The synodal path – German bishops to put global truth to popular vote?

dbk logoIn their spring assembly, which this year took place in the Emsland town of Lingen, in the Diocese of Osnabrück, the German bishops discussed, among other things, several hot topics. First and foremost the abuse crisis, of course, on which they heard from various experts and were told that the Church is losing (or even already has lost) all her credibility as a result of the sexual abuse committed by clergy and the subsequent coverup by bishops and superiors.

In order to perhaps recover some of the credibility, and find a permanent solution to the scourge of abuse, which the bishops see as an expression of abuse of power, they opt to go the synodal path. The buzzword which has been the go-to solution for a lot of things in recent years is perhaps hard to define, but if anything, it amounts to less power for bishops and more listening and taking advise from lay faithful and experts outside the Church. There is of course a risk that any expression of episcopal authority comes to be seen as undesirable, thus pretty much negating the power and fucntion of bishops, but this is another story.

marx-XIn the post-meeting press conference (text here), Cardinal Reihard Marx (at right) discusses this synodal path and explains that the bishops have decided to employ it also on the topics of power abuse, priestly celibacy and the Church’s sexual morality. Does this mean, as some have commented, that the German bishops will put these topics to a popular vote? For the first, the abuse of power by clergy, this may be a good path, but I have my doubts if a singular bishops’ conference can and should take the teachings of the Church, which is not limited to Germany, and single-handedly change them if the people demand it.

Below is my translation of the relevant passage from the press conference:

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“The Church needs a synodal development. Pope Francis encourages us to do so. And we do not begin from zero. The Würzburg Synod (1972-1975)  and also the processes of recent years have prepared the ground, also for the many challenges of today. We have decided in unison to go a synodal path as Church in Germany, which enables a structural debate and takes place in a scheduled timeframe, and in fact together with the Central Committee of German Catholics. We will create formats for open debate and committ ourselves to processes which allow for a responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses. We want to be a listening Church. We need the advise from people outside the Church.

I will therefore list three points which played a part in the study day and upon which we will focus:

  • We are aware of the cases of clerical abuse of power. It is a betrayal of the trust of people seeking for support and religious orientation. What has to be done to achieve the required development of power and create a fairer and legally binding order, will become clear on the synodal path. The development of administrative tribunals is a part of this.
  • We are aware that the way of life of bishops and priests requires change to show the inner freedom of of the faith and the orientation on the example of Jesus Christ. We consider celibacy to be an expression of religious unity with God. We wish to work out the extent to which it should be a part of the witness of priests in our Church.
  • The Church’s sexual morality has not yet accepted several findings from theology and humanities. The personal meaning of sexuality has not been given sufficient attention. The result: the proclamation of morality offers no direction to the majority of the baptised. We see how often we are unable to respond to questions about modern sexual behaviour.”

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The bishops plan to have a plan for this synodal path ready by September, when it will be discussed in a meeting of bishops, members of the Central Committee of German Catholics and others.

In the mean time, I wonder if this is not taking the same course as the Communion for remarried Catholics debate? That was also taken to Rome by some bishops who understood that a single group of bishops can not pretend to speak for the entire world Church. The question of priestly celibacy and sexual morality can certainly be discussed, even by a single bishops’ conference, but they can not take unilateral action contrary to what the Church as a whole teaches. These changes, if they must be made, must be made at the top.

I am leaving the bishops’ first point, about combating abuse of power, out of this, as that is something they can act on by themselves.

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For Hildesheim, the new bishop comes from Rome

csm_Heiner_Wilmer_2_9bf3e15c8cWhat’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:

“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.

There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.

On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.

On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.

But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”

The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.

Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in  1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.

Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”

Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:

“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.

[…]

Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”

From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.

“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”

Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.

The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.

With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.


