This will bring the number of auxiliary bishops back up to five, one for each pastoral area.

vilniaus_arkivyskupas_metropolitas_audrys_juozas_backis_2In Rome, lastly, there will be no new consistory. Only four cardinals will reach the age of 80 and so cease to be electors. They are Audrys Backis, Archbishop emeritus of Vilnius, Lithuania (and former Nuncio to the Netherlands) (at right); Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Archbishop emeritus of Aparecida, Brazil; Attilio Nicora, Pontifical Legate to the Basilicas in Assisi, Italy; and Lluís Martínez Sistach, Archbishop emeritus of Barcelona, Spain. The number of cardinals who will be able to participate in a conclave will still be 116 at the end of next year, so there will be no need to bring their numbers up.

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.”

End of an era as Melzer steps back

20111011_Stadtpatronefest_Weihbischof_Melzer_MG_7194_printbHe was the most senior bishop in the Archdiocese of Cologne, having served for almost twenty years. But now it is enough, as his health can no longer support the work he does, and Bishop Manfred Melzer , 71, is now taking the first steps towards retirement. Granted, Pope Francis did ask him to keep working until a successor has been named, but with today’s  announcement we could be looking at the end of the Meisner era (well, were it not for the fact that Cardinal Rainer Woelki can be safely considered as executing a smooth continuation of that era, which started in 1988).

Bishop Manfred Melzer was appointed in 1995, becoming part of the traditional group of auxiliary bishops of Cologne, one for each pastoral area (four before 2005, three since). His fellow bishops under Cardinal Meisner were Klaus Dick, who was succeeded in 2003 by then-Bishop Woelki; Norbert Trelle, who was appointed to Hildesheim in 2005 and was succeeded by Heiner Koch the next year; and Friedhelm Hofmann, who was appointed to Würzburg in 2004. Bishops Woelki and Koch also left the archdiocese, for Berlin and Dresden-Meißen respectively, although the former returned in 2014. The current group of auxiliary bishops consists of Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff, and can be considered a generation younger than Bishop Melzer.

As auxiliary bishop of Cologne (and titular bishop of Carinola), Bishop Melzer was appointed for the pastoral area Mitte, which includes Cologne itself, as well as the city of Leverkusen and surrounding areas. He was also the episcopal vicar for the female religious orders, the hermits and consecrated virgins in the archdiocese. In the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Melzer was a member of the pastoral commission and the commission for questions of the world Church, as well as chairman of the subcommission for the mission. He made headlines most recently when he led the archdiocese for a few hours, between the retirement of Cardinal Meisner and the election of then-Msgr. Stefan Heße as Diocesan Administrator.

According to the statement on the website of the archdiocese, Bishop Melzer has been suffering from unspecified health complaints for some years now.

Bishop in the pub – making the conference more present

dbk logoA month from now, the German bishops will be meeting for their spring plenary in the city of Hildesheim, but on the eve of that meeting on the 23rd of February, seven bishops will participate in debates about various topics in seven pubs throughout the city. Whereas plenary meetings of bishops’ conferences are usually far removed from the daily lives of the faithful, they do influence it and are an arena where important issues and plans are discussed and decided. By holding such pub debates, as it were, both the conference and their topics take a few steps towards the faithful, closing the gap between them. This is, of course, further helped by the fact that entrance is free (although some pubs have a space limit)…

The plan seems to be the brainchild of Bishop Norbert Trelle, host of the meeting and vice-president of the bishops’ conference. The Diocese of Hildesheim celebrates the 1200th anniversary of its foundation this year and its 11th century cathedral has just come out of an extensive renovation.

These are the seven bishops speaking at various pubs: Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier will speak about peace and justice; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) about the communication of faith; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann (Würzburg) about art and religion; Bishop Heiner Koch (Dresden-Meißen) about marriage and family; Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) about business ethics; Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne) about poverty; and Bishop Norbert Trelle (Hildesheim) about immigration and human rights.

An example worth following by bishops in other countries.