For Berlin, a Synod Father

kochWith the appointment of Bishop Heiner Koch to Berlin, the German capital has an archbishop again after an almost eleven-month vacancy. He leaves the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, a suffragan of Berlin, vacant after less than two-and-a-half years, making it on of two empty sees in Germany, the other being Limburg.

Who is Archbishop-elect Heiner Koch? Like his predecessor in Berlin, Cardinal Woelki, he was born in the Archdiocese of Cologne, in Düsseldorf. He is less than a week away from his 61st birthday, has been a priest for 35 years (he was ordained on his 26th birthday in 1980) and a bishop for nine years. He is the third archbishop of Berlin, but the tenth ordinary since Berlin became a diocese in 1930. Six of his predecessors were made cardinals.

heiner kochThe new archbishop studied Catholic theology, philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Bonn and is a Doctor of Theology. After his ordination, he was attached to parishes in Kaarst and in Cologne itself (at the cathedral since 1993). He was also school pastor at the Heinrich Heine University in his native Düsseldorf, and in 1989 he started working in the vicariate general of the Archdiocese of Cologne, which probably set him on track to become a bishop. Made a Chaplain of His Holiness in 1993 and Honorary Prelate in 1996, now-Msgr. Koch was made the subsitute for the vicar general in 2002. In the same year he led the preparations for World Youth Day 2005, which took place in 2005.

The next year, he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Cologne, with the titular see of Ros Cré in Ireland. Bishop Koch was responsible for pastoral area South, as well as for the non-German speaking faithful of the archdiocese. In the German Bishops’ Conference, this extended to the pastoral care for Germans abroad.

In 2013, in one of his last appointments as such, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Koch as bishop of Dresden-Meißen, at the opposite end of the country. A year later, the German bishops chose him to head the Commission for Marriage and Family, which made sure he was also chosen as one of the country’s three delegates to this year’s assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

heiner kochThe Synod, then… In the entire saga about the German bishops and the Synod, Archbishop Koch has been one of the main players. He will attend the Synod with Osnabrück’s Bishop Bode and Cardinal Marx, and he also took part in what some have called the “shadow Synod” in Rome with representatives of the French and Swiss episcopates. But it is unfair to call the archbishop a liberal in matters of marriage, family and sexuality. In 2012, he stated that debating certain topics that have been authoritatively decided upon by the magisterium of the Pope and bishops is only “frustrating and ineffective”. “A productive and creative conversation,” he said, “is only possible on the basis of our mutual faith and our mutual understanding of what it means to be a Church.” More recently, Archbishop Koch has been accused of being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. In an interview in Feruary, he said:

“The questions is if we can’t allow faithful who have been divrced and remarried and are deeply pious to receive the Eucharist under certain conditions. That could take place, for example, after a long conversation with a confessor. We should consider such questions.”

His focus, however, is more on the question of how the Church can be close to people in that situation: not so much doctrine, but pastoral care, as he explained later.

In an interview on the occasion of his appointment to Dresden-Meißen, Archbishop Koch explained his priorities in relating to people, which perhaps also explain why some would falsely think that he is not overly concerned with doctrine:

“I don’t want to start with showing people the ethical consequences wihout them first knowing the reasons for them in the faith. I want to speak to them about God. I want to listen to them and hear what they can tell me about God in their lives.”

This attitude comes to the fore more often, when Archbishop Koch says that difficult questions are not resolved via headlines, but via conversations and encounters with people.

In the same interview, he also explained the Church’s position on same-sex marriages:

“The Church is convinced that a child needs a father and a mother. I also know that there are married couples which neglect children, and homosexual coupes who love them. But that does not change the fact that the family consisting of father, mother and children is a great wealth for all, not least in their gender differences. God created people as man and woman. Together they reflect the fullness of the divine life. There is not consensus in society, but that does not mean that we should abandon this position”.

220px-Karte_Erzbistum_BerlinThe future in Berlin. As archbishop in the German capital (with equal pastoral responsibility for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, as well as eastern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), Archbishop Koch will increasingly be at the heart of the action for both state and Church. In a reflection of recent political history after the reunification, when Germany’s political institutions moved from Bonn  to Berlin, the German Bishops’ Conference has long been considering moving their offices to Berlin as well. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, also resides in that city. As mentioned above, six of his predecessors (including the five immediate ones) were made cardinals, so we may see a second Cardinal Koch (in addition to Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) at some point. Archbishop Koch is young enough to wear the red with influence. But even in purple he will have his work cut out for him.

His predecessor, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, quickly established himself as a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis: close to the margins of immigrants and workers. Archbishop Koch will probably have little problems taking that attitude on as well. The Archdiocese of Berlin is twice the size of Dresden-Meißen, but has about the same number of Catholic faithful. It is in the process of merging parishes to better serve these faithful, which is a sensitive process to lead for any bishop.