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For Hamburg, a first homegrown bishop

As expected, the Archdiocese of Hamburg as given a single auxiliary bishop on Thursday, and as equally expected, he is one of the three area deans appointed by Archbishop Stefan Heße last year as part of the organisational overhaul of the archdiocese. And although the new auxiliary bishop has been the area dean for Mecklenburg in the east of the archdiocese, as an auxiliary bishop he will reside in Hamburg. In the past Hamburg had two auxiliaries, one in Schwerin, the other in Hamburg. But as part of the reorganisation that number has been reduced to one, residing in the metropolitan heart of the area.

weihbischof-299Bishop-elect Horst Eberlein was born in 1950 in Walsleben (Altmark) and ordained to the priesthood in 1977. He was a priest in parishes in what was then the Apostolic Administration of Schwerin, which in 1994 became a part of the newly erected Archdiocese of Hamburg. He is then the first bishop to be appointed from among the clergy of Hamburg itself. His predecessors as auxiliary bishops came from Schwerin (Norbert Werbs) and Osnabrück (Hans-Jochen Jaschke), and the archbishops were also called from other circumscriptions. Archbishop Heße, for example, came from Cologne.

Since 2015, Bishop-elect Eberlein has been a non-resident member of the cathedral chapter, and in 2016 he was appointed as one of three area deans, representing the archbishop in Mecklenburg, the most eastern part of the archdiocese. As auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Eberlein will support the archbishop in running the archdiocese. The consecration of the new bishop is set for 25 March, in St. Mary’s cathedral in Hamburg. It will be only the second time that that church has been the setting for an episcopal consecration, after that of Archbishop Heße in March of 2015.

As auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Eberlein has been given the titular see of Tisedi, in modern Algeria. In the past, from 1999 to 2005, another German bishop, Gerhard Feige, held that title when he was auxiliary bishop of Magdeburg.

Photo credit: Klaus Bodig / HA

A Cold War arrangement ends as Germany is set to lose a bishop

The place of the German dioceses in the world Church is unique in several ways. Their relations with Rome are dictated by concordats which also influence the appointment of bishops (rather than the Pope choosing a new bishop from a list of three candidates, it is the other way around for most dioceses in Germany; it is the Pope providing a list of three candidates to the cathedral chapter of a given diocese, who then make their choice for the Pope to appoint). And there is also an unofficial tradition when it comes to auxiliary bishops: in at least the major (arch)dioceses, there will always be the same number of auxiliary bishops. For example, Cologne has three, one for each of its pastoral areas, and Hamburg has two.

Or had, at least.

464px-Karte_Erzbistum_HamburgIn the Archdiocese of Hamburg the tradition is about to change. Hamburg is perhaps a little too young to have very old traditions, but this goes a bit further back than the archdiocese. Established in 1994, the archdiocese was given two auxiliary bishops, one residing in Hamburg, the other in Schwerin. And in Schwerin, the tradition of having a resident auxiliary bishop goes back another 40 years, to 1973, when the area, then still part of the Diocese of Osnabrück, was made a nominally separate Apostolic Administration. This because of the political situation at the time: the new Administration was that part of Osnabrück which lay in the communist German Democratic Republic, divided from the rest of the diocese by the iron curtain. As this border between west and east prevented easy travel by the bishop from Osnabrück to the faithful in Mecklenburg and Vorpommern, the Holy See appointed an auxiliary bishop to reside in Schwerin, who could be a bishop for the faithful there when the ordinary could not. After the German reunification, major parts of Osnabrück, including Schwerin, were split off to become the new Archdiocese of Hamburg, but the auxiliary bishop in Schwerin remained, now as an auxiliary bishop of Hamburg. Since 1981, that has been Bishop Norbert Werbs, who retired in May of 2015. No successor has been appointed since then, and none will, it now seems.

3079_4_WeihbischofJaschke2013_Foto_ErbeA spokesman of the archdiocese said that, in the future, the sole auxiliary bishop would reside in Hamburg, like the archbishop. That single auxiliary is currently Hans-Jochen Jaschke (at left) who is set to retire upon his 75th birthday on 29 September of this year. Not only is this the end of a cold war arrangement, one of those which so marked the recent history of the German dioceses – of which Hamburg is the only one incorporating parts of both former East and West Germany – but also a move that decreases the number of German bishops by one. Before now any retiring bishop, be he an ordinary or auxiliary, could expect a successor to be appointed within reasonable time (auxiliaries quicker than ordinaries).

The decision to no longer appoint two auxiliary bishops for Hamburg was made by Pope Francis and Archbishop Stefan Heße together, it is said. In preparation for the selection of the single new auxiliary, to be appointed when Bishop Jaschke retires, the archbishop has asked for suggestions from some 100 people in the archdiocese.

Among the bishops, three big events

A noteable day for the German episcopate yesterday as three major life events occured.

