Bishops on social media – still an uphill battle

Among the German-language bishops, the highest social media presence belongs to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who reaches some 110,000 followers via his various social media accounts, as reported by the Archdiocese of Vienna. Obviously, the cardinal promptly went on Twitter to thank his followers for their “valuable and critical reactions” to what he shares.

Other active social media bishops are Stefan Oster of Passau (16,594 followers), Wilhelm Krautwaschl of Graz-Seckau (6,882 followers) and Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen (4,479 followers).

Modern Keyboard With Colored Social Network Buttons.This made me wonder: how do the bishops of the Dutch language area compare? Not that favourably, actually. Of the 18 bishops in the Netherlands and Flanders (I haven’t counted the emeriti), only five have any social media presence. Those five all use Facebook, one also uses Twitter and a third one adds Instagram. Their reach is also much smaller than that of their German speaking brethren, but that is easily explained by the size of the Dutch language area.

IMG-p06Mgr.DeJong-2402_cropped-60-281-231-3-0Topping the list is Bishop Everard de Jong (pictured), the auxiliary bishop of Roermond. He has 5,000 friends on his personal Facebook page, and a further 782 followers on his Instagram account.

Number 2 is the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Jozef De Kesel is followed by 2059 on Facebook. Including him among the Dutch-speaking bishops is a bit of a cheat, as he posts in both Dutch and French.

Bishop Jan Hendriks, the coadjutor bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, who is also the single Dutch bishop with a blog, has a combined 1,726 followers on Twitter and his two Facebook accounts.

Bruges’ Bishop Lode Aerts boasts 1,636 followers on Facebook.

Number five, then, is Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent, who has 1,607 people on his Facebook page. He also has a personal account there, which does not reveal the number of friends he has there.

Despite the efforts of the five prelates above, the bishops in the Netherlands remain very hesitating in their use of social media. Traditional media is used, especially in writing, and a number of bishops actively contribute to the websites of their respective dioceses. But like visual media, social media is generally seen is something “not for them”. This may be a generational thing, of course, but dioceses also have communication teams who can post on their behalf. This is fairly common in other parts of the world. And at least one bishop seems open to it, despite his personal trepidation. Bishop Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden said in a 2017 interview:

“The diocese certainly participates in social media, but it’s not for me.” He takes an old Nokia from his pocket. “As long as the battery still works, this is fine for me. The next model will probably be an iPhone so that I can also use WhatsApp. I lag a bit behind. We are looking for a new communications advisor. If he or she thinks it a good idea for me to start tweeting, I will seriously consider it.”

Well, let’s hope that the communications advisors of the various dioceses have an eye for social media trends abroad. Using modern forms of media makes one more visible, certainly among younger generations (and not even the youngest anymore), who are increasingly leaving the traditional media behind. Increased visibility in a time where the role of the Church, faith and religion is diminishing will help in making the Good News known.

Photo credit: [2] Nederlands Dagblad

German bishops speak out in favour of celibacy

Despite assurances to the contrary, the German episcopate as a body continues to be seen by many as plotting a course independent of Rome when it comes to questions about the sacraments, the priesthood and synodality. That said, several bishops have recently spoken out in defence of one topic which, certain circles claim, should be abolished if the Church is to change for the better: mandatory celibacy for priests.

HOP_9503.jpg_1287107163The main contribution, certainly in word count, comes from Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne, who wrote an article about the topic for the Tagespost (subsequently also published on Domradio), with a focus on the issue in the context of the abuse crisis. Identifying the call to abolish celibacy as conservative because it is, by now, a somewhat old-fashioned position, the bishop asks, “Why is my celibate way of life always criticised so strongly by people who don’t have to live it at all? Didnt I make that choice, not you?” He adds that no one forced him to choose to live celibate. Bishop Schwaderlapp explains the value of celibacy for a priest:

“It is not just a fitting oneself into the order of the Church. Celibacy is not limited to a – sometimes painful – denunciation of an exclusive two-way relationship of one’s own in order to have time and space for the many. And as such it is more than “just” the adoption of Jesus’ lifestyle – it is after all Him whom the priest is to make tangible in his life. Celibacy means a self-giving to Christ. with body and soul. And with and through Christ it means a self-giving to the people. It is about making the open heart of Jesus tangible through the celibate way of living. Being a priest is a matter of the heart, otherwise it becomes a caricature.”

