Anything is possible – German bishops to elect a new chairman

dbk logoLater today, the German bishops will elect their new chairman. While their spring assembly lasts until tomorrow, this is by far the most eagerly anticipated part of their deliberations. A total of 66 electors will be voting: 63 ordinaries and auxiliary bishops, as well as the administrators of 3 vacant sees. Limburg’s Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is not present; his place is taken by Administrator Msgr. Wolfgang Rösch. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the departing chairman of the conference, also votes for his own successor, as he is the administrator of Freiburg im Breisgau.

zollitsch^Archbishop Zollitsch at the opening Mass for the Bishops’ Conference’s meeting.

There are no clear favourites in this election, but whatever the choice, it will constitute a generational shift. But this shift has been typical for the German Bishops’ Conference since about last year. A fair number of bishops and archbishops are retiring or have already done so. Among them are, for example, the aforementioned Archbishop Zollitsch, Cologne’s Cardinal Meisner and in the near future, Mainz’s Cardinal Lehmann and Hamburg’s Archbishop Thissen.

Despite the lack of favourites, there are a few names which have been mentioned more than others: Berlin’s Cardinal Rainer Woelki and Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx (who may have to let this one pass, as he has his share of responsibilities already: ordinary of Munich, Coordinator of the Council for the Economy, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences and member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals…). Other names are Osnabrück’s Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen and Trier’s Bishop Stephan Ackermann.

Whatever the choice, the expectation is that the new chairman will take Pope Francis’ program and run with it, which means a stronger focus on charity and evangelisation and, I fear, a greater risk of bishops getting head of themselves on issues like marriage and Communion (a topic the bishops are also discussing in this meeting), which we’ve already seen happen in Germany.

schwaderlapp hesse

^Two electors with their own choice to make: Cologne’s auxiliary Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp and Administrator Msgr. Stefan Heße are also set to vote for the new archbishop of Cologne.

The election is set to take place this morning, and per the schedule available at Domradio.de, the presentation of the new chairman is scheduled for 10:30 local time.

An ‘Extraordinary’ start of Francis’ new Synod

synodIt seems that the Synod of Bishops has become the first curial body to undergo Pope Francis’ expected and announced reforms. Following the appointment of its new General Secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri in September, Pope Francis fairly soon afterwards announced the first major assembly of the Synod: an Extraordinary General Assembly titled “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.

Scheduled to take place from 5 to 19 November of next year, the assembly is styled ‘extraordinary’ to signify the pressing urgency that Pope Francis attaches to the subject. Unlike the general assemblies, there will be no process of selecting participating clergy:  the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, the heads of the Eastern Churches, the heads of the Curia offices in Rome and three members of religious institutes are the designated participants by canon law. The participants from continental northwestern Europe will therefore be Wim Cardinal Eijk from the Netherlands, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard from Belgium, Bishop Anders Arborelius from Scandinavia, and whoever the future president of the German Bishops’ Conference will be.

Archbishop-Bruno-ForteToday, Pope Francis selected the Relator General and the Special Secretary for the Extraordinary Assembly, which is only the third such gathering since the Synod of Bishops was created in 1965. The Relator General opens the assembly and gathers the conclusions and results for the final message and ultimately the Post-Synodal Exhortation that Pope Francis will write. This task will be performed by Péter Cardinal Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. The Special Secretary, who records the proceedings of the Synod, is Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte (pictured) of Chieti-Vasto. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.

With the next assembly on the horizon we are still expecting the final act of the previous one. The Ordinary General Assembly on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith closed in October of last year and the assumption then was that Pope Benedict XVI would publish its Post-Synodal Exhortation some time in 2014. Now that he has retired, and Pope Francis has begun his papacy, it will be the latter’s task to publish it. In June, he told the General Secretariat of the Synod that he would be writing much of the document in August and that it would be ready for publication before the end of the Year of Faith, on 24 November of this year.

What was Cardinal Turkson thinking?

Today, Peter Cardinal Turkson apologised for showing, last Saturday, the Youtube video I share below, to the Synod of Bishops. Many Synod fathers had asked questions about why they were shown this and on whose request. Many objected to its contents, with officials of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe stating that it was based on faulty statistics and premises. They would provide the Synod with accurate numbers on Europe’s population and religious make-up.

It’s not hard to see why many objected. The video is tendentious and populist. It’s use of statistics and official-sounding quotes sounds enticing, but without the sources at our disposal, they’re hard to appreciate for what they’re worth. Coupled with the obvious agenda of the makers, this video should not be taking seriously that easily.

