In Germany, the numbers speak

numbersThe Catholic Church in Germany has published its annual statistics overview over 2015, and for the first time in several years there is a positive development to be noted when compared to the previous year. It remains to be seen if this development continues into the future, but it does begs the questions if this is the result of something like a Francis Effect, or of some other recent trend in the Church or the world. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, commenting on the numbers, believes it is due to there not only being an interest in what the Church has to offer, but also an active desire fore the sacraments:

“The statistics over 2015 indicate that the Church in Germany remains, as before, a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted. There is evidently not only an interest, but also an active desire for the sacraments of the Church, as the slight increase in the number of Baptisms and marriages shows. Although the number of people leaving the Church has decreased when compared to 2014, the number remains high, indicating we should persevere in our pastoral efforts. We need a “demanding pastoral approach” which does justice to the various realities of people and communicates the hope of the faith in a convincing manner. The completion of the Synod of Bishops in the past year, as well as Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Amoris laetitia are important signposts.

“But the naked numbers also show that the Church in our country is an integral part of our society. We will develop our pastoral efforts further on the basis of these statsitics. A lot has already been done in the dioceses. I am thinking of the process of dialogue concluded in the past year, which has contributed to a renewal in the Church. Pope Francis encourages us when he says that the path to the Church of the future is the part of a “synodal Church”. This means that all the faithful, laity and clergy, are required! In the future, we will bear witness of our faith together and proclaim the Gospel with conviction.”

The cardinal, who serves as the president of the German Bishop’s Conference, is optimistic, and the latest numbers do warrant some measure of optimism. Many dioceses are reporting changes in trends of several years, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages, revealing that 2014/2015 is, for now a turning point in some areas. When comparing the 2015 statstics with those of 1995, 20 years ago, it becomes clear how welcome this change is. The number of Catholics is still lower than in 1995, sometimes significantly so (of note are the Dioceses of Görlitz and Magdeburg). Baptisms, however, are more frequent in some dioceses than they were in 1995. Berlin, Dresden-Meißen and Erfurt all report increases. It is interesting to see that both these dioceses and those with the most extreme drops in Catholic faithful are in the east of Germany, where secularism is most prevalent after decades of communist rule. This increase can be partly attributed to immigration, from both Poland and the further abroad.

Marriages are still in crisis, however, with the numbers halved in some places over the past 20 years (Bamberg, Berlin, Dresden-Meißen, Erfurt, Görlitz, Hamburg, München und Freising, Passau and Würzburg are the only dioceses to have kept their numbers at 50% or above).

Grumblings in the east

koch berlinFollowing the appointment of Archbishop Heiner Koch (pictured at left with Berlin’s  cathedral chapter) to Berlin, the other bishops of eastern Germany have expressed concern at the trend that seems to be developing, a tendency for bishops in that part of the country to be reassigned within a few years after being made ordinaries there. And they have a point.

  • In 2010, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa left Görlitz after having been the bishop there for three years and three months.
  • In 2014, Cardinal Rainer Woelki left Berlin after having been its archbishop for three years.
  • And on Monday,  Bishop Heiner Koch left Dresden-Meißen after almost 2 and half years.

The dioceses of eastern Germany, or most of the territory of the former communist German Democratic Republic have a fairly short history in their current form. On the 27th of June, 1994, Erfurt, Magdeburg and Görlitz were promoted from Apostolic Administration to full dioceses, Berlin, which had already been a  diocese since the 1930s, became a metropolitan archdiocese, reflecting the new freedom of governance that the Church had now gained in the former communist parts of Germany. The Apostolic Administration of Schwerin, in the north, became part of the newly established Archdiocese of Hamburg in October of that same year. Dresden-Meißen was the odd one out, having existed in its current form, except for a change of name in 1979, since 1921.

The short tenures of Bishops Zdarsa and Koch and Cardinal Woelki in the dioceses mentioned above came in all cases after significantly longer tenures of their predecessors: In Dresden-Meißen, Joachim Reinelt had been bishop for 24 years; in Berlin, Cardinal Sterzinsky was ordinary for 17 years; and in Görlitz, Bishop Rudolf Müller enjoyed 12 years as bishop. The contrast is evident.

feigeIn fact, the eastern German episcopate as a whole is young. Only Magdeburg’s Gerhard Feige (pictured) has a decade as bishop behind him, and the next senior is Görlitz’s Wolfgang Ipolt, ordinary for a mere four years.

