25 years in, Bishop Hofmann leaves the seat of Würzburg

ba5a6005As announced by the Nuncio yesterday, the retirement of Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann will begin today. The bishop of Würzburg, who celebrated his 75th birthday in May, has been at the helm of the diocese for 13 years.

The announcement of the upcoming retirement was made on Sunday when the bishop and diocese celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Before coming to Würzburg in 2004, Bishop Hofmann served as an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for 12 years.

The silver jubilee of his ordination as bishop was thus also an opportunity to thank Msgr. Hofmann for his service. Numerous bishops from Germany and abroad had come to concelebrate, among them Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Friedrich Wetter, from Munich both, Archbishop Piero Marini, and Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset, the previous nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich from Luxembourg, Bishop John Ndimbo from Mbinga in Tanzania and Bishop Bernardo Johannes Bahlmann from Óbidos in Brazil, both partner dioceses of Würzburg.

In contrast with the expressions of appreciation and gratitude for his work, from brother bishops as well as the local Lutheran bishop and the president of the Bavarian parliament, Bishop Hofmann rather more critical in his homily. Looking back on the past 25 years, he noted how the problems in society had not improved. “On the contrary, the problems became more acute and new challenges have arisen”. Examples mentioned by the bishop were the cries in the world leading to increasing streams of refugees, the increase in religiously motivated extremism, and the ethical challenges of genetic research. How can this be compatible with God’s love for us? Referring to his motto, “Ave crux, spes unica“, Bishop Hofmann said, “What may seem to us as the ultimate humiliation, is for Jesus the rising and entrance into the glory of the Father. This belief shakes us up and presupposes knowledge of the fullness of our salvation.”

In a recent interview for the Tagespost, Bishop Hofmann looked ahead to his retirement, saying:

“I am aware that I am taking a step back. I will not interfere in how my successor executes his office. I have decided that for myself. My predecessor, Bishop Scheele, did the same thing. But I am willing to help out when I am asked, for examples with confirmations. I will continue living in Würzburg.”

Said interview also contains a number of comments from Bishop Hofmann on a number of topics, comments which show that, in many respects, this is a bishop with his head screwed on right.

On same-sex marriage, promoted in Germany by the “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all) initiative, he says:

“The so-called “Ehe für alle” is, in my opinion, a catastrophe for society. Marriage is a God-willed union of man and woman, which is open to the generation of new life. An “Ehe für alle” is therefore impossible according to Catholic understanding.  Pointing this out is not remotely the same as attacking or discriminating homosexual people”.\

About the presence of Muslim immigrants (and often second- and third-generation Muslims) in German society, which in the basis remains a Christian society:

“It should be clear: when Muslims come to us and want to live here, they must accept our social rules. But for me as a Christian, the Islam is not a challenge. It is rather the failing of Christianity that we should fear. We must speak with Muslims on equal footing. We must make it clear to them that basic civilian advances such as the Charter of the United Nations of the Basic Law of Germany are based on Christian ethics. We must inform them that their freedom and wellbeing also depend on the continued existence of that Christian foundation.”

The shortage of priests is also felt in Würzburg. The number of young men knocking on seminary doors is small. Bishop Hofmann points out several reasons for this.

“These days, young men often no longer come from a Christian family. When God is not mentioned at home, when there is no prayer, it is difficult to arrive at the thought to go this path. Secondly, young people have a fear of commitment. This can also be seen with marriage. People no longer want to commit themselves to one person for their entire lives. That obviously makes celibacy a major hurdle, which many cannot overcome, although they may certainly be suitable for the priesthood. And then there is the great pressure of expectation on the priest from the community. Many priests experience this. Young people then wonder if they want to do that to themselves.”

Another hot-button topic is the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Bishop Hofmann has something to say about that, and about celibacy and the ordination of married men, too.

“The ordination of women is not possible. The priest, after all, represents Christ and must therefore be a man. The Church has no leeway there. This is a different question than that of celibacy. I consider celibacy to be a very important concept. In it, the Church makes clear that she is not a great worldly concern, but is built on a different foundation. But there have always been married priests as well in our Church, for example in the Uniate churches or converts. It is therefore possible to discuss the question of the viri probati. But this discussion should not be held in such a way that one speaks ill of celibacy and considers it superfluous. It can only be about ordaining proven men, for example deacons, who have shown themselves capable of ecclesiastical service as married men. Such a step can only be made in unity with the word Church. The pope is certainly open to thinking in this direction, but at the same time he is not one who wants to rip the Church from her foundations.”