But it is also not hard to understand Cardinal Turkson’s concerns, which undoubtedly lead to him wanting to show the Synod this film. The cold hard numbers are on the Muslim side, but we must still interpret those numbers before drawing any conclusions. There is always a context to consider, and fear is never a good one. A theoretical ‘Islamification’ of our culture is something that we should be prepared to handle, if it were something that was likely to happen. In reality, though, western culture, including the Muslims living in that culture, is far more likely to become increasingly secular instead of religious of whatever stripe.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Cardinal Erdő’s eleven points on new evangelisation in Europe

As part of the proceedings of the second session of the Synod of Bishops, yesterday, representatives of the five continents (although, for the sake of simplicity, the Americas were suddenly a single continent…) offered a report on the background of the new evangelisation in their respective parts of the world. Representing Europe was Péter Cardinal Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and President of the CCEE, the Council of European Episcopal Conferences.

Since this report relates to our own part of the world, it merits some special attention. First of all, I have it available in my Dutch translation here.

Cardinal Erdö divides his report in eleven bullet points. Points 1 to 3 discuss the need for evangelisation in the face of the loss of knowledge of the Christian faith and conscious efforts to distort and attack that faith. In points 4 and 5 discuss the effect that this has on the areas of human rights and politics, especially people’s attitude towards these, in Europe. Points 6 to 8, then, discuss signs of hope and opportunity. Points 9 to 11, finally, speak of the progress made in ecumenism. Combined, these points paint a picture of the reality in which the new evangelisation must somehow bear fruit.

While we may recognise much from what Cardinal Erdö says in what we see and read in the news, as a Catholic “on the ground” in Europe, I must admit that I don’t recognise everything in this report. Maybe that is due to the fact that the report discusses general trends in a large area, and the reality in the small area of a parish may be quite different. But, on the other hand, it is in that parish that the new evangelisation must take root.

Point two, about religious education, is as far as I am concerned spot on. With some experience in education, I can say that the standards of RE in secondary schools in the Netherlands are exceedingly low. Few are the schools which undertake any serious Catholic religious education, and for most students, it is indeed “an education in syncretism or indifference”.  If everything is equal, everything is equally ineffective and unimportant.

Radical individualism and clear faith – Cardinal Eijk on the radio

Meeting with bishops from all over Europe in the plenary assembly of the Concilium Conferentiarum Episcoporum Europæ (CCEE), Cardinal Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht, spoke to Vatican Radio about one of the topics that has determined his work as a bishop: clear faith in the face of radical individualism. I have translated some snippets from the original German. You can find the full recording here.

“Modern radical individualism… the individual sees it as his duty to invent himself, his own religion, his own worldview, his own value… making the individual see himself as the centre of the world, and ‘the other’ merely as spectator… this individual is locked within himself and isn’t open to what others have to say, not to mention to any transcendental reality…. This makes it very difficult to return the faith to the people of Europe.

The Christian faith requires a personal decision, a conscious decision, from us for Christ and His Church… When the individual, who is expressive and locked within himself, when he even makes a choice, it needs to be a choice for something that is clear, that is distinct. And perhaps we have made the mistake of describing the faith to children in seemingly vague terms in the hope that many will remain in the Church. And that hasn’t worked, nor can it when one considers the essence of the Church: we must continue the work of Christ here, in this world. Then we should also proclaim His message, His Gospel, very clearly. And when we do, we are also able to give the faith back to people. We see that the parishes where the sacraments are celebrated according to the liturgy of the Church, where the faith of the Catholic Church are clearly proclaimed, these are the parishes which still have vitality, these can still attract people, also young people. And I believe that we should go that path to proclaim the faith fruitfully, also in western Europe.”

Cardinal watch: Cardinal Martini passes away

Mere minutes ago, after Parkinson’s disease had confined him to a hospital bed, Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini passed away, 85 years old. The leader of the Church’s ‘loyal opposition’, a voice for liberalism on many issues, Cardinal Martini was also an erudite scholar of Scripture, papabile in many eyes and a polyglot, said to have been able to speak 11 languages.

Born in Turin as the son of an engineer, young Carlo Martini was educated by the Jesuits and entered that order in 1944, when he was 17, and started studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1952. He wrapped up his studies in philosophy in Gallarate and theology in Chieri. Fr. Martini was awarded a doctorate in fundamental theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1958. A few years of teaching followed, after which Fr. Martini graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate in scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

His scholarly career took off after that. In 1962, Fr. Martini accepted the Chair of Textual Criticism at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and became that institute’s rector in 1969. In 1978, he was appointed as chancellor of the Gregorian, of which the Biblical Institute was a part. Almost 18 months later, he was given his first pastoral assignment, and not the smallest: he was appointed as archbishop of Milan.

