On Corpus Christi, Cardinal Woelki returns to the debate

The Church celebrated the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, today. She reflects on and celebrates the wondrous presence of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament He has given to the Church. In Germany on this day, it is hard not to think of the recent debates surrounding that sacrament, and especially the question of who can receive it. In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, spoke about the situation at the end of the Mass he celebrated in the square in front of the city’s cathedral. He revealed what lies at the basis of his difficulties with the proposal to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion:

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“Some think, “What’s the point? That’s nonsense.” Others even think, “It’s a puppet show.” I think: This is about life and death. This is about death and resurrection. This is about eternal life, this is about Christ. This is about His Church and hence this is about the essence. And that is why we must fight for it and find the right way. Not just any way, but the way of the Lord, which He shows us, since He alone is the way and the truth and the life.”

We often, sometimes as a matter of course, say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of the Church. But when you really think about what that means, about what the Church teaches and professes about the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the cardinal’s passionate words make a lot of sense.

In his homily, Cardinal Woelki called the Eucharist the greatest mystery of our faith, except for the Holy Trinity. He reminded the faithful in Roncalli Square that by receiving Communion they say “Yes and amen” to the Pope and to the bishop, to the sacramental structure of the Church and to the saints and their veneration. This makes Holy Mass not just “some event” which can be replaced by a Word and Communion service, “no matter how beautiful”. Also worth remembering, especially in the current debate, is this:

“In the first place, what matters is that, in the celebration of the Mass, we have something to give – namely ourselves to God – surrendering ourselves to Him.”

Looking back on the letter sent to Rome by him and six other bishops, Cardinal Woelki said:

“Much has been written and claimed. Among other things, I was said to have secretly turned to Rome, to have secretly written something. In the words of Holy Scripture, I say: I acted openly and freely and have written and said what had to be written and said, in all openness. I say once again: We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church. All our German dioceses are incorporated in the great globe. We are all united with all other Catholic Churches around the world, united under the leadership of the Holy Father. That is why we approach Christ in unity with all other particular churches. In fidelity to the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles.”

Another bishop who mentioned the Communion issue was Essen’s Franz-Josef Overbeck. He said that a “theologically responsible solution” had to be found, but also emphasised that when the salvation of souls in an interdenominational marriage is at stake, Communion must be allowed for both spouses. The question then remains, of course, when this would be the case, and if this isn’t yet covered by the options allowed under the current Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Ottersbach (DR)

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Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

The cardinal’s testament

On a day in March 2009, Cardinal Karl Lehmann sat down and looked ahead at the day he would pass from this life into the eternal life. Almost nine years to the day later, his successor would lead his funeral Mass and share the spiritual testament with the world.

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In a requiem Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf (who also marked his 51st birthday) and five other bishops*, and in the presence of almost the entire German episcopacy (as well as Cardinals Adrianus Simonis from the Netherlands and Walter Kasper from Rome), Cardinal Karl Lehmann was interred in Mainz’s Cathedral of St. Martin of Tours and St. Stephen today. After the Mass was concluded, the text of the cardinal’s spiritual testament was published on the diocese’s Facebook page. Below, I share my translation.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My testament as bishop

I thank God for all gifts, especially the people He has given me, especially also my parents, teachers and my homeland. I am greatly thankful for the many full-time and voluntary sisters and brothers with whom I was allowed to work and who have supported me.

Theology and Church have been the breath of my life. I would choose thusly again! We all , especially in the time after 1945, have buried ourselves deeply in the world and the times, also in the Church. This is also true for me. I pray God and the people for forgiveness. Renewal must come deeply from faith, hope and love. Hence I remind all of the words of my motto, which come from Saint Paul, and which have become ever more important for me: “Stand firm in the faith!”

With gratitude and a request for prayer for me, I greet the Holy Father, the bishops, priest and deacons, all coworkers and all sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Mainz, in my home Diocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as friends in our Church and in ecumenism, and the Catholics of our country, for whom I gladly was chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years. I was always concerned with the unity in faith in the diversity of our lives, without blinkers and uniformity.

I leave the arrangement of the requiem Mass and the burial to the cathedral chapter and the auxiliary bishops. We have many good customs!