In light of all this, Bishop Feige said about the transfer of Archbishop Koch, “Given the particularly difficult situation of Catholics in the new federal states, this is likely to add to a further destabilisation of the situation of the Church […] Unfortunately the impression is being given that the eastern German dioceses are something like ‘railway shunting yards’ or ‘traineeships’ to qualify bishops for ‘higher offices'”. Bishop Ipolt said that he hoped these rapid reassignments would not become habit. “In the future we need active shepherds for the people of God, here in the Diaspora of the east of Germany”. Together with Erfurt’s Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, he does think that Archbishop Koch’s two-year experience in the east will be a boon in Berlin.

A bishop is the visible head of a local Church in matters of doctrine, worship and governance. The priests of a diocese assist him in these tasks. Stability is a great good in these matters, so it should be avoided to move bishops too often. In that sense I can understand the concerns of the bishops outlined above. On the other hand, as Archbishop Koch himself has also said, in the end a bishop goes where he is called, just like the Apostles, whose successors they are, went where they were sent.

The Archdiocese of Berlin has a bishop again, but Dresden-Meißen is vacant again. Should the bishops of the east be worried that another one of their ranks will be asked to move there? Anything is possible of course, but I don’t think that this is likely, especially since the concerns have now been voiced. But if the residing ordinaries are not be moved anymore, there are two auxiliary bishops in the area who could conceivably be tasked with governing a diocese of their own. Erfurt’s Bishop Reinhard Hauke has already done so during the two-year vacancy of the see there, before Bishop Neymeyr arrived last year. Berlin’s Bishop Matthias Heinrich is 60 and has been an auxiliary for six years.

“The strenght of our hope” – 25 years of Cardinal Meisner come to an end

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Stefan_Hesse1_jpg_763125014He led a diocese for less than four hours, but Bishop Manfred Melzer probably won’t lose any sleep over it. It is simply standard procedure in Cologne: as the archbishop retires, leadership of the archdiocese falls automatically to the most senior auxiliary bishop. Until, that is, the cathedral chapter has picked a diocesan administrator, and they didn’t take very long to do that. Vicar General Msgr. Stefan Heβe (pronounced “Hesse”) (pictured at right) runs the ongoing affairs of the archdiocese until Pope Francis confirms the election of a successor to Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who retired today after 25 years, two months and a few days at the head of one of Germany’s oldest sees.

In 1988, Cardinal Meisner came to Cologne from Berlin, 14 months after the death of Cardinal Joseph Höffner. Today he becomes the first archbishop of Cologne in almost 129 years to retire, and he does so at the almost unprecedented age of 80. Cologne now joins three other German dioceses – Erfurt, Passau and Freiburg in Breisgau – which are also still awaiting a new bishop, in the case of the former two since October of 2012.

Cardinal Meisner leaves Cologne in the hands of diocesan administrator Msgr. Heβe, and Auxiliary Bishops Melzer, Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff. The diocesan administrator now had the duty to collect an expansive report on the state of the archdiocese and send that to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. In the meantime, the see of Cologne is Sede vacante nihil innovetur, in other words, while there is no new bishop, no changes may be made. In other respects, Msgr. Heβe has the same rights and duties as a diocesan bishop.

The Archdiocese of Cologne, or Köln as it is properly called, is the second oldest in Germany (only Trier is older), dating back to the year 200, and once dominated the western part of modern Germany as well as major parts of the Low Countries. The Dioceses of Roermond (Netherlands), Magdeburg, Aachen and Essen (Germany) and parts of Liège (Belgium) were at one time or another all part of Cologne.

The archbishops of Cologne were powerful men, in that rather German way that they were both spiritual and worldly leaders, being electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, while not the primatial see of Germany, Cologne remains important, being the largest diocese in number of faithful (some 2 million) and covering a significant part of the Industrial Ruhr area and including the major cities of Cologne, Bonn (former capital city of West Germany) and Düsseldorf. Cologne has produced 10 cardinals and 7 ordinaries who were declared saints.

meisner posterJoachim Meisner was born on Christmas Day 1933, in what is now Wroclaw in Poland, but at the time the city of Breslau in Germany, which was rapidly falling into the clutches of the Nazis. Having lived through the war as a child and young teenager, Joachim Meisner ultimately became a priest of the Diocese of Fulda in 1962, days before his 29th birthday. In 1975, he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of the Apostolic Administration of Erfurt-Meiningen, which has been established only two years before (tensions between communist East Germany and the Holy See meant that the former had almost no full-fledged dioceses). Bishop Meisner was also given the titular see of Vina. In 1980, he became the bishop of Berlin, which, because of the aforementioned tensions, was not yet an archdiocese. Bishop Meisner stayed there for eight years, being created a cardinal in 1983, before being called to Cologne in 1980 (a poster welcoming his arrival is pictured at left).