The bishop likens this act of self-giving, which includes the priest sexuality, to what a husband and wife do in marriage. Rather than giving themselves to each other, with body, soul and sexuality, a priest gives himself to God.

Not blind to the challenges facing the Church and society, Bishop Schwarderlapp nonetheless concludes that allowing priests to marry is not an answer.

“This charism makes the purpose and mission of the priest “physical”: to make Jesus Christ visible, audible and tangible in this world. Incidentally, celibacy is always outdated because it refers, across time, to the one who was, who is and who will come. It is fatal if this charism is put up for discussion, and when we bishops take part in it. There are no new factual arguments against celibacy. [Abolition]  would not serve as a remedy to abuse, nor as an impetus to the – much needed – inner renewal of the Church. There has never been renewal by less, but always only through more devotion.”

helmut_dieser_40840234Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen expresses himself in similar words. He too emphasises that celibacy is not something negative, nor something that is forced upon a priest. It is, he states, “a Biblical way of life in imitation of Jesus, a charism”. However, he also says, should a situation exist when there are no men choosing celibacy, the Church should keep “suitable married men” in mind. This openness to the practical situation, which at this time does not exist in Germany, is echoed by Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. His position in an interview, which he shared on his website, caused some confusion as it appeared as if he was in favour of loosening the celibacy rules. “I am not, even when I consider it possible,” he tersely explains. Bishop Oster also explains that there is room to discuss the question of celibacy: “The question is not dogmatic. Unlike with sexual morality there is more leeway, and the pope has already encouraged the search for new ways in this regard.”

About celibacy itself, the bishop says:

oster1130“Celibacy is the way of life of Jesus and as such a great spiritual treasure, which is worth fighting for. But I do not rule out the possibility (of a loosening of the celibacy rules). When the majority of priests say that it is no longer possible to live celibately in this time and society, then it becomes difficult. On the other hand I do not want the priest who is already struggling with his way of life, but who has made an oath, now reading, “the bishop also says that it is difficult, so I’ll also give it up.” I do not want to demotivate, I want to say: the struggle is worth it.”

The new bishop of Fulda, Michael Gerber, who will be installed today, has also said that he is opposed to abolishing mandatory celibacy, and prefers to focus instead of assuring that priests remain part of a ‘network’, thus preventing any of them from falling prey to loneliness.

Other bishops, such as Peter Kolhgraf of Mainz and Georg Bätzing of Limburg, have expressed their support for voluntary celibacy, showing that, if anything, the German episcopate is no monolith.

Photo credits: [1] Erzbistum Köln, [2] Elisabeth Schomaker/KNA, [3] Bischöfliche Pressestelle Passau

Tweeting the Synod

Today the Synod of Bishops will convene for the first session of their fifteenth ordinary general assembly on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, which will run until the 28th of October. In the past, the daily deliberations and individual contributions of delegates were summarised and published by the Holy See press office, but this is no longer the case. An unwise decision, in my opinion, as it makes the entire process a secretive one. As outsiders, all we will have are rumours and the eventual final document. During the previous Synod we have seen what damage rumours can do, especially when they are neither confirmed nor denied in any clear way..

twitterThat said, there is always social media, and a number of Synod delegates are enthousiastic (or less so) users of those media. Below, I present a short (probably incomplete) list of delegates who use Twitter. It is mostly western prelates using the medium, with English being the dominant language. Other languages used are Italian, French, Spanish, German and Maltese.

