Danger and salvation – At Bishop Bentz’s ordination, Cardinal Lehmann about the office of bishop

udo bentz ordinationIn his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he  shares a common Christianity.

There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.

Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:

lehmann“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!

What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.

Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies.  I want to try and do so with you.

For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).

During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.

Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.

“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that  the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.

As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.

What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.

Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.

Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.

That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.

As bishop, I have been able to experience  this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.

With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.

Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”


Changes in ‘s Hertogenbosch – past, future and some guesses

With the announced retirement of Bishop Hurkmans it is a good time to look back an ahead. In his letter announcing his retirement, the bishop already indicated that a new period was beginning, a time of transition followed by a new bishop at the helm of the numerically largest diocese of the Netherlands.


The Hurkmans era, to call it that, began in 1998, when he was appointed on the same day that his predecessor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, retired. Unlike the latter, who had the misfortune to have been appointed when the polarisation between modernists and orthodox (in which group the bishop could be grouped) was at a final high point, Bishop Hurkmans was and is considered an altogether kinder and approachable man. That does not mean that he avoided making the difficult decisions, and especially following the appointment of two auxiliary bishops in 2010 (later whittled down to one, as Bishop Liesen was soon appointed to Breda), there were several major cases in which the diocese stood firm against modernists trends. But these things never came easy to him. The general idea that I have, and I am not alone, I believe, is that Bishop Hurkmans was altogether too kind to be able to carry the burden of being bishop. He accepted it, trusting in the Holy Spirit to help him – as reflected in his episcopal motto “In Virtute Spiritu Sancti” – but it did not always gave him joy. That said, while he is generally considered a kind bishop, there remain some who consider him strict and aloof, in both the modernists and orthodox camps. As bishop, you rarely win.

In 2011 he took a first medical leave for unspecified health reasons, and a second one began in 2014. While he regained some of his strengths, as he indicates in his letter, it was not enough.

hurkmans ad limina

^Bishop Hurkmans gives the homily during Mass at Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, during the 2013 Ad Limina visit.

In his final years as bishop, Msgr. Hurkmans held the Marriage & Family portfolio in the Bishops’ Conference. It is perhaps striking that he was not elected by the other bishops to attend the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on that same topic – Cardinal Eijk will go, with Bishop Liesen as a substitute. Before a reshuffle in responsibilities in the conference, Bishop Hurkmans held the Liturgy portfolio, and as such was involved with a new translation of the Roman Missal, the publication of which is still in the future.

Bishop Hurkmans was also the Grand Prior of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in the Netherlands, and as such he invested new knights and ladies at the cathedral in Groningen in 2012.

Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishop Hurkmans buried several of his predecessors, such as Bishop Bluyssen in 2013

At 71, Bishop Hurkmans is young to retire, as 75 is the mandatory age for bishops to do so. Still, it is not unprecedented when we look at the bishops of ‘s Hertogenbosch since the latter half of the 20th century. Bishop Johannes Bluyssen retired, also for health reasons, in 1984 at the age of 57. Bishop Bekkers died in office in 1966 at the age of 58. Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, related to the current auxiliary bishop, retired in 1960, also aged 71. As for Bishop Hurkmans, may his retirement be a restful one.

mutsaertsLooking at the future, the inevitable question is, who’s next? Who will be the 10th bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch? Guessing is risky, but there are some likely candidates anyway. In my opinion, one of the likeliest candidates is Bishop Rob Mutsaerts (pictured), currently auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. He has been taking over a number of duties from Bishop Hurkmans during the latter’s absence, and he is at home in the diocese. Speaking against him is his sometimes blunt approach to problems, especially when Catholic doctrine is being disregarded, which does not always sit well with priests and faithful alike (although others, including myself, appreciate him for his clarity and orthodoxy.

Other possible options are one of the other auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands: Bishop Hendriks of Haarlem-Amsterdam, Bishop Hoogenboom and Woorts of Utrecht and Bishop de Jong of Roermond. I don’t really see that happening, though, with the sole exception of Bishop de Jong. He is southerner, albeit from Limburg, while the others are all westerners, and that does mean something in the culture of Brabant. Still, it has happened before.