Blessed Pope John Paul II consecrated Archbishop Martini himself and created him a cardinal in the consistory of February 1983. Cardinal Martini, then almost 56, became cardinal priest of San Cecilia.

As archbishop of Europe’s largest diocese, Cardinal Martini also served in other functions. He was relator of the 6th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which focussed on ‘Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church’. He was also president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences from 1986 to 1993. The scholar-cardinal became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2000.

In 2002, Cardinal Martini resigned as archbishop of Milan, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. He returned to his life as biblical scholar, moving to Jerusalem to work at the Pontifical Biblical Institute once more. Cardinal Martini was able to participate in the conclave of 2005, and is rumoured to have been a possible future pope.

Cardinal Martini had a reputation of being quite liberal on many topics, which no doubt made enemies in some quarters, but questioning things is what he had learned in his many years as a scholar. On topics such as contraception, euthanasia, and the ordination of women (at least as deacons), Cardinal Martini diverged from the general stance of the Church, but he was never sanctioned or warned in any way. His focus on education, social justice and the collegiality of bishops can only be lauded.

Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini passed away in Gallarate, northwest of Milan, after Parkinson’s disease left him unable to eat and drink normally. He received fluids intravenously, but refused further treatment. He is said to have wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, where he purchased a grave site.

The College of Cardinals now numbers 206, of whom 118 are electors.

Cardinal Watch: Cardinal Vlk turns 80

With today’s 80th birthday of Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, by chance on Ascension Day, the number of cardinal electors drops to 122, returning it almost back to the legal maximum.

With the fighting spirit of his namesake (‘Vlk’ means ‘wolf’ in Czech), Cardinal Vlk has left his mark as the Church and nation of the Czechs found their place in Europe after the yoke of Communism.

Only ordained a priest at 36, Miloslav Vlk is not so much a product of academia, although he is no slouch there, but worked his way through life in Communist Czechoslovakia – even as a priest he had to work as a window cleaner for eight years in order to stay out of the government’s sights. A worker-cardinal turns 80.

Born in 1932, Miloslav Vlk grew up under the threat and occupation of Nazi Germany. During the height of the war – as entire villages were massacred in retaliation for resistance activities – 11-year-old Miloslav first started thinking about the priesthood. However, considering this a dream unattainable for a farm boy, he instead wanted to become an aircraft pilot. As the war ended, and a new Communist Czechoslovakia was created, Miloslav worked in an automobile factory and did his military service in the first half of the 1950s. He was then able to study archival science in Prague and worked in various archives until the mid-1960s. In 1964, he could finally follow his desire of studying theology in Litomerice. In the summer of 1968, during the Prague Spring of political liberalisation (which would soon be crushed by the Soviet Union), Miloslav Vlk was ordained to the priesthood, 36 years old.

He started his ministry working as secretary to Bishop Joseph Hlouch of Ceské Budejovice. This was apparently reason for state authorities to consider him suspicious, and in 1971, Father Vlk was forced to relocate to various parishes throughout southern Bohemia, and in 1978, he lost his state authorisation to exercise his priestly ministry. From 1978 until the end of 1988, Fr. Vlk lived in hiding, earning an income, first as a window cleaner and, from 1986, as an archivist in the archives of Prague’s State Bank.

In 1989 the tides turned. As the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia loomed, Fr. Vlk was again authorised to exercise his priestly ministry for a ‘trial year’. He worked as a curate near the Bavarian border. And then, in 1990, the country ceased to be Communist…

On 14 February 1990, Blessed Pope John Paul II pulled Father Vlk out of obscurity and appointed him as bishop of his native Ceské Budejovice. He would not be holding that position for very long, because a mere year later, he was called to Prague, to succeed 91-year-old Cardinal Tomášek as archbishop of Prague. As archbishop, and since 1994 as cardinal, Msgr. Vlk concerned himself not only with the local Church, but also with the Church in Europe, mirroring the new Czech Republic’s international outlook. From 1993 to 2001 he was President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, He was also the special secretary of the first Special Assembly for Europe of the Synod of Bishops in 1991 and also took part in the ninth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (1994) and the second Special Assembly for Europe (1999).

Cardinal Vlk resigned as archbishop of Prague in February of 2010 and was succeeded by Dominik Duka. He is cardinal-priest of the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. He was, until his 80th birthday, a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Special Council for Europe of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.