There are two things under which I have suffered time and again, and ever more: In many ways, our earth and, to a large extent, our lives are wonderful, beautiful and fascinating, but they are also profoundly ambiguous, destructive and terrible. Lately, the frightfulness of power and how man deals with it has dawned on me more and more. Brutal thought and the reckless pursuit of power are to me among the harshest expressions of unbelief and sin. Resist their beginnings! I increasingly keep Jesus’ words from Luke in mind:”When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Choose a good successor! Pray for him and for me! Goodbye!”

Mainz, 15 March 2009

+ Karl Cardinal Lehmann

Bishop of Mainz

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In his homily, Bishop Kohlgraf fondly remembered the popularity of Cardinal Lehmann, something that was proven in the days after his death by what people shared on social media:

“One shared that Bishop Lehmann had confirmed him and how much that meant to him. Others shared everyday encounters in the street and small conversations. I know of others for whom the cardinal was a true pastor and guide on he search for a personal faith. Not without reason do the people of the Diocese of Mainz call him “our Karl”. He was able to converse with everyone: with the so-called simple folk and with those with social, ecclesiastical and political influence.”

Bishop Kohlgraf referred to the cardinal’s spiritual testament several times. About the comment that the Church had  ‘buried’ itself in society in the last decades, the bishop said:

“A Church burying itself in the times: in its brevity and poignancy this sentence seems to me to be prophetic. The temptation to plan and create everything, as if administration, planning, material possession is the decisive factor, does not grow smaller. In this way our late cardinal warns us to live according to faith, hope and love, before starting to “create”. The source, which gives us true life, must not be forgotten.”

Cardinal Lehmann instead insisted that the search for God lay in the heart of people: something that is innate to all human beings. This search leads to a God who has a name, who can be addressed.

“The God of the Bible is a God who enters into history, a good of liberation, who accompanies people, “God with us”. He ultimately reveals Himself unparalleled in Jesus Christ. The cardinal’s coat of arms contains an open Bible, a reference to this God who speaks to people and joins them on the way: on the coffin today, likewise, there lies an open Bible. Today, God is also “God with us”. Since this God is so great and has numerous ways of speaking, there is an endless number of ways to come to Him, as numerous as the people and their means of expressing themselves. Theology must be diverse, faith experiences must be possible for different people, faith is not narrow, not uniform”.

The requiem and funeral Mass for Cardinal Lehmann was witnessed by thousands of people along the route of the funeral procession, in the cathedral and on the square in front of it, where faithful could watch the proceedings on big screens. Among the guests were the prime ministers of the federal states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, on whose territory the Diocese of Mainz is located. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived under police escort when the procession had entered the cathedral. Chancellor Angela Merkel had wanted to be there, but had duties in Berlin. She is expected to attend tomorrow’s requiem service in Berlin’s St. Hedwig cathedral.

*Concelebrating with Bishop Kohlgraf were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany; Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference; Gerhard Cardinal Müller, former priest of the Diocese of Mainz; Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg Stuttgart, representing the Oberrhein Church Province, from which Cardinal Lehmann hails; Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt, former priest and auxiliary bishop of Mainz; and Bishop Udo Bentz, auxiliary bishop of Mainz.

Photo credit: [1] Arne Dedert (dpa), [2] Boris Roessler (dpa)

Cardinal Meisner’s spiritual testament

In 2011 Joachim Cardinal Meisner wrote his spiritual testament. Cardinal Woelki read it out in the memorial Vespers on Wednesday evening. Below is my translation of the original German text.

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“Dear brothers in spiritual service,
Dear coworkers in pastoral care and charity,
Dear sisters and brothers in the Archdiocese of Cologne,
Dear friends and family!

Like all people, I do not know day or hour, nor the manner and place of my death. That is why I want to write down a final word to you all now, which will then be read out at the right time. It will mainly be a final world in this world for you to Jesus Christ.

Dear Jesus Christ,
You are the word through which everything came into being. I thank you, that you have wanted me and thus assured my existence. Your word accompanied me in life and led me to your care for the world and people. That is why I became a priest and bishop, marked and consecrated by your wounds. It is one of the most astonishing things in my life, that you have used me at your cross and honoured me with your passion. Because of your love for the world, your heart, hands and feet were pierced. You touched me with your cross out of love for the people. You allowed me to be your priest and your bishop. That is why, especially in dying, I want to praise the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which joy came into the world.