  1. Pope Francis (obviously). As pope he convenes the Synod and acts as its president, although he delegates that duty to four delegate presidents. Pope Francis will not be commenting on the Synod proceedings, but offer prayers and short items to reflect on spiritually.
  2. Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Archbishop of Malta. One of three members of the Commission for Disputes.
  3. Bishop Robert Barron. Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and CEO of Word On Fire.
  4. Bishop Frank Caggiano. Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  5. Archbishop José Gómez. Archbishop of Los Angeles.
  6. Archbishop Leo Cushley. Archbishop of Edinburgh.
  7. Archbishop Eamon Martin. Archbishop of Armagh.
  8. Archbishop Anthony Fisher. Archbishop of Sydney.
  9. Leonardo Cardinal Sandri. Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
  10. Robert Cardinal Sarah. Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  11. Kevin Cardinal Farrell. Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
  12. Peter Cardinal Turkson. Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
  13. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
  14. Gérald Cardinal Lacroix. Archbishop of Québec.
  15. Daniel Cardinal Sturla Berhouet. Archbishop of Montevideo.
  16. Blase Cardinal Cupich. Archbishop of Chicago.
  17. Carlos Cardinal Aguiar Retes. Archbishop of Mexico City.
  18. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
  19. Archbishop Peter Comensoli. Archbishop of Melbourne.
  20. Father Antonio Spadaro. Member of the Vatican Media Committee.
  21. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. Archbishop of Vienna.
  22. Wilfrid Cardinal Napier. Archbishop of Durban.
  23. Luis Cardinal Tagle. Archbishop of Manila.
  24. Vincent Cardinal Nichols. Archbishop of Westminster.
  25. Carlos Cardinal Osoro Sierra. Archbishop of Madrid.

KLqGjJTk_400x400Not all of the prelates above use their accounts equally often or in the same way. For example, Cardinal Tagle only posts links to his ‘The Word Exposed’ Youtube catechesis talks, Cardinals Sturla Berhouet and Farrell mostly retweet, Archbishop Fisher hasn’t tweeted since February of 2017, and most use Twitter as a one-way channel. Among those who do respond to what their followers say are Cardinal Napier, Archbishop Comensoli (his Twitter profile picture at left) and Bishop Barron.

Other delegates, such  as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster, are active on Facebook, while Belgian Bishop Jean Kockerols keeps the youth of his country up to speed via a blog.

Several delegates have already shared their arrival in Rome, and it is these (such as Archbishop Comensoli and Bishop Barron) who will perhaps offer the best idea of what goes on in the coming weeks. That said, all we will get are glimpses, and no tweeting delegate will share what goes on in the debates. So, in this age of social media and high-speed communication, the Synod of Bishops remains firmly behind closed doors.

 

At the Synod, an agenda point inserts itself

The relationship between Church and young people is at the forefront of the minds of many a bishop heading to Rome next month. Not just because the Synod of Bishops will be discussing the topic of youth and vocation, but also because said relationship – at least between young people and certain representatives of the Church – has not always been smooth, to say the least. For two bishops this has been reason to stay at home: Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts because he doesn’t believe this is the right time to discuss the Synod topic, and American Cardinal Joseph Tobin because he feels he should not be away from his Archdiocese of Newark in such troubling times.

Among the bishops who are going, however, the concerns expressed by the aforementioned prelates are equally present.

everard de jongBishop Everard de Jong, who will be taking Bishop Mutsaerts’ place at the Synod has said that he will be supporting the latter’s statement:  “I will probably start with saying something about the importance of a safe environment.” In the mere four minutes alloted to him Bishop de Jong also intends to address the question of how young people may be taught to discern their vocation, and break the Catholic hesitance to speak about God and faith, he told Katholiek Nieuwsblad.

“Too long have we been silent; as Catholics we failed to speak explicitly about God and the sacraments. Young people therefore know little to nothing about this. But I haven’t written out my text completely, and I only have four minutes of speaking time. So I doubt if I can address all of that.”