More to come…

True progress – back in line with the Church at Nijmegen’s student chaplaincy

In 2012 the diocese did it at one university and now it is preparing to do it at a second. A return to the Catholic fold seems imminent for the student chaplaincy at Nijmegen’s Radboud University.

bodarFr. Antoine Bodar, media personality but also appointed to manage the contacts with schools and universities in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, is looking ahead to the upcoming retirement of Fr. Theo Koster, the current student chaplain in Nijmegen. And things will be a bit different after he retires in 18 months. A new priest who, in his teaching, will be more in line with the Catholic faith, for one.

The situation seems very similar to the one I described earlier regarding the Maranatha church in Tilburg (see the link above): a liberal approach to the faith of the Church, and actions that are not in line with that faith (the media picks out the blessing of homosexual unions, but also the distribution of Communion to non-Catholics). Of course a change was going to come at some time.

Some call this is a return to conservatism, but Fr. Bodar claims this is in fact a progressive step, calling the situation is it exists now a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The Church should be clear about her faith, even if there are sometimes tensions between that faith and our personal conscience. A priest should not share his personal opinions in the Mass and other celebrations, but the word of God and the teaching of the Church. He is not there for himself, but with a mission from the Church: the share the Gospel, to welcome and teach in the name of Christ, instead of his own name. Does that mean that some people are suddenly not welcome in the student chaplaincy? Of course not, but everyone deserves to be treated as adult and intelligent individuals who don’t need to be talked down to. Present our faith in its entirety, and not according to an interpretation fueled by personal preference, just to make things easy. Life is not easy, a university education is not easy. Neither should our faith always be. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, questions allows for better understanding.

EDIT 18-12: In commentaries today both Fr. Bodar and the chaplaincy council have underlined that there is no intention of firing Fr. Koster or actively changing the praxis at the chaplaincy, but that the normal process of retirement of a priest, as provided for in canon law, would result in said changes. Fr. Koster will offer his resignation to the bishop when he reaches the age of 75 and the diocese will launch the appointment procedure for a new priest. The confusion regarding blessings of homosexual relations, which exist now, will then be removed.Fr. Bodar stresses the importance of clear communication of the faith of the Church. This includes avoiding confusion. Those in the know will realise that a blessing is not the same as performing same-sex marriages, but for outsiders it is a different matter.

Both parties offered these commentaries after Fr. Bodar said that certain media incorrectly quoted his words from an interview about this subject.

“Christ in our hearts” – Archbishop Burger’s letter for Advent

In his first Advent letter as archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Archbishop Stephan Burger, who today had his first official audience with Pope Francis, looks back on the past six months, and writes about the first and most important task of the Church: to be a Christ-bearer, to carry Christ in our hearts as the foundation and linchpin of everything we do as Church and as individual faithful.

erzbischof_stephan_burger_q“Dear sisters, dear brothers!

I have only been your archbishop since 29 June of this year. The past weeks of familiarisation have been characterised by many conversations and numerous encounters. During them, so many people have encouraged me in my episcopal service. At the same time I know I am supported by the prayers of countless people. That is encouraging and does me good. Heartfelt thanks for that. Prayer for others and with others is indispensable. It is the crucial source of strength for our Christian life. In prayer we consciously take the time for God and give Christ room in our hearts.

Now that we are travelling some distance together in the coming years we are looking ahead towards what concerns us in the pastoral care units with their communities, what moves and engages us in the deaneries, in the diocese and also in the world Church. Many have the concerns about the future of our local Church foremost in mind, the question of passing our Christian faith on – also to people who are far removed from the Church, or are even critical about her. So may letters and e-mails that I receive, as well as several conversations, are also about these questions.

I take these questions very seriously. They are close to my own heart. As a priest, I have experienced these developments closely and I know how much the local Church is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is also clear that we can no longer do much that, until now, has been good and useful. In the face of the high numbers of people leaving the Church, we can not close our eyes to reality. We are all the more called to once again be aware of what distinguishes and characterises us as Christians. The time of Advent, which is now beginning, can give us an important impulse. Jesus urgently calls us to be vigilant and attentive. For whom? For Him; for His coming; for the acts of God in our daily lives.

It is important to me that in all that we do we keep in mind whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. Without Him our lives are empty. Christ and Christ-bearer. It is not our first task as Church to create mere structures, to organise Church administrations or to Ensure the economic viability of the Church. All of these aspects are important and also belong to the Church. However, in the first place we are called to live and witness to the faith bestowed upon us. To bear God, “doing such deeds for those who wait for him”, as the reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us, in our world. That means in the first place to keep alive the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our personal relationship with Christ is the linchpin of everything we do. In this context I also understand my episcopal motto: Christus in cordibus – Christ in the heart.

Christ is placed in our heart at our Baptism, we receive Him with every Holy Communion, He who loves us from His heart, who opened His own heart for us on the Cross. He takes up residence in our hearts as we have found a home in His.