In the Liturgy of the Hours I expressly testify and confess with our priests:

“Christ, divine Lord,
he loves you who has but strength to love:
unknowing, he who does not know you;
with longing, he who does.

Christ, you are my hope,
my peace, my happiness, all my life.
Christ, my spirit seeks you,
Christ, I adore you.

Christ, I cling to you
with all the power of my soul;
You, Lord, alone I love,
I seek you, I follow after you.”

In this joy, I desired to serve all in the Archdiocese of Cologne. Our bishop’s city of Cologne holds the honorary title of “Sancta Colonia Dei Gratia Romanae Ecclesiae Fidelis Filia” (Holy Cologne, through God’s mercy the faithful daughter of the Roman Church). In my episcopal service I tried to honour this distinction. Christ has established the Petrine ministry in the Church, to give direction and support to the many peoples in their time. This is my last request to you all for the sake of your salvation: Stand by our Holy Father. He is today’s Peter. Follow his directions. Listen to his words. Peter does not want anything for himself, but everything for the Lord and for his sisters and brothers.

You all know that my life encompassed three social systems: twelve years of Hitler’s Reich, forty-four years of Communist rule and now more than twenty years of free democracy. In all three eras of my life the service of the Pope has always given me direction, encouragement and support. Always hold on to the Pope and you will not lose Christ!

I do not desire the mercy granted to the Apostle John, nor the forgiveness you gave Peter, but only that which you granted on the cross to the thief, I beg: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).”

Photo credit: KNA

After death, no changes from Rome – some thoughts about the CDF Instruction

cemeteryAd resurgendum cum Christo is nothing new. Today’s Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents no new teachings or policies regarding the burial of the dead. Rather, it aims to underline why the Church prefers burial over cremation in a time when cremation is on the rise. In short, burial confirms faith in the resurrection of the body, shows the dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person, and it corresponds to the respect owed to the body as an temple of the Holy Spirit. Also significant in this Holy Year of Mercy: burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.

Has the Church been opposed to cremation, and does it continue to be, then? Not at all. Objectively, cremation does not “negate the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (n. 4). Like with burial, the Church asks that the ashes be placed in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or other area set aside by compentent Church authorities. Like the buried body, the ashes of the deceased should be similarly included in the prayers of the living and are deserving of continuous respect. Their location helps to assure that.

The most interesting part of the Instruction, in my opinion, is that these considerations and requirements aim to prevent any form of superstition (paragraph 7 mentions pantheism, naturalism and nihilism as reasons to not allow the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way”).

We are created in the image of God, in body and spirit. Through Baptism our bodies have become home to the Holy Spirit. Human beings have an innate dignity which flows directly from our created nature. This dignity does not stop at death. Our bodies continue to be deserving of respect. In life we have shown our faith through our actions and words. In death we remain able to show our faith in the bodily ressurection in which Christ went before us. Physical life may end at death, but the two are not separate. In our modern western society we have grown used to keeping death out of sight (which probably accounts for how easily we allow such horrors like abortion and euthanasia), but life and death are integral to our existence and our faith, as Ad resurgendum cum Christo underlines in its second paragraph:

“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” [Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead]. By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” [Tertullian, De Resurrectione carnis, 1,1].”

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

The courage of Easter – Archbishop Koch’s message

1900163306“How confidently can we live, as God is at our side on the difficult paths of life! How confidently can we pray: the good God hears and understands us! How hopefully can we commit ourselves to people, as God gives us strength in all challenges! How expectantly can we die, as the Crucified One does not abandon us in death!

Do we as Christians really live such an alternative, renewed life style? Does our life differ from that of those who can not or do not want to believe in the Resurrection? Do we really conform to the Easter message? Do we really rely on the presence of God in our lives? Without the courage to rely on God and live in an Easter-ly way, we can not experience the Ressurected One in our lives. Experiences can only gather those who “let go”. We can leave the graves of our unbelief and our inertia when the stone from our graves has also been rolled away. The people in our society need no witness more than that of faithful Christians who dare, with the resurrected Christ, to shape their lives every day and always direct their lives anew towards the message of Easter.”

Archbishop Heiner Koch,
Easter letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Berlin