Anything’s possible, especially under Pope Francis (and this will be his first Dutch appointment, and for new Nuncio Aldo Cavalli too). Diocesan priest and member of the cathedral chapter Father Cor Mennen once stated that he would not be opposed to a foreign bishop, provided he learn Dutch, if that means the bishop gets a good and orthodox one. I don’t see that happening just yet, though.

And as for when we may hear the news of a new bishop? Usually these things take a few months at most (although it has taken 10 months once, between Bishops Bluyssen and Ter Schure). The summer holidays are over in Rome, so proceedings should theoretically advance fairly quickly. A new bishops could be appointed and installed before Christmas then.

Bishops: for refugees, donate time, money, prayer and hospitality

Logo BisschoppenconferentieThe Dutch bishops, meeting last weekend, perhaps unsurprisingly, decided to heed the call of Pope Francis to offer aid to refugees. They are following the example of bishops in Germany and other countries, and a decision on this topic had been forthcoming. I already came across grumblings that the bishops as a whole were keeping rather quiet about refugees and their plight. Only Bishops Gerard de Korte and Jos Punt had shared their thoughts on the websites of their dioceses. More on that in a later post.

They urge faithful to open their hearts: “We stimulate faithful to sign up for volunteers’ work at, for example, refugee centres, where there is often a need among refugees for a Dutch “buddy”, who can help finding the way at Dutch government agencies. It can also, for example, have great value for Christian refugees to be accompanied by a Dutch Christian.” The bishops also mention that there are other ways of helping, not least by way of displays of hospitality.

When it comes to donating goods, the bishops defer to professional aid agencies in indicating what is needed. They want to enter into discussions on short notice with these organisations to map out what is needed to shelter a family or group of refugees in faith communities.

On 20 September, there will be a collection in parishes. Funds collected will go to refugee aid and shelter.

A more expansive statement on the refugee crisis and its various aspects is forthcoming. In the meantime, the bishops ask for prayer, in addition to the aforementioned donations of time, money and Christian charity.

Catholics, Creation and Ecumenism

prayerPope Francis recently declared that the date of 1 September would from now on be the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Dutch bishops followed suit and called for all fatheful and people of good will to pray for the protection of and care for creation. Not only does this emphasise the place of humanity, and especially Catholic Christians, in the whole of creation, but it also sheds a light on the ecumenical priorities of Pope Francis.

The start with that last fact, Pope Francis has long been cultivating his personal relations with the Orthodox Church in the persons of its highest-ranking prelates. This new World Day of Prayer is the Catholic version of an Orthodox day of prayer for the same purpose: creation. So he has established yet another day on which Catholics and Orthodox share prayers and goals, and it is hard not to see this is a prelude to a common date of Easter, which I personally believe may not be that far off. Easter is the most important event for the Church of both West and East, and an important waypost on the road to future unity.

And why Creation? It is impossible not to see this in relation to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (the official Dutch translation of which is available for preorder now), which discusses our responsibility for the world around us. Some consider this to be a bad thing, but it is of course a perfectly reasonable and important topic for a Pope to talk about. After all, we are stewards, not just of ourselves and our relationship with God, but of the entire world around us. And as such we have a responsibility to protect and take care of Creation. And not only we, but everyone in the world, Christian or not. That makes Creation a perfect ecumenical topic.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, Theologian Laureate

korteLast night, during the annual night of theology – during which Dutch theologians look back on and celebrate recent developments in the field – Bishop Gerard de Korte was elected as the first “theologian laureate”. The title is an unofficial one and the most recent one after the “most talked about theologian” and the “theologian of the year”.

Bishop de Korte will be an ambassador of theology for the coming year and will be commenting on current affairs from a theological point of view (much like he does in his recently-launched blog). He was one of three nominees and won with a clear majority.

It all sounds nice, of course, but in reality the bishop’s title will not make a major difference. At most it will be putting theology, the person of the bishop and the Catholic Church in the spotlight. But Bishop de Korte has been doing much of what the title asks of him for at least the past five years. In the bishops’ conference he is the go-to prelate for matters of Church and society, so he often speaks on behalf of the conference on television and radio, and he frequently contributions opinion pieces and articles to written media,the diocesan website and his aforementioned blog.

A recognition of his work, then, with the hope that it may continue and bear good fruit.

Grumblings in the east

koch berlinFollowing the appointment of Archbishop Heiner Koch (pictured at left with Berlin’s  cathedral chapter) to Berlin, the other bishops of eastern Germany have expressed concern at the trend that seems to be developing, a tendency for bishops in that part of the country to be reassigned within a few years after being made ordinaries there. And they have a point.