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Bishop Stefan Oster, one of three German delegates to the Synod, goes a step further, saying before Katholisch.de that the bishops can’t avoid discussing the abuse crisis at the Synod. They must do three things, he says: listen to young people, take further measures of prevention, and credibly present the teachings of the Church. Bishop Oster says that cancelling the Synod  because of the abuse crisis is not an option, as the topics of young people are even more important now. In the meantime, the abuse crisis has also had its influence on the daily interactions between priests and young people, perhaps inadvertently causing division. When he is asked to take a selfie with someone, to cite an example, Bishop Oster finds himself wondering, “do I dare put my arm around a young person’s shoulder?”

Three weeks before the Synod, the list is out

Few surprises in the list of participants in next month’s Synod of Bishops on youth of vocation, which was published on Saturday. As is par of the course for such assemblies, the bulk of the delegates is elected by their own bishops’ conferences and the heads of the Curia departments. The pope chooses a number of delegates himself, as well as representatives from other churches and church communities and experts on the topic of the Synod.

kockerolsAs announced earlier, the Dutch and Belgian bishops have each chosen an auxiliary bishop from among them to go to Rome: Bishops Rob Mutsaerts and Jean Kockerols (pictured) respectively. A second Belgian bishop was chosen by Pope Francis, however, As in the previous Synod on marriage and family, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy will also take part in the proceedings. It will probably be his last major role on the world stage, as he will reach the age of 77 at the end of this month, and, on papal request, his retirement has already been postponed by two years. Pope Francis also chose a second Benelux bishop, who is not a member of any bishops’ conference. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who also serves as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, the COMECE.

The German bishops’ conference, being rather larger than those of Belgium or the Netherlands, have elected three bishops to represent them: Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Bishop Johannes Wübbe, auxiliary of Osnabrück.

The Nordic bishops have chosen the bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. David Tencer.

With two exceptions, all the cardinals in Pope Francis’ own selection of delegates are ones he created himself. Some have chosen to see this as Francis ‘stacking the deck’, but that is a nonsensical conclusion. Of course the pope sees potential in these cardinals, and wants to make use of their abilities, or he wouldn’t have made them cardinals in the first place.

 

 

Pastoral exceptions and rules – support from abroad for the Woelki position

The group of German bishops, unofficially headed by Cologne’s Cardinal Woelki, who have questioned the bishops’ conference’s proposed pastoral outreach that would allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances – and whose position was recently confirmed and supported by the Holy See – have received further support from abroad.

In a recent interview on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Nordic bishops – which I wrote about in the previous blog post – Cardinal Anders Arborelius, himself a former Lutheran and now, as a cardinal, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked about the discussion in Germany. He answered:

kardinalen_2_thumb“It surprises me that the topic hasn’t been discussed that much. In Sweden, we have many mixed marriages. But most Catholics aren’t married to practicing Protestants. It is not an issue for us. Of course there are evangelical Christians who would like to receive Communion, but most are non-religious.

Of course, the ideal would be that the entire Church is able to arrive at a common solution, but it is difficult: in one country, the situation is thus, in the other it is different. Hopefully, we will one day be able to find a common solution with the entire Church.”

This is exactly what Cardinal Woelki has also said: it is not up to the German bishops alone to decide upon matters that are so essential to the Catholic faith and the understanding of the sacraments. Rather, the entire Church as a whole must decide upon it, if only to avoid the situation in which a regulation is valid in one place and not in another: the Church is not a national Church, but universal, and her sacraments and faith are not bound by borders.

Μητροπολίτης-Γερμανίας-κ.κ.Αυγουστίνος-300x169Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan Augoustinos, who hosted Cardinal Woelki in Bonn for the annual plenary meeting of the Greek-Orthodox Church in Germany, expressed himself in similar words after indicating that his church is also following the debate closely. He referred to the Orthodox principle of Oikonomia, which indicates that a regulation can be ignored or a rule broken when it serves the salvation of the person involved. But he then quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, saying: “As soon as one defines the conditions under which Oikonomia can be applied, Oikonomia itself becomes a rule or regulation.”

Cardinal Woelki has spoken about the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic presenting himself for Communion is not turned away: a pastoral exception to the rule which, however, must not be made into a rule itself. That would “endanger the values that must be preserved with special care”. These values would include the Catholic (and, for that matter, Orthodox) doctrine about the Eucharist and Communion.

