For Berlin, a Synod Father

kochWith the appointment of Bishop Heiner Koch to Berlin, the German capital has an archbishop again after an almost eleven-month vacancy. He leaves the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, a suffragan of Berlin, vacant after less than two-and-a-half years, making it on of two empty sees in Germany, the other being Limburg.

Who is Archbishop-elect Heiner Koch? Like his predecessor in Berlin, Cardinal Woelki, he was born in the Archdiocese of Cologne, in Düsseldorf. He is less than a week away from his 61st birthday, has been a priest for 35 years (he was ordained on his 26th birthday in 1980) and a bishop for nine years. He is the third archbishop of Berlin, but the tenth ordinary since Berlin became a diocese in 1930. Six of his predecessors were made cardinals.

heiner kochThe new archbishop studied Catholic theology, philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Bonn and is a Doctor of Theology. After his ordination, he was attached to parishes in Kaarst and in Cologne itself (at the cathedral since 1993). He was also school pastor at the Heinrich Heine University in his native Düsseldorf, and in 1989 he started working in the vicariate general of the Archdiocese of Cologne, which probably set him on track to become a bishop. Made a Chaplain of His Holiness in 1993 and Honorary Prelate in 1996, now-Msgr. Koch was made the subsitute for the vicar general in 2002. In the same year he led the preparations for World Youth Day 2005, which took place in 2005.

The next year, he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Cologne, with the titular see of Ros Cré in Ireland. Bishop Koch was responsible for pastoral area South, as well as for the non-German speaking faithful of the archdiocese. In the German Bishops’ Conference, this extended to the pastoral care for Germans abroad.

In 2013, in one of his last appointments as such, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Koch as bishop of Dresden-Meißen, at the opposite end of the country. A year later, the German bishops chose him to head the Commission for Marriage and Family, which made sure he was also chosen as one of the country’s three delegates to this year’s assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

heiner kochThe Synod, then… In the entire saga about the German bishops and the Synod, Archbishop Koch has been one of the main players. He will attend the Synod with Osnabrück’s Bishop Bode and Cardinal Marx, and he also took part in what some have called the “shadow Synod” in Rome with representatives of the French and Swiss episcopates. But it is unfair to call the archbishop a liberal in matters of marriage, family and sexuality. In 2012, he stated that debating certain topics that have been authoritatively decided upon by the magisterium of the Pope and bishops is only “frustrating and ineffective”. “A productive and creative conversation,” he said, “is only possible on the basis of our mutual faith and our mutual understanding of what it means to be a Church.” More recently, Archbishop Koch has been accused of being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. In an interview in Feruary, he said:

“The questions is if we can’t allow faithful who have been divrced and remarried and are deeply pious to receive the Eucharist under certain conditions. That could take place, for example, after a long conversation with a confessor. We should consider such questions.”

His focus, however, is more on the question of how the Church can be close to people in that situation: not so much doctrine, but pastoral care, as he explained later.

In an interview on the occasion of his appointment to Dresden-Meißen, Archbishop Koch explained his priorities in relating to people, which perhaps also explain why some would falsely think that he is not overly concerned with doctrine:

“I don’t want to start with showing people the ethical consequences wihout them first knowing the reasons for them in the faith. I want to speak to them about God. I want to listen to them and hear what they can tell me about God in their lives.”

This attitude comes to the fore more often, when Archbishop Koch says that difficult questions are not resolved via headlines, but via conversations and encounters with people.

In the same interview, he also explained the Church’s position on same-sex marriages:

“The Church is convinced that a child needs a father and a mother. I also know that there are married couples which neglect children, and homosexual coupes who love them. But that does not change the fact that the family consisting of father, mother and children is a great wealth for all, not least in their gender differences. God created people as man and woman. Together they reflect the fullness of the divine life. There is not consensus in society, but that does not mean that we should abandon this position”.

220px-Karte_Erzbistum_BerlinThe future in Berlin. As archbishop in the German capital (with equal pastoral responsibility for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, as well as eastern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), Archbishop Koch will increasingly be at the heart of the action for both state and Church. In a reflection of recent political history after the reunification, when Germany’s political institutions moved from Bonn  to Berlin, the German Bishops’ Conference has long been considering moving their offices to Berlin as well. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, also resides in that city. As mentioned above, six of his predecessors (including the five immediate ones) were made cardinals, so we may see a second Cardinal Koch (in addition to Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) at some point. Archbishop Koch is young enough to wear the red with influence. But even in purple he will have his work cut out for him.

His predecessor, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, quickly established himself as a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis: close to the margins of immigrants and workers. Archbishop Koch will probably have little problems taking that attitude on as well. The Archdiocese of Berlin is twice the size of Dresden-Meißen, but has about the same number of Catholic faithful. It is in the process of merging parishes to better serve these faithful, which is a sensitive process to lead for any bishop.

More to come…

Proclaiming the faith, not building churches

eijk lourdesIn an interview during the final day of the archdiocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes, Cardinal Wim Eijk once again said what the need to close church buildings should actualy lead to: not anger and protest, but renewed communities of faith. RKK reports.

“Jesus said to proclaim to faith. He did not tell us to build churches everywhere.”

And while churches have an important function, they are not what our faith is about. We find it in the sacraments and in the community of faith, and these are not limited to buildings.

“If we continue like this, the Church will be like a Christmas tree. At some point all the needles will have fallen, and that’s it, the Church quietly passes away.”

It’s a painful necessity to close some churches, but it is a bishop’s duty to look ahead and make sure that what has been entrusted to him will also be there for future generations. Not buildings, but faith. When there is anger, conscious misrepresentations and even schism, faith withers away. We must aways keep this future in mind, even when the here and now is painful and makes us feel misunderstood. Our faith is an optimistic one, and we must have the confidence to work with what has been given to us, even if we sometimes wish we had a little more at our disposal.

Cardinal Eijk also mentions how he deals with the anger and criticism levelled against him:

“As a follower of Christ you must sometimes also be willing to make sacrifices. When you are confident in faith that this is the right way, you’ll just have to do it. You must be willing to do so. Jesus himself was also heavily criticised. I find a true support in the life of Jesus, but also the life of St. Bernadette. I consider it a source of inspiration. In order to achieve something in life, you’ll have to overcome some obstacles. But I have faith that God will give me the strength to do so, and I also pray for that.”

Doing more with less – how to face the challenge of church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkI recently made my Dutch-language blogging debut over at Broodje Paap, and the subject of that first post – how to respond to necessary church closing and parish mergers – remains topical. Today, Cardinal Wim Eijk, target of much criticism and often seen as personally responsible for the decline of Catholic life in his Archdiocese of Utrecht – personally reacted on Radio 1 (a very welcome development in itself – we need to see and hear our bishops in the media more often).

In his radio interview, Cardinal Eijk laid out the facts that caused him to make disconcerting predictions of more than 90% of the Catholic churches in the archdiocese closing in the next 20 years. Some of his critics have presented this prediction as active policy on the cardinal’s part, but, as the cardinal said today, he doesn’t like it any more than we do. But we can’t close our eyes to the facts.

The Church in the Netherlands is, by and large, old. There are young people, of course, but in many churches and parishes, the elderly are in majority. This has an effect on finances and prospects for the future. With ever-decreasing financial contributions from the faithful, parishes and dioceses must look to savings and investments, and those can’t last forever. Some parishes – the cardinals expects that the vast majority – will at one point have to consider if they can afford the upkeep of all their church buildings, for example. Maintenance, electricity, heating… these are not free. It is unavoidable that churches will have to be closed, and this calls for new efforts on the part of the faithful.

And that, in my opinion, is what we must really focus on. Without denying or ignoring the pain of a community losing the church where they worshipped, got married, prayed, celebrated Mass, said goodbye to their loved ones, formed a community, this closing must in the end invite us to a renewal.

A renewal of faith, of active Catholic life, perhaps outside the familiar boundaries of church building and even parish or diocese. What form this can take, I don’t know, but when we limit ourselves to finger-pointing and anger, it will certainly take no form at all.

A first step in this process is communication, which is not only speaking, but also listening. The priests and bishops who find themselves in these situations must listen to and acknowledge the pain the faithful share with them, as well as their suggestions and ideas. And likewise the faithful must listen to and acknowledge the efforts of priests and bishops to make the best of a bad situation and ideally work with them to achieve that. It is important to remember that, as Catholics, we are all on the same side.

A second step, which is closely linked to the communication I outlined above, can be an openness to the faith that the Church wants to teach and share with us. Our faith is bigger than our own desires and opinions. We can’t allow ourselves to remain closed in by those, but we must be open to Christ, His teachings, His sacraments, His Church, whatever form it may take at this moment in time. Some things, after all, are more fundamental to our faith than others. Buildings and parishes boundaries do not make our faith, the person of Christ – and all He gives us through His Church and those He has appointed to minister to the faithful – does.

In the end, I don’t  think that church closing force us to become something new and unheard of. Rather, we are invited to return to the essence of our faith. That does not require that we do less, but rather more with fewer means. Each one of us needs to make an effort. Only looking to our priests and bishops to do something is irresponsible. We must all act, together, as Catholic Christians.

Our faith is positive. Let us remain so as well.

The balance of the liturgy – Bishop Hofmann’s thoughts on our worship of God

In an interview for katholisch.de, Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann sheds some light on his thoughts on liturgy in the Church today. Bishop Hofmann, ordinary of the Diocese of Würzburg, is chairman of the Liturgy Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference.

hofmann

Regarding the celebration of the liturgy, he sees the need for a balance between what the liturgy itself needs and what the faithful need:

“It is very important to me to carefully prepare for the liturgy and also celebrate it as such. The conscious awareness of signs, the meaningful involvement of space and music, the careful selection of texts and the quality of preaching contribute greatly to that. On the other hand, we should not tire of reintroducing people to the liturgy and also explaining it. In my opinion, this still happens far too little.”

Bishop Hofmann also identifies a problem with explaining the liturgy, namely the fact that it relates in its essence to the mystery of God.

“The mystery of the liturgy is the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus and His presence in the service. This is about a mystery of faith and not the rituals! Intelligibility is necessary in the proclamation. In prayer and in meditation. In the variety of signs not everything can or needs to be immediately understandable, but can develop little by little.”

Interesting too, are his comments about the so-called “event liturgies” which, at least in part, rely on spectacle and draw large crowds to bring the message across.

“I need the unhurried and regular liturgy, which carries, supports and converts me, for my daily faith. In addition to that, special services with an “event character”, can be quite helpful and give once again a special incentive. Some people find access to the regular forms of services through the events, and for some the event is also enough. In order to reach people in their search for God, we need them both and the must also exist in relation to one another.”

This may be true perhaps, but the liturgy itself must also be considered, as it revolves not around the preferences of people, but the worship of God. Events can too easily become only about people, a solely horizontal affair, so to speak. God may be found in silence, not in loud music and spectacle, although these may, by providing a contrast, perhaps help in pointing the way to Him.

“[The liturgy] must at the same be of good quality, traditional and in various ways new. The liturgy requires many forms and diverse places. We also need our Church to be a place of identity and of faith. We also need the liturgy in daily life and in the places we live.”

Bishop Hofmann seems to be proposing the liturgy as a sort of balancing act between old and new, between tradition and innovation, but always done well. While this leaves open the question of exactly what should be new and what traditional, the need for quality is certainly a good one. The worship of God is not something we do on the side. In return for His gifts to us we give Him the best we have: our time, our focus, our hearts and minds. In the liturgy of the Mass God comes closest to us, and we should be ready and open to His closeness.

Photo credit: picture alliance / dpa

True progress – back in line with the Church at Nijmegen’s student chaplaincy

In 2012 the diocese did it at one university and now it is preparing to do it at a second. A return to the Catholic fold seems imminent for the student chaplaincy at Nijmegen’s Radboud University.

bodarFr. Antoine Bodar, media personality but also appointed to manage the contacts with schools and universities in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, is looking ahead to the upcoming retirement of Fr. Theo Koster, the current student chaplain in Nijmegen. And things will be a bit different after he retires in 18 months. A new priest who, in his teaching, will be more in line with the Catholic faith, for one.

The situation seems very similar to the one I described earlier regarding the Maranatha church in Tilburg (see the link above): a liberal approach to the faith of the Church, and actions that are not in line with that faith (the media picks out the blessing of homosexual unions, but also the distribution of Communion to non-Catholics). Of course a change was going to come at some time.

Some call this is a return to conservatism, but Fr. Bodar claims this is in fact a progressive step, calling the situation is it exists now a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The Church should be clear about her faith, even if there are sometimes tensions between that faith and our personal conscience. A priest should not share his personal opinions in the Mass and other celebrations, but the word of God and the teaching of the Church. He is not there for himself, but with a mission from the Church: the share the Gospel, to welcome and teach in the name of Christ, instead of his own name. Does that mean that some people are suddenly not welcome in the student chaplaincy? Of course not, but everyone deserves to be treated as adult and intelligent individuals who don’t need to be talked down to. Present our faith in its entirety, and not according to an interpretation fueled by personal preference, just to make things easy. Life is not easy, a university education is not easy. Neither should our faith always be. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, questions allows for better understanding.

EDIT 18-12: In commentaries today both Fr. Bodar and the chaplaincy council have underlined that there is no intention of firing Fr. Koster or actively changing the praxis at the chaplaincy, but that the normal process of retirement of a priest, as provided for in canon law, would result in said changes. Fr. Koster will offer his resignation to the bishop when he reaches the age of 75 and the diocese will launch the appointment procedure for a new priest. The confusion regarding blessings of homosexual relations, which exist now, will then be removed.Fr. Bodar stresses the importance of clear communication of the faith of the Church. This includes avoiding confusion. Those in the know will realise that a blessing is not the same as performing same-sex marriages, but for outsiders it is a different matter.

Both parties offered these commentaries after Fr. Bodar said that certain media incorrectly quoted his words from an interview about this subject.

Honest Thomas – some thoughts about today’s saint

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.

“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

thomasRich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him”  (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.

Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.

Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.

That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.

Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.

A recognisable path – Atheist “painter of the Pope” enters the Church

A recognisable story via Kath.net today. Painter Michael Triegel from Leipzig, once an atheist, entered the Church last Easter, and it was Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who helped him cross the Tiber. Triegel became known in Catholic circles in 2010, when he was commissioned by the Diocese of Regensburg – then still headed by Bishop Gerhard Müller, now the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a personal friend of the retired Pope – to paint an official portrait of Benedict.

michael-triegel-2010-11-20-7-0-23

^Triegel and the portrait he made, photographed in 2010.

Triegel himself doesn’t make a fuss about his conversion, although he recognises it is not something that happens every day. “You would not believe how often I have been asked over the past years, if I wanted to be baptised. There must have been telephone calls in higher Catholic circles, asking whether Triegel had already joined.” He was the atheist who painted the Pope, which made for juicy headlines. “Now I’m just an East German artist entering the Church. Also not exactly commonplace.”

What made him reach the momentous decision to receive the sacrament of Baptism was Benedict’s writings. “[These]  were important, his theory that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other. For me that was the breaking point. […] I foudn that faith entered my heart via my mind.”

Like I said, a recognisable story. My introduction to the faith and subsequent entrance into the Church coincided almost exactly with the start of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He was elected in April of 2005, I first attended Mass in that year’s Advent. His magisterium has been instrumental in my discovery of the Church and the faith, and so also my personal development as a Catholic. Mr. Triegel’s “breaking point”, that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other, was also a major discovery for me. It shone through in all I read from Pope Benedict XVI, especially when I started blogging in 2010.

On the occasion of his Baptism, Triegel said, “When one concerns itself for 30 years with the true, the good, the beautiful and even with religion, it can’t remain without any consequences whatsoever. For me, now is the time to be baptised.”

[EDIT} I have added a translation of the complete interview that Michael Triegel gave to Die Zeit.