Coinciding with his retirement, Cardinal Meisner published his final Lenten letter, which is also a  farewell to his archdiocese and the faithful for whom he was pastorally responsible. He concludes the letter as follows:

Dear Sisters, dear Brothers,

I was allowed to serve you as Archbishop of Cologne for a quarter of a century. I have always wanted to testify to the peace of God and bring this across to you, since it is the strength of our hope. I thank you once again from my heart for all the strength which I found in that and beg you all very much for your forgiveness when my service were not a source of strength, but perhaps a source of irritation. The Lord will complete everything which was only fragmentary in my service. I will remain – God willing – among you until the hour of my death and will now have more time to pray for you all, and bring all your concerns and hopes to the heart of God.

The all-powerful God bless you all, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!”

Nikola-EterovicAnd now? The Archdiocese of Cologne has already started the process of selecting a new archbishop by appointing a diocesan administrator. Possible candidates will now be chosen by several entities, all according to the Concordat that the Holy See signed in 1929 with Prussia, the state of which Cologne was then a part. Among these entities are Archbishop Eterovic (pictured) as the Papal Nuncio; the bishops of the other dioceses which were part of Prussia: Aachen, Berlin, Erfurt, Essen, Fulda, Görlitz, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Limburg, Magdeburg, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn and Trier; and the cathedral chapter of Cologne.

The Nuncio will then collect all proposed candidates and will create a list of three candidates which he considers the best choices. This so-called terna will be added to the other proposals and sent to Rome, where the Congregation for Bishops will draft its own terna based on the information provided. The list will then go to the Pope, who will either confirm it, or make some changes of his own. Then, the list goes back to the cathedral chapter of Cologne.

The cathedral chapter will elect the new archbishop from final terna. Voting continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of votes (at least 8 out of 15). After three voting rounds, only the two candidates who got the most votes continue. If all candidates have five votes after the second round, only the two oldest candidates continue on. For the fourth round of voting a simple majority is sufficient. Do both candidates still have the same amount of votes, the oldest candidate is elected.

After a new archbishop is elected, the governments of the States of Nordrhein-Westfalen and Rheinland-Pfalz can voice political concerns against the elected. The Nuncio must seek and obtain the permission of the elected for this. Once the governments agree, the Pope officially appoints the new archbishop.

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A new bishop in the east

Görlitz amid the other German dioceses

The east of this blog’s area of interest, that is.

Tucked away in the triangle formed by Germany’s borders with Poland and the Czech Republic is an interesting remnant of a once powerful ecclesiastical jurisdiction – or one of the remnants, one should say. The Diocese of Görlitz was created in 1972 as an apostolic administration to conform with the post-war borders in east and central Europe. Before 1972, this was part of the great Archdiocese of Breslau, stretching across parts of modern Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, and split in separate parts following the Allies’ divisions of the Third Reich.

Now one of the smallest German dioceses with a mere 30,000 Catholic faithful, Görlitz runs the risk of being something of a lost child in the Church of the west. But good things have a tendency to be noticed, as became clear in July 2010, when Görlitz’s bishop, Msgr. Konrad Zdarsa, was sent to Augsburg, where his predecessor, Bishop Mixa, had just left amid much rumours and confusion. Bishop Zdarsa had been occupying the see of Görlitz for only three years when he was reassigned, so evidently  he must have made good in the small diocese. But his departure did leave the good people of eastern Saxony and southern Brandenburg without a bishop.

Bishop-elect Wolfgang Ipolt

Now, almost exactly a year later, a clergyman from Erfurt is sent east  become a shepherd. Msgr. Wolfgang Ipolt is 57 and becomes the fourth bishop of Görlitz, with its 60-some priests, and 80-some religious. Bishop-elect Ipolt was until now the rector of the interdiocesan seminary in Erfurt, which also serves Berlin, Dresden-Meiβen, Magdeburg and Görlitz, as well as students from Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic. As rector of such a seminary, Msgr. Ipolt may be expected to have a similarly international outlook, especially eastward towards the great Catholic nations of Poland and Lithuania, but also to the fledgling Church communities in the former German Democratic Republic – communist East Germany. The new bishop, then, reflects the identity of the diocese: situated between past and present – the strong Catholic history of past Breslau and the future of the new dioceses in eastern Germany.

With this appointment, only Berlin remains vacant in Germany.