Bishop Voderholzer’s remedy to dropping numbers

In a homily at the pilgrimage site of St. Anna Schäffer in Mindelstetten, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg addressed the recently released statistics regarding church attendance and such in the Catholic Church in Germany. He compares them to the equally disastrous numbers in the Lutheran church and explains that the standard liberal remedies of constantly wanting to change church and faith, and getting rid of perceived oppressive dogmas, is not the solution to the crisis.

According to Bishop Voderholzer, the numbers point out something else: an evaporation of faith. He also puts this into perspective, saying that the Lord never promised his followers to be a majority anywhere. Rather, he foresaw difficulties and opposition. So, depressing numbers should, in themselves, really not be a cause for us to give up.

1085557_m1w590q75v2214_PortrtbildBischof_2“Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Last Friday, the 21st of July, the statistics for the Catholic Churc and the Lutheran Church in Germany for the year 2016 were published. You will probably have heard a few things about it via radio and television or in the newspaper.

The outcome was not very surprising. Like before, the number of people leaving the Church are disconcertingly high, even when they have dropped by some 11 percent in the Catholic Church as compared to 2015. The number of baptisms has increased slightly, the number of marriages decreased soewhat. In Hamburg and Berlin the number of Catholics has grown, due to the influx of Catholic foreigners; but in general the number of Catholics is growing smaller.

Dear sisters and brothers, I do not want to bore you with numbers and statictics today, on the Anna Schäffer Day of Remembrance. But the public reactions to these numbers are noteworthy and lead us to look further.

As a remedy to turn these trends around and to preserve our social relevance we are continuously advised to – literally – “open up and rid ourselves of rigid conservative dogmas.”

In this case, these are:

Abolishing the celibacy of priests;

Removing the different tasks and appointments of men and women in the Church and admitting women into apostolic ministry;

Consenting to the demand of full legal equality of same-sex partnerships with marriage;

Admitting everyone to Communion, and so on.

You know the list of demands as well as I do.

Dear sisters and brothers! The problematic nature of this advice becomes clear with a quick glance at the statistics of the Lutheran church. If the application of the aforementioned pieces of advice would really be a way of improving the situation of the Church, flourishing life must be visible in the Lutheran church.

But what do the numbers say? More people leave the Lutheran church – and have done so, with the exception of 2014, for years – than the Catholic Church, despite the fact that in the Lutheran church these demands have all basically been fulfilled and all these alleged impediments to being church are no longer present. But this is generally ignored in public, even though the numbers were presented on the same day. Isn’t the reason that this is being ignored perhaps that it would reveal the blatant weakness, yes, the inconsistency and absurdity of this “good” advice to the Catholic Church?! Can one, in all seriousness, present the path of the Lutheran church as a remedy, when it is so often led to an even greater distance to the faith and the church? I say this without malice! I know Lutheran fellow Christians who completely agree with my assessment and who warn us Catholics not to make the same mistakes.

We must look much further in the whole debate. The statictics reveal a secularisation which has been progressing for years, a loss of church affiliation and lastly a decline in the substance of faith, an evaporation of the awareness of God. That is why we do not really have a shortage of priests, but a much more fundamental shortage of faith. The priest shortage is a symptom, like a fever. But the fever is not itself the disease, but it indicates the presence of an inflammation. I am certain: the fever of the priest shortage indicates the disease of lack of faith. As an aside, the Lutheran church has also long known the phantom of lack of priests, as there are too few young people who study theology and are willing to also put themselves professionally at the service of the Gospel; all this without celibacy and with the possibility for women to also assume the office of the priesthood! This should give us a sense of the true reasons for the lack of church adherence.

Dear sisters and brothers, come together at the grave of Saint Anna Schäffer! We all have the image and the fate of the Church at heart. But not in the sense that we belong to her as to a club whose public image and strength are the ultimate goal; but for the sake of the message and the sake of the people, for whose sake God became man in Jesus Christ. In the Church He takes us into service for His Gospel. The Lord did not promise us that we would always be the majority; rather, He predicted headwind and resistance.

For that reason we should not concern ourselves too much with numbers and statistics. What should concern us is that the Gospel can lighten up our environment, through our lives in faith. Everywhere where we overshadow the Gospel because of inattentiveness, lovelessness and hard-heartedness, we are called to convert and once more give the Lord space.