First, there was the news of the death of Bishop Manfred Müller, bishop emeritus of Regensburg. The 88-year-old prelate had been bishop of the southern diocese from 1982 to 2002, when he was succeeded by now-Cardinal Gerhard Müller (no relation). Bishop Müller led the commission for education in the German Bishops’ Conference, and after his retirement he lived in Mallersdorf monastery, which is where he died yesterday morning.

13%20Bischof%20Manfred%20Startschuss%20Internetseite%20Bistum%202001_1024_1
^Bishop Müller launches the website of the Diocese of regensburg, in this photo from 2001.

Later on the same day, which was his 75th birthday, Bishop Norbert Werbs, auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, saw the acceptance of his resignation. Bishop Werbs was the longest-serving auxiliary bishop of Germany, first for the Catholics in Schwerin, then nominally part of the Diocese of Osnabrück although it lay in Communist East Germany, and since 1994 in the restored Archdiocese of Hamburg. He remains a keen photographer and amateur engineer, wont to repair his own car when it breaks down.

norbert werbs^ A keen photographer, Bishop Werbs is the subject of an extensive photo gallery  on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Lastly, yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau. Still one of the younger bishops in the country, the archbishop was ordained with 22 other priests in 1990. Yesterday, he stated in a homily to mark the anniversary:

silbernespriesterjubilaeum_1386_quer burger“To not be confused, remaining true to the Good News of the Lord, to hold fast to the fact that He is the way, the truth and the life for us, that is also the commandment of the day, for the present time…

25 years ago we did not step forward to proclaim the failures of man and Church, but this Word that goes out from the Father and which is Christ Himself.

Structures are subject to the progression of time, but the love of Christ isn’t, His message isn’t, and therefore the nature of the Church is ultimately unchangeable”.

With its third archbishop, Hamburg gets around to consecrating for the first time

stefan hesseThe consecration of the new archbishop of Hamburg, Msgr. Stefan Heße, on 14 March, turns out to have a few unique features, as the plans for the event emerge.

While he is the third archbishop of the north German diocese, Archbishop-elect Heße will be the first to be consecrated there. His two predecessors, Archbishops Werner Thissen and Ludwig Averkamp were both consecrated as auxiliary bishop of Münster. Of the two current auxiliaries of Hamburg, Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke was an auxiliary of Osnabrück until he was transferred to Hamburg when it was created as a diocese in 1994. Bishop Norbert Werbs began as auxiliary bishop of the Apostolic Administration of Schwerin, which became part of Hamburg, also in 1994.

With the first consecration of a Hamburg archbishop in his own new territory, the choice of consecrators is not dictated by tradition. Archbishop-elect Heße will, somewhat surprisingly, not be consecrated by his predecessor, Archbishop Thissen. Instead, Osnabrück’s Bishop Franz-Josef Bode will be the first consecrator. This choice is fitting as Hamburg and Osnabrück are closely related: the latter is a suffragan diocese of Hamburg and a great deal of its former territory is now part of the archdiocese.

Co-consecrators will be the aforementioned Bishop Norbert Werbs, auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, and Rainer Cardinal Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, where Archbishop-elect Heße was born and where he most recently was vicar general.

Photo credit: Klaus Bodig / HA

Pentecost – new priests in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands

ordinationIn the time during and following Pentecost, the dioceses in Northwestern Europe generally get new priests, as seminarians are ordained during this time in which the Church remembers and celebrates the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles and His continuing work in the Church today.

The ordinations are spread out across the entire month of June, with the first batch having taken place last weekend. On 6 June, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordained Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28) for the Diocese of Essen, and on Sunday the 7th the vast majority followed, with 5 new priests in Aachen, 4 in Berlin, 1 in Dresden-Meiβen, 1 in Erfurt, 3 in Hamburg, 2 in Münster, 2 in Osnabrück, 5 in Paderborn and also 5 in Würzburg. Additionally, 6 transitional deacons were ordained in München und Freising, as well as 2 permanent deacons in Trier.

On Monday the 9th, the first of a number of ordinations in the Netherlands took place, of Father Ton Jongstra in ‘s Hertogenbosch. He was ordained for the Focolare movement. On Saturday, 14 June, 2 new priests will be ordained for Haarlem-Amsterdam and 1 for Roermond. On the same day, in Würzburg, two Franciscan priests will be ordained. On 21 June, one priest will be ordained for Utrecht.