The Church in Germany is among the richest in the world. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI, himself a German, has been very critical about the wealth of the Church. Bishop Hofmann says:

“Pope Benedict was completely right. In Germany, we are a rich Church. But in the face of the needs of the world I often wonder myself if all the reserves that we are building are justified, or if we shouldn’t give that money to the poor and hungry.”

Finally, Bishop Hofmann greatly respects the retired pope, and the way that he is sometimes discussed is a discgrace.

“Pope Benedict is one of the greatest theologians to have occupied the seat of Peter. He has given the world so much that is positive and important, in word and deed. It is a tragedy that we haven’t always positively accepted this in Germany. But I am convinced that in 20, 30 years Pope Benedict will find new listeners as a Doctor of the Church of the modern age.”

232px-Karte_Bistum_WürzburgWürzburg is the second diocese, after Hildesheim, to fall vacant after a brief spell in which every German diocese had a bishop at its head. When the retirement of Bishop Hofmann begins, at noon today, auxiliary bishop Ulrich Boom will be in charge until the cathedral chapter has chosen an administrator to oversee current affairs until a new bishop has been appointed. Würzburg is the northernmost diocese in Bavaria and a part of the Church province of Bamberg.

Photo credit: Markus Hauck (POW)

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In Hildesheim, Bishop Trelle retires

As expected, Pope Francis ended that three-week period in which no German dioceses were without a bishop, by accepting the retirement of Bishop Norbert Trelle of Hildesheim. Bishop Trelle turned 5 on the 5th of this month and his retirement was announced by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, apostolic nuncio to Germany, during the celebrations for the bishop’s birthday.

csm_170909-Bistum_Geburtstag_Bischof_17_5545932ffd^Bishop Trelle, centre, is pictured here with Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who preached during the birthday Mass, and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the nuncio.

Now heading the diocese of the senior auxiliary bishop, Nikolaus Schwerdtfeger, who is to call a meeting of the cathedral chapter to elect a diocesan administrator, who will manage affairs until a new bishop has been appointed, within eight days. That election is usually a speedy process, as the retirement of Bishop Trelle has long been foreseen. A likely candidate to be chosen as administrator is the vicar general, Hildesheim’s other auxilary, Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz.

Karte_Bistum_HildesheimBishop Trelle has stood at the head of the Diocese of Hildesheim for almost 12 years. Appointed in 2005, he was previously an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for more than 13 years. Like other bishops in and around Germany, he was confronted with dwindling numbers of faithful, which led him to reducing the number of parishes from 313 to 119, and closing some 50 churches. Priests in Hildesheim are now rarely attached to a single parish or location, but are responsible for clusters of parishes and communities, working in pastoral teams.

In January of this year, Bishop Trelle consecrated a new church, in Hannover, the first such consecration in more than 20 years.

Among the high points of Bishop Trelle’s time was the renovation of Hildesheim’s cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, completed in 2014, and the celebration of the 1200th aiversary of the foundation of the diocese.

In 2015, Bishop Trelle was the first bishop of Hildesheim to officialy apologise for historical errors and misdeeds, including the diocese’s role in wars of religion, persecutions, failures in the Nazi era, as well as sexual abuse by clergy.

Hildesheim is the third-largest diocese in Germany, extending from the North Sea coast between Bremen and Hamburg southward to the heart of the country near Göttingen. It was established in the 9th century, expanded over time until the 1960s, and then losing bits of territory to Erfurt, Magdeburg and Hamburg in the 1990s, following the German reunification.

Photo credit: bph/Gossmann

New bishops in summer

Everything, including the Church, slows down over summer. As a result, there are few appointments and consecrations of bishops in August. Nonetheless, Germany gained two of them: Msgr. Peter Kohlgraf was consecrated as bishop of Mainz on 27 August and Msgr. Franz Josef Gebert became the third auxiliary bishop of Trier last Sunday.

These two consecrations fill out the roster of German bishops: there are no vacant sees or auxiliary bishop positions among the 28 (arch)dioceses in the country. This, however, is not a situation that will continue for long: Würzburg’s Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann is already 75, while Hildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle reached that age today. Both dioceses can therefore expect a new bishop relatively soon (barring any exceptional circumstances, such as in the Austrian diocese of Innsbruck, which has been awaiting a new bishop since November of 2015).

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^Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, flanked by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Stephan Burger and Cardinal Rainer Woelki, greets people gathered after his consecration.

Bishop Kohlgraf is the successor of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who headed the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years until his retirement in May of 2016. It is a public secret that the cardinal had wanted his auxiliary Bishop Udo Markus Bentz to succeed him, but the latter’s appointment as Bishop Kohlgraf’s vicar general can be seen as a form of continuity with the Lehmann era. The previous vicar general, and diocesan administrator during the year-long sede vacante, Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, has been appointed as episcopal vicar for, among others, migration and integration, thus indicating some of the initial points of focus of the new bishop.