Instead of constantly changing the structures, also and especially the sacramental structures of the Church, instead of diluting the message of the Gospel and instead of proclaiming a light version of Jesus, evangelisation is called for, a saturation of society with the Spirit of Jesus. And the first and all-important step on that way is a daily striving towards holiness, the daily listening to God’s word and the willingness to begin the reform of the Church with myself. That is reformation: the renewal of faith, the restoration of the image of Christ which was engraved in us in Baptism and Confirmation. Where this is granted to us in God’s mercy, where we succeed in this, we will make the people of our time once again curious about the faith which supports us. And then we can also explain the hope that lives within us.

Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord! In the endeavours of evangelisation in our time Saint Anna Schäffer is in every aspect an example and also an advocate.

She wanted to devote her life to the mission abroad. But the Lord had destined her for the mission in her own country. Before becoming a comforter and source of joy in faith for many, she had to allow herself to be evangelised again, and radically so. Accepting her suffering as a partaking in the cross of Christ was anything but easy. Bedridden and with her gaze upon the cross she faced this process of inner healing and transformation. She so became a bright sign of God’s work, a messenger of faith to countless people and ultimately a saint of the Catholic Church.

And so we pray today for her intercession, that the Lord will grant each and everyone of us the grace to begin the reform of the Church in ourselves; that we muster the courage to lt ourselves be evangelised anew every day and in this way be prepared to serve the mission of the Church – for the salvation of humanity and the glory of the triune God, whose is the glory, today, every day and forever. Amen.”

Man of peace – Bishop Ernst passes away

“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”

2016-06-07%20Breda_MgrErnst_©RamonMangold_WEB01_410Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.

Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”

Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.

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Bishop Ernst in 1967

Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.

One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.

The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.

Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.

Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.

In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.

A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst

  • 1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
  • 1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
  • 1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
  • 1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
  • 1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
  • 1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
  • 1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
  • 1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
  • 1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
  • 1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.

Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).

Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.

Phot credit: [1, 2] Ramon Mangold

All seats filled as Mainz gets its new bishop

teaser-lebenslaufAlmost a year after the retirement of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, all the dioceses of Germany have a bishop at the helm again – a situation that has not existed for several years. Succeeding the cardinal who led the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years is Father Peter Kohlgraf.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop-elect Kohlgraf has already been active in Mainz since 2012. He has been working as professor of pastoral theology at the Katholischen Hochschule in that city, and assistant priest in Wörrstadt, south of Mainz. Fr. Kohlgraf is a graduate of the Universities of Bonn and Münster, and has experience in pastoral care in the parish and for students as well as education.

The date for the bishop’s consecration is yet be announced, as is the identity of the consecrating bishops, but it would be surprising indeed of Cardinal Lehmann would decline the honour.

5-vorstellung-kohlgraf-tobkl-pk-170418-286
Cardinal Lehmann, seated, and Bishop elect Kohlgraf

With the appointment of Fr. Kohlgraf, Cologne once again shows itself to be one of the ‘bishop factories’ of Germany. Six of the 27 ordinaries in Germany hail from the archdiocese on the Rhine. Other such bishop factories are Paderborn with five ordinaries originating from there and Trier with four. All three dioceses are among the oldest in Germany and located in the central part of western Germany, to the west and north of Mainz.

In an interview for Katholisch.de, the new bishop of Mainz touched on some of the more sensitive topics in an dbeyond the church in Germany. Asked about the trend of merging parishes to create what the interviewer calls XXL parishes, as an answer to the shortage of priests, and if he has any alternatives, Fr. Kohlgraf responds:

“I think there is no standard solution here, either. In the Catholic Church we are faced with the tension that we rightly say that the celebration of the Eucharist is source and summit of the life of the Church. That means that, on Sundays, the Eucharist is the central celebration from which the Church and the community draw life. The question is then, of course, how Catholic life should function in small communities. I myself live in a small village in Rhenish Hesse, in a Catholic diaspora situation. That is this tension in which we exist. We should not merely think centralistic, but must also consider how Church life can function in each location. People must be motivated to live out their being Christian.”

Bishop-elect Kohlgraf’s thoughts here are comparable to those of, to name one, Bishop Gerard de Korte in the Netherlands.