Lastly, on the 22nd, 2 new priests will be ordained for Mechelen-Brussels, one transitional deacon for Bruges on the 25th, and a final new priest for Ghent on the 29th

All in all, we’re looking at 41 new priests, 7  transitional deacons and 2 permanent deacons in the dioceses of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The youngest priest is 25-year-old Fr. Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst, to be ordained for the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam; most senior is 63-year-old Fr. Joost Baneke, Archdiocese of Utrecht. The average age is 33 for the priests and 34 for the deacons.

Most new priests and deacons come from the dioceses for which they are ordained, but some have come from abroad. Fr. Alberto Gatto (Berlin) comes from Italy, Fr. Przemyslaw Kostorz (Dresdem-Meiβen) from Poland, Fr. Mario Agius (Haarlem-Amsterdam) from Malta, Fr. Jules Lawson (Hamburg) from Togo, Fr. Jiji Vattapparambil (Münster) from India, and Fr. Alejandro Vergara Herrera  (Roermond) from Chile.

Below an overview of names, dates and the like of the latest influx of men who will administer that most necessary of services to the faithful: the sacrament of the Eucharist.

6 June:

Diocese of Essen: Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordains Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28).

7 June:

Diocese of Aachen: Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff ordains Fathers Matthias Goldammer (27), David Grüntjens (26), Achim Köhler (40), Michael Marx (30) and Andreas Züll (38).

Archdiocese of Berlin: Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki ordains Fathers Alberto Gatto (40), Bernhard Holl (33), Johannes Rödiger (33) and Raphael Weichlein (31).

Diocese of Dresden- Meiβen: Bishop Heiner Koch ordains Father Przemyslaw Kostorz (27).

Diocese of Erfurt: Bishop Reinhard Hauke ordains Father Andreas Kruse (44).

Diocese of Fulda: Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen ordains Father Markus Agricola.

hamburg, jaschke, priests

^Archdiocese of Hamburg: Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke ordains Fathers Heiko Kiehn (33), Roland Keiss (29) and Jules Lawson (47).

Archdiocese of München und Freising: Reinhard Cardinal Marx ordains transitional Deacons Alois Emslander (29), Johannes Kappauf (28), Manuel Kleinhans (30), Michael Maurer (28), Martin Reichert (26) and Simon Ruderer (30).

Diocese of Münster: Bishop Felix Genn ordains Fathers Jiji Vattapparambil (35) and Thomas Berger (38).

Diocese of Osnabrück: Bishop Franz-Josef Bode ordains Fathers Hermann Prinz (44) and Kruse Thevarajah (29).

Archdiocese of Paderborn: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker ordains Fathers Christof Graf (28), Markus Hanke (41), Stefan Kendzorra (29), Tobias Kiene (28) and Raphael Steden (26).

Diocese of Trier: Bishop Stephan Ackermann ordains permanent Deacons Hans Georg Bach (59) and Michael Kremer (51).

Diocese of Würzburg: Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann ordains Fathers Andreas Hartung (31), Sebastian Krems (38), Paul Reder (42), Michael Schmitt (31) and Simon Schrott (29).

9 June:

Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch/Focolare movement: Bishop Jan van Burgsteden ordains Father Ton Jongstra (56).

14 June:

Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam: Bishop Jan Hendriks ordains Fathers Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst (25) and Mario Agius (31).

Diocese of Roermond: Bishop Frans Wiertz ordains Father Alejandro Vergara Herrera (34).

Diocese of Würzburg/ Franciscans: Bishop Firedhelm Hoffman ordains Fathers Martin Koch (33) and Konrad Schlattmann (28).

21 June:

Archdiocese of Utrecht: Wim Cardinal Eijk ordains Father Joost Baneke (63).

22 June:

Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels: Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard ordains Fathers Gaëtan Parein (37) and Denis Broers (54).

25 June:

Diocese of Bruges: Bishop Jozef De Kesel ordains transitional Deacon Matthias Noë (24).

29 June:

Diocese of Ghent: Bishop Luc Van Looy ordains Father Herbert Vandersmissen (32).

Photo credit: [1] ordinations in Aachen, Andreas Steindl, [2] new priests of Hamburg, K. Erbe