The more we live from this inner bond with Christ, the more our life and actions will radiate to others. Our Christian identity does not end after the service, but starts in a new way at the door of the Church: When we return home to our families, to our place of work or our circle of friends. God’s love will shine out through us everywhere. That has very real implications for how we act in the councils, groups and circles. Through the faith in Jesus Christ our fellow men become brothers and sisters. Through Jesus Christ I receive the strength to love where there is hate, to forgive where there is insult, to connect where there is argument, to give hope where there is despair, to kindle light where darkness rules, to bring hope where grief resides. Evidence that Christ has been accepted into hearts is given by many of you who work for the refugees who are now asking for entrance to our country and who rely on our help. For this sign of your solidarity and for your help of any kind I tell you from the heart: God bless you.

Wherever we manage to make our cooperation more human, more just and friendlier, Jesus Christ can continue His work in our world with us and through us. There His act of redemption can be seen and experienced. Redemption, that is not a word for the museum, but a word that must be translated in our daily lives: God wants to redeem us. He wants to redeem and free us from everything that makes us dependent, that narrows us and makes us narrow-minded. It is crucial that we only orient ourselves on the Divine love.

Dear sisters, dear brothers, in these days of Advent we are called anew by te Gospel, to be vigilant for the tracks of God in our daily lives, to be sensitive for the actions of Jesus Christ in our lives and our living together. It is important to recognise where I meet Jesus. That is how we open our hearts for Him. That is what it means when we sing: “Gates, lift high your heads,” or “raise high the ancient gateways”. It is the gate of our hearts, the gateway to our lives. With Christ in our hearts we go towards the future with confidence. It is His way with us. I want to go this way of the imitation of Christ consciously with you and do my best to be a Christian with you and a good bishop for you – to paraphrase it according to the words of Saint Augustine.

So that you may bear Christ in your hearts and bear Him to others, the triune God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Freiburg im Breisgau, 29 November 2014

Yours,

Archbishop Stephan”

Some thoughts on the Synod and how some people choose to view it

I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.

Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.

There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).

Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.

The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.

“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.

A just and merciful God – Cardinal Danneels’ intervention at the Synod

It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.

danneels synod

^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).

“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.

It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.

I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?

I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?

In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.

The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.

How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.

Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.

It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.

Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”

The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,

Rome, 8 October 2014

Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR

Two approaches – Cardinals Kasper and Burke

Catholic News Service has two video interviews out today, one with Cardinal Kasper, the other with Cardinal Burke. These two opponents in the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could not be more different in their thoughts about this, although both are united in emphasising that the upcoming Synod will be about so much more than this single question. On the other hand, Cardinal Kasper’s eagerness to grant interview after interview about it does seem to indicate that he thinks it is a very important topic indeed.

First, let’s listen to Cardinal Kasper:

Some thoughts: It is hard to get to the bottom of the cardinal’s argument here. Everything he says is nice and understanding, the sort of things we want to hear when we’re in a crisis of whatever sort. What strikes me is that the cardinal only speaks about the second marriage. What about the first? Was that not a loving one, where there no children there, did both spouses not have the intention to make it last? We know that, for some reason, it failed, so in the end it did not last. We know that in hindsight. How can we than say, beforehand, that the same will not be true for a second marriage? We hope it will last, that there won’t be any storms leading to a shipwreck, but we can’t know that.

A sacramental marriage can’t be broken. It can be, after due consideration by competent authorities, judged to have been invalid, after which there is no obstacle to enter into a proper valid marriage. But if the marriage has been valid, it can’t suddenly become invalid. What God has joined, let no man break asunder, after all. Sacraments are the bonds God forges with people and between people, which people freely accept (a sacrament, a marriage, is not valid when someone has been coerced into it).

Cardinal Kasper is right, though, when he says that we need to be careful in our language. Accusing a couple of adultery will probably do more bad than good. After all, the Church wants to help, and that’s impossible when you immediately accuse people, even if that accusation is correct according to the letter of the law.

Cardinal Burke then:

This a very factual approach. A true one, but very factual, and people who are divorced and remarried need much more than that. This is what the Synod is about: not about changing teaching, but about improving the pastoral approach to people, making the help and care of the Church be so much more effective and comforting.

Cardinal Burke also mentions the confusion that the whole debate has apparently caused for many people. People have the duty to be critical about what they read and hear, but the Church has a duty to be crystal clear about her teaching and the whys and wherefores of it.

The Synod will undoubtedly be discussing the proposals and the criticism against them. I dont expect, as Cardinal Burke hopes, that it will be settled so easily, but in the end, the focus will be much more on the pastoral care for divorced and remarried couples and not on adapting the teachings of the Church to suit the perceived needs of the times.

And that is, in the end, a far more interesting discussion: how can the Church, all the faithful, forever grow in living, sharing and communicating the Gospel?

The bigger question – Bishop Mutsaerts on the Synod

The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:

Bisschop Rob Mutsaerts“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.

Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s  Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.

The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.

I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give  it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.

Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.

Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”