Bishop Franz Gebert was appointed to fill the position left by Bishop Helmut Dieser, who was appointed as Bishop of Aachen in September of last year. Like other German dioceses, Trier has a standard number of auxiliary bishops, in this case three, as episcopal vicars for individual pastoral areas are made bishops as a rule. Bishop Gebert headed the diocesan charity office before his appointment as auxiliary bishop, and will continue in that role as episcopal vicar for the caritas. Additionally, he will be responsible for pastoral visitation in the Trier area on behalf of Bishop Stephan Ackermann.

csm_bischofsweihe_gebert_3_sep_-131_fbd3adae86

Bishop Franz Gebert (front row, second from right) poses with the other bishops hailing from the Diocese of Trier: front row: Leo Schwarz (auziliary bishop emeritus), Robert Brahm (auxiliary bishop), Stephan Ackermann (ordinary), Franz Gebert, Jörg Peters (uxiliary bishop), Alfred Kleinermeilert (auxiliary bishop emeritus). Back row: Helmut Dieser (bishop of Aachen), Felix Genn (bishop of Münster), Georg Bätzing (bishop of Limburg).

Photo credit: [1] Stefan Sämsmer, [2] Bistum Trier

After 5 years, Müller to go? What we know and can expect

Cardinal_Gerhard_Mueller_in_St_Peters_Basilica_at_the_installation_Mass_of_Bishop_Maurizio_Malvestiti_on_Oct_12_2014_Credit_Lauren_Cater_CNA_CNA_10_13_14Suddenly, an increase in rumours that Cardinal Gerhard Müller is to be let go as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appeared tonight. Should the rumours prove true, what can we say about it now?

To be precise, the cardinal is not so much being let go or fired, but simply completes his five-year term. Cardinal Müller was appointed on 2 July 2012, so his mandate ends on Sunday. Should he not be appointed for a second mandate, it would mean that he is the first prefect to complete only one. Until 1963, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was headed by the Pope himself. After the death of Pope Saint John XXIII, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was pro-prefect from 1965 to 1968, after which Cardinal Franjo Šeper served until 1981. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served until his fifth term, when he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He appointed Cardinal William Levada to succeed him: he served until 2012 (1.5 terms ended by his reaching the retirement age of 75). Cardinal Müller was then called from Regensburg to take up what is generally considered to be the first position in  the Curia.

Cardinal Müller is 69, reaching the mandatory age of retirement on New Year’s Eve 2022. What is in store for him in the meantime? His name was mentioned in relation to recent vacant dioceses in Germany, especially Mainz. But the Church in Germany is currently in the luxurious position of having all its dioceses filled, and only three dioceses, Hildesheim, Fulda and Würzburg, are expected to need a new bishop within the next year. None of these are traditional cardinalatial sees, and an appointment to one of them, no matter how worthy, will be seen as a demotion of sorts. That said, to many Pope Francis is no stranger to demoting cardinals: one need only look at Cardinal Raymond Burke, who went from leading the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura to the largely ceremonial position of Patron of the Order of Malta. As someone on social media joked: we need more orders for all the cardinals that are being sacked… That said, the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, is 78 and thus overdue for retirement…

The most interesting question of all, though, is: who has Pope Francis picked to succeed Cardinal Müller? Who will be the Holy Father’s choice to have the final say on all matters doctrinal in the Church (on behalf of the Pope, though)? Will he even pick a new prefect, or is it too far-fetched to think he may return to the pre-1963 practice of leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith himself? Stranger things have happened, after all.

 

When will the rumours make way for facts? It could be as early as tomorrow, so keep an eye on that Holy See press bulletin shortly after noon.

Photo credit: Lauren Cater/CNA

Bishops coming, bishops going – a look ahead at 2017

On the threshold of 2017, a look ahead at what we may expect when it comes to the leadership of the various dioceses in Northwestern Europe.

266px-BisdomGroningenLocatieThere have been years when the changes were rather significant, but 2017 does not look to be one of those. At the start of the new year, three dioceses are without a bishop: Groningen-Leeuwarden in the Netherlands (map at right), Mainz in Germany and the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway. It is a safe bet that the first two will receive their new bishops in 2017, but Trondheim may well be left as it has been for the past seven years: without a bishop, and with the bishop of Oslo serving as Apostolic Administrator. But on the other hand, for a see that just built and consecrated its new cathedral, and which, like the rest of Norway, has seen a significant increase in Catholic faithful, this does not seem like a situation that will continue forever. So who knows what the year will bring.