  • In 2010, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa left Görlitz after having been the bishop there for three years and three months.
  • In 2014, Cardinal Rainer Woelki left Berlin after having been its archbishop for three years.
  • And on Monday,  Bishop Heiner Koch left Dresden-Meißen after almost 2 and half years.

The dioceses of eastern Germany, or most of the territory of the former communist German Democratic Republic have a fairly short history in their current form. On the 27th of June, 1994, Erfurt, Magdeburg and Görlitz were promoted from Apostolic Administration to full dioceses, Berlin, which had already been a  diocese since the 1930s, became a metropolitan archdiocese, reflecting the new freedom of governance that the Church had now gained in the former communist parts of Germany. The Apostolic Administration of Schwerin, in the north, became part of the newly established Archdiocese of Hamburg in October of that same year. Dresden-Meißen was the odd one out, having existed in its current form, except for a change of name in 1979, since 1921.

The short tenures of Bishops Zdarsa and Koch and Cardinal Woelki in the dioceses mentioned above came in all cases after significantly longer tenures of their predecessors: In Dresden-Meißen, Joachim Reinelt had been bishop for 24 years; in Berlin, Cardinal Sterzinsky was ordinary for 17 years; and in Görlitz, Bishop Rudolf Müller enjoyed 12 years as bishop. The contrast is evident.

feigeIn fact, the eastern German episcopate as a whole is young. Only Magdeburg’s Gerhard Feige (pictured) has a decade as bishop behind him, and the next senior is Görlitz’s Wolfgang Ipolt, ordinary for a mere four years.

In light of all this, Bishop Feige said about the transfer of Archbishop Koch, “Given the particularly difficult situation of Catholics in the new federal states, this is likely to add to a further destabilisation of the situation of the Church […] Unfortunately the impression is being given that the eastern German dioceses are something like ‘railway shunting yards’ or ‘traineeships’ to qualify bishops for ‘higher offices'”. Bishop Ipolt said that he hoped these rapid reassignments would not become habit. “In the future we need active shepherds for the people of God, here in the Diaspora of the east of Germany”. Together with Erfurt’s Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, he does think that Archbishop Koch’s two-year experience in the east will be a boon in Berlin.

A bishop is the visible head of a local Church in matters of doctrine, worship and governance. The priests of a diocese assist him in these tasks. Stability is a great good in these matters, so it should be avoided to move bishops too often. In that sense I can understand the concerns of the bishops outlined above. On the other hand, as Archbishop Koch himself has also said, in the end a bishop goes where he is called, just like the Apostles, whose successors they are, went where they were sent.

The Archdiocese of Berlin has a bishop again, but Dresden-Meißen is vacant again. Should the bishops of the east be worried that another one of their ranks will be asked to move there? Anything is possible of course, but I don’t think that this is likely, especially since the concerns have now been voiced. But if the residing ordinaries are not be moved anymore, there are two auxiliary bishops in the area who could conceivably be tasked with governing a diocese of their own. Erfurt’s Bishop Reinhard Hauke has already done so during the two-year vacancy of the see there, before Bishop Neymeyr arrived last year. Berlin’s Bishop Matthias Heinrich is 60 and has been an auxiliary for six years.

For Family Synod 2, Cardinal Eijk returns to Rome

synod of bishopsThe first group of participants in coming autumn’s Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been ratified by Pope Francis. Unlike for last year’s assembly, which was an Extraordinary one, the majority of members for this edition are elected by the bishops’ conferences of the world. The presidents of the conferences do not automatically attend, unless, as in the case of the Dutch bishops, he is elected to do so.

liesenCardinal Wim Eijk, who today coincidentally had a private audience with Pope Francis, will once again participate like he did last year, but should he not be able to do so, the bishops have chosen Bishop Jan Liesen (at right) to be his replacement. Bishop Liesen is no stranger in Rome, as he was a member of the International Theological Commission for a number of years.

The list of participants published today is far from complete. Many bishops’ conferences, such as the German, have yet to elect one of their own to go to Rome in October. The Belgian bishops likewise haven’t chosen , but they will wait for the appointment of a new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and President of the bishops’ conference, sometime in or after May.