 

In an interview for Katholisch.de, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau also spoke about this point in the debate. He was also one of the seven signatories of the letter to Rome which questioned if the pastoral outreach did not transcend the authority of the German bishops. The bishop explains:

7I2A1125_0“It is right that we do not turn anyone away from the Communion bench. At that moment no judgement can be made about the discernment of conscience of the individual receiving. I can’t ‘expose’ anyone then. But when we take our understanding of the Eucharist seriously, there can be no superficial practice of giving Communion to just anyone. Therefore, as the priest giving Communion, I am obliged to offer people, at a suitable occasion, personal and spiritual guidance – and explain our understanding of the Eucharist more deeply. And yes, the praxis of individual pastoral care can indeed lead to singular and temporary situations. But in my opinion an official regulation of such exceptions can make it even more likely for such exceptions to become the rule. The current debate already shows that. It is basically less about the “serious spiritual need of individuals,” and more about the interdenominational marriages in general.”

At the Katholikentag, German cardinals underline peace

With 90,000 participants* it was the largest edition of the event since 1990. The 101st biannual Katholikentag (despite its name, a multiple-day event) took place in Münster from 9 to 13 May this year, with “Suche Frieden” (look for peace) as its central theme. Peace on a global scale, but also in smaller ways, such as in families, parishes, and, yes, among bishops.

teletext-dpa-image-abschlussgottesdienst-des-katholikentages-102_1920x1080

^30,000 people gathered in Münster’s Schlossplatz for the closing Mass of the Katholikentag 2018. 

As the German bishops have been seemingly rather divided on the topic of Communion for non-Catholics, and despite the words from Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer that the Katholikentag should not be used to exert pressure on either side of the debate**, the topic was raised on more than a few occasions. Your author found Bishop Stefan Oster discussing questions regarding ecumenism in light of these recent developments in a question and answer session at his diocese’s stand at the Kirchenmeile (a massive information market for all manner of Catholic organisations, including the German dioceses), to name but one example.

The two main players in the debate, if only because of their red hats, are Cardinals Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Reinhard Marx of München und Freising (who also happens to chair the German Bishops’ Conference as president). Both cardinals have gone out of their way to express the importance of unanimity at the Katholikentag. Not in a response to the Communion debate, but in emphasising the continued fraternity and, yes, peaceful conditions among the bishops.

In his weekly “Wort des Bischofs” Youtube talk, Cardinal Woelki said yesterday:

“The many small wars in our communities, in our families, yes also among us bishops must also end in peace. That does mean that one can’t argue about the correct path. I am convinced that debate about a good cause is very necessary, even. But the goal, a fraternal living together at all human levels in harmony with God’s creation, is something that we must not lose sight of!”

urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-180513-99-284653-large-4-3In his homily at the closing Mass of the four-day event, Cardinal Marx reiterated that the Catholic Church must make its unity clear, and that includes its bishops.

The efforts of both cardinals, and other bishops as well, are clearly directed at changing the image of division that is the result of the planned pastoral outreach, the letter of the seven bishops and the meeting in Rome. At the same time, as Cardinal Woelki has stated in the quote above, the debate continues, with the added dimension that the papal directive to strive for unanimity has resulted in different interpretations that must be discussed as well.

Despite good intentions and fraternity, the story is far from over.

*This reflects only the number of tickets sold. While many outdoor events were free of charge, tickets gave access to workshops, exhibitions, discussions, tours and other events. The actual number of people who visited Münster for the Katholikentag will exceed 90,000.

**Regarding finding a solution to the question, with Pope Francis’ request in mind that the German bishops come to a unanimous decision, the bishop of Regensburg said on 9 May: “This task will not be an easy one, since the community of the Church transcends the borders of Germany. A possible unanimous decision can only be made in unity with the joint world episcopate, with the world Church, equally with the bishops’ conference of Canada and with that of Indonesia.”

Photo credit: [1] Guido Kirchner/dpa, [2] dpa/Rolf Vennenbernd

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.

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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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