In Groningen-Leeuwarden, the new bishop will succeed Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was appointed to ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March. Almost ten months in, the vacancy is the longest for the Dutch Catholic Church in recent years. The new bishop of Mainz will follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who led that ancient see for 33 years.

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienThere are a few bishops who will reach the age of 75 in 2017, and thus will offer their resignation. In Germany, these are Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann of Würzburg on 12 May and Norbert Trelle (at left) of Hildesheim on 5 September. Joining them is Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond in the Netherlands. He will be 75 on 2 December, but I would not be surprised if his retirement will be accepted earlier, as the bishop has been struggling with eye-related health problems.

There is one bishop serving past the age of 75. Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent has been asked to continue serving for another two years, so that Belgian see will remain occupied for the duration of 2017.

A less certain area to make predictions about is the appointment of auxiliary bishops. I expect, however, that two German dioceses will receive one auxiliary each. The Archdiocese of Hamburg has been without auxiliary bishops since October, when Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke retired. As the archdiocese is being reorganised, the number of auxiliary bishops will be decreased from two to one, and we may well see one of the three new area deans (representing the archdiocese’s constituent areas of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg) to be made a bishop. Further south, the Diocese of Münster has confirmed its request for a new auxiliary bishop after Heinrich Timmerevers was appointed to Dresden-Meißen in April. This will bring the number of auxiliary bishops back up to five, one for each pastoral area.

vilniaus_arkivyskupas_metropolitas_audrys_juozas_backis_2In Rome, lastly, there will be no new consistory. Only four cardinals will reach the age of 80 and so cease to be electors. They are Audrys Backis, Archbishop emeritus of Vilnius, Lithuania (and former Nuncio to the Netherlands) (at right); Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Archbishop emeritus of Aparecida, Brazil; Attilio Nicora, Pontifical Legate to the Basilicas in Assisi, Italy; and Lluís Martínez Sistach, Archbishop emeritus of Barcelona, Spain. The number of cardinals who will be able to participate in a conclave will still be 116 at the end of next year, so there will be no need to bring their numbers up.

From a Hildesheim pub, Dresden’s Bishop Koch on marriage, divorce and sacraments

In Germany, the bishops are on the eve of their spring plenary in Hildesheim, and as I announced earlier, six of them spent that eve in the pub. One of these six was Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meißen who has recently been in the news for comments in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. He was asked about this same topic tonight in an at times emotional conversation, as the hosting Diocese of Hildesheim reports.

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When it comes to relating to faithful who have divorced and later married another partner, Bishop Koch said that the Church should proceed according to the principle of subsidiarity.

“With that I do not mean different local uses of the sacrament of marriage, but how we relate to people who are suffering as divorced or remarried.”

This seems to be something different than what many accuse the German bishops as a whole of: being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics access to the sacraments.  By referring to the principle of subsidiarity, Bishop Koch points out the problem must be resolved not in the higher echelons of the Church, be it the bishops’ offices or Rome, but on the ground, involving the people directly affected by the problem.

In this case it would seem to mean that Bishop Koch is not so much in favour of changing the Church’s teaching on marriage and sacraments (as, he says, life is too varied to be caught in rules anyway), but is mainly concerned with how we relate to divorced and remarried Catholics, who are most directly affected by their problem.

How this would work in practice remains to be seen, I think, although individually tailored approaches to people are always to be preferred over standardised ways of dealing with situations.

Bishop in the pub – making the conference more present

dbk logoA month from now, the German bishops will be meeting for their spring plenary in the city of Hildesheim, but on the eve of that meeting on the 23rd of February, seven bishops will participate in debates about various topics in seven pubs throughout the city. Whereas plenary meetings of bishops’ conferences are usually far removed from the daily lives of the faithful, they do influence it and are an arena where important issues and plans are discussed and decided. By holding such pub debates, as it were, both the conference and their topics take a few steps towards the faithful, closing the gap between them. This is, of course, further helped by the fact that entrance is free (although some pubs have a space limit)…

The plan seems to be the brainchild of Bishop Norbert Trelle, host of the meeting and vice-president of the bishops’ conference. The Diocese of Hildesheim celebrates the 1200th anniversary of its foundation this year and its 11th century cathedral has just come out of an extensive renovation.

These are the seven bishops speaking at various pubs: Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier will speak about peace and justice; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) about the communication of faith; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann (Würzburg) about art and religion; Bishop Heiner Koch (Dresden-Meißen) about marriage and family; Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) about business ethics; Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne) about poverty; and Bishop Norbert Trelle (Hildesheim) about immigration and human rights.

An example worth following by bishops in other countries.