As an academic, the bishop elect has followed the discourse about the priest shortage and possible solutions and especially the idea to ordain married men, the so-called viri probati. On this, he says:

“It should be proven if this really solves our problems. I am not so certain about that. I don’t want to look at this from ideological, philosophical or theological perspectives. But it is not without reason that the priestly vocation has always been an academic calling with a full study program. That has meaning. I think that we must remain able to speak theologically in modern society. That quality will play an increasingly greater part. That does not mean that there are not also highly qualified men among the so-called viri probati. But we must look at how a part-time formation would work in addition to holding a job. There are many questions which are not yet answered. I do not currently see a solution for it.”

It sounds as if Bishop-elect Kohlgraf is not opposed to detaching the priesthood from a mandatory vow of celibacy, but his uncertainty has to do with the practicality of it all, especially the years of study and formation. There are, however, places where part-time formation is practiced, albeit for the permanent diaconate, for example in Bovendonk, in the Dutch Diocese of Breda. Here, men study part-time next to their fulltime job, with the exception of the final years, in which they work fulltime in a parish.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz, [2] Bistum Mainz/Blum

Another year, another Synod

synod of bishopsThe Holy See today announced a Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October 2018. Still two years away, it will discuss the topic of “youth, faith and vocational discernment”. Earlier, a rumoured topic for a future gathering of the Synod was priestly celibacy and married priesthood, but while that question does not pop up in the announced topic, it will undoubtedly play a part in the deliberations.

Bishops’ conferences around the world elect their representatives to attend Ordinary General Assemblies of the Synod. Most conferences, such as the Dutch, Belgian and Nordic ones, will elect one bishop, while others, such as the German, have the right to choose more, depending on the size of their membership. The heads of the curial departments willa utomatically attend, as will the twelve members of the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, who had the task of drawing up the theme of the next assembly. The Pope also chooses a number of delegates to attend.

Ordinary Assemblies generally take place every three to four years. The longest period was between the ninth in 1994 and tenth in 2001, although there were no less than six Special Assemblies on the Church in different parts of the world in that period.

The Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment can be an opportunity to not only explore and communicate anew the ways in which God calls us to follow Him, but also to show that the question of vocations does not revolve solely around a choice for religious life or the priesthood. Marriage and single life are also vocations, and God calls people to follow Him in all those states of living. They can be profound wellsprings of faith and life, ever deepening our life with God, drawing closer to Him. Especially in the west, young people, Catholic or not, need to hear and see this.

Archbishop De Kesel on celibacy – not for every priest?

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels is once again in the news with his wish that married men also be able to be priests. While this seems an easy reason to consider the archbishop a liberal and a progressive, reality is a bit more nuanced.

BELGIUM BRUSSELS OPENING CATHEDRAL DOORS

In an interview for weekly newspaper De Zondag, Archbishop De Kesel also speaks about his role as archbishop, his choice to become a priest, being a bishop in Bruges after Vangheluwe, and the refugee crisis. About priestly celibacy he says the following:

Did celibacy not discourage you?

“Not when I was eighteen, no. You do choose for the seminary, but it takes many years before you are a priest. But once that moment is there, yes… That is a difficult decision.”

Did you have to choose between a girlfriend and the Church?

“No. I did have good friendships. But I was never faced with that existential choice. Others have, and I can understand that it must be very difficult to let someone go. Perhaps I consciously or subconsciously avoided a relationship.”

Should the Church hold on to that celibacy?

“I am no supporter of abolishing it. A celibate life is no meaningless life. I consciously chose it: it was also the state of life of Jesus. On the other hand I do not think it can be asked of every priest, especially not in a time when sexuality plays such an important role. I am in favour of the Eastern Catholic model. There men who are married can be ordained to the priesthood.”

So, unlike what some media may now suggest, the archbishop is no opponent of celibacy, and he recognises the value of it, not least because it is the way Christ lived. Many, including myself, will not agree that his proposal to follow the Eastern Catholic example is the right one, or that it is the only solution for priests who struggle with mandatory celibacy (not to mention the need for the Church to follow society in its obsession with sexuality). But it would be wrong to depict Archbishop De Kesel as a progressive who wants to abolish celibacy altogether.

Photo credit: Belga

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.