The faith in Africa grows because its people are backwards, German editor insists

In the margins of Pope Francis’ current apostolic journey to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, an opinion piece on by editor Björn Odendahl has caused a stir, and not without reason. It betrays a simplistic, even derogatory attitude towards African faithful, and has caused some to accuse Odendahl of outright racism.

Odendahl discusses Pope Francis’ well-known focus on the margins of society, be it nearby (the homeless, sick and elderly of western society) or further afield (the booming Church communities in Africa, for example), and he contrasts these with the centre, struck as it is with complacency, wealth, defeatism even. But, Odendahl says, the Pope is not always right in these comparisons, and displays a romantic view of poverty.

His view on Africa, Odendahl explains, is an example of that romantic view. The paragraph in question:

“Of course the Church is growing there. She grows because the people are socially behind and often have nothing but their faith. She grows because the level of education is generally low and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions (of faith). Answers like those from Guinean Cardinal Sarah. And the increasing number of priests is not due solely to missionary power, but it is also one of the sole means of social security on the black continent.”

The tone of the passage is insulting enough, and the big question is if any of this is accurate. Pope Francis is currently in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and will soon depart for Kampala in neighbouring Uganda. Neither city fits the image that Odendahl paints in his article: they are major cities, the economic hearts of their respective countries, with major companies, facilities and educational institutions. Granted, like their western counterparts, Nairobi and Kampala have their share of poverty and marginalised people. But in Odendahl’s mind, it seems, many of their inhabitants should be backwards, socially helpless and simple-minded, because they are enthusiastically and faithfully Catholic. Which is, quite frankly, an insult.


^A group of backwards, simplistic people await the arrival of Pope Francis in Kenya. Note: this may not be a realistic and truthful description.

In addition to this opinion on African Catholics, there is another strange tendency in Odendahl’s piece: he seems to equate the growth of the Church and the adherence to faith with social backwardness and lack of education and development. In modern societies, like Germany, faith is unavoidably disappearing because people are intelligent and socially progressive, we are apparently asked to conclude.

In short, Odendahl’s piece is simplistic, backwards (exactly what he accuses the African faithful of) and insulting to an extreme.

The opinion piece, in which an author must, by definition, have a certain measure of freedom, was published on This is the Internet portal of the Church in Germany which cooperates with the German dioceses, religious orders and other institutions, although it is not the official mouthpiece of these. It employs editors and reporters and makes use of the freedom of press to inform, report in depth and give opinions. It is not run by the bishops (who have the website of the bishops’ conference,, for that), but they do work closely with them, making one  of the major exclusively Catholic voices in Germany.

Can the bishops be held responsible for this piece? No. Would it be wise for them to denounce it? Yes, very much so.

To the German bishops, Pope Francis speaks plainly

In a very straightforward address, Pope Francis today spoke to the German bishops, in Rome for their Ad Limina visit. His blunt summary of the faith in Germany: “[O]ne  can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.”


The 67 German bishops had already met in smaller groups with the Pope in two meetings yesterday, but today they wrapped up their Ad Limina visit with a final audience with the Holy Father, in which Pope Francis not only discussed the issues facing the Church in Germany, but also the path towards solutions.

Like his words to the Dutch bishops in 2013, he once again warned against resignation and an exclusive focus on institutionalisation. “It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which puts its trust in administrative structures, in perfect organizations. Excessive centralization, rather than helping, complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamics,”Pope Francis said.

What is the solution then? First of all, a focus on people instead of inanimate objects and institutions, but also a  renewal of the sacraments of Confession, marriage, Eucharist and the priesthood. In that context, he said, “the precious collaboration of the laity, especially in those places where vocations are missing, cannot become a surrogate for the ministerial priesthood, or give it the semblance of being simply optional.”

Bishops, he added, must also never tire of protecting life “unconditionally from conception to natural death”. To fail in doing so, Pope Francis explained, makes one guilty of being part of a throw-away culture.

We may gather from these words that the very solution to the problem of dwindling knowledge of and participation in the faith lies exactly in that faith itself: in its sacraments, its teachings and the fullness of life it leads us to.

Pope Francis expressed his appreciation for the German Church’s efforts on behalf of refugees. “In the spirit of Christ, we must continue to meet the challenge of the great number of people in need,” he said.

The translation of the full remarks of Pope Francis follows:

“Dear brothers,

It is a joy for me to be able to greet you here at the Vatican on the occasion of your Ad Limina visit. The pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles is an important moment in the life of any bishop. It represents a renewal of the bond with the universal Church, which progresses through time and space as the pilgrim People of God, by carrying the heritage of faith through the centuries and to all peoples. I warmly thank the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for his kind words of greeting. At the same I want to express my gratitude to you for supporting my Petrine ministry with your prayer and your work. I especially thank you also for the great support that the Church in Germany offers, through your many aid organisations, to people all over the world.

We are currently living in an extraordinary period of time. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have come or are on their way to Europe, looking for shelter from war and persecution. The Christian churches and many individual citizens of your country are making an enormous effort to take these people in and give them support and human closeness. In the spirit of Christ we constantly want to face the challenge posed by the large number of those seeking help. At the same time we support all humanitarian initiatives to make the situation of life in the countries of origin tolerable again.

The Catholic communities in Germany clearly differ between east and west, but also between north and south. Everywhere the Church is professionally engaged in the social and charitable field, and she is also very active in education. It is important to ensure that the Catholic profile is maintained in these areas. In that way they are a not to be underestimated positive factor for the building of a sustainable society. On the other hand, precisely in the traditionally Catholic areas a strong decline in Sunday church attendance and sacramental life can be seen. Whereas in the 1960s every second believer generally went to Holy Mass on Sunday, today this number is often less than 10 percent. The sacraments are increasingly less used. Confession is often disappeared. Fewer and fewer Catholics let themselves be confirmed or enter into the sacrament of marriage. The number of vocations to the service of the priesthood and to religious life has drastically decreased. In the face of these facts, we can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.

What can we do about that? First of all it is necessary to overcome a paralysing resignation. It is certainly not possible to build something on the flotsam and jetsam of the “good old days” that have been. But we can  certainly draw inspiration from the life of the early Christians. Let us think of Prisca and Aquila, the loyal co-workers of Saint Paul. As a married couple they proclaimed with convincing words (cf. Acts 18:26), but above all with their lives, that the truth, founded in the love of Christ for His Church, is truly believable. They opened their house for the proclamation and drew strength for their mission from the Word of God. In the face of a tendency for a progressive institutionalisation of the Church, the example of these “volunteers” may give us pause to think. New structures keep being created, but the faithful are lacking. It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which leads to us putting our trust in administration, in the perfect apparatus. But an excessive centralisation only complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic, instead of helping her (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 32). The Church is not a closed system, constantly revolving around the same questions and puzzles. The Church is alive, she responds to local people, she can make restless and stimulate. She has a face, which is not rigid. She is a Body that moves, grows and has feelings. And this belongs to Jesus Christ.

The current need is for pastoral reorientation, and also “to make [the structures of the Church] more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (Evangelii gaudium, 27). Certainly, the conditions are not necessarily favourable in modern society. A measure of worldliness still prevails. Worldliness deforms souls and stifles the awareness of reality.

A worldly person lives in a world he has created himself. He surrounds himself, so to speak, with tinted windows, so as not to have to look outside. It is difficult to reach such people. But on the other hand, our faith tells us that God is always the first to act. This certainty leads us to prayer. We pray for all men and women in our city, in our diocese, and we also pray for ourselves, that God will send a beam of His love’s light and, through the tinted windows, touch hearts and help them understand His message. We must be with the people, with the glow of those who have first accepted the Gospel. And “[w]henever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new”” (Evangelii gaudium, 11). In this way, alternative paths and forms of catechesis can arise, which can help young people and families to rediscover authentically and with joy the general faith of the Church.

In this context of the new evangelisation it is imperative that the bishop, in the various fields of his pastoral ministry, scrupulously perform his duty as teacher of the faith, the faith handed down and lived in the living community of the universal Church. Like a caring father the bishop will accompany the theological faculties and help the students to keep the ecclesial significance of their mission in mind. Faithfulness to the Church and the magisterium does not deny academic freedom, but requires an attitude of willingness towards the gifts of God. The principle of sentire cum Ecclesia must especially honour those who educate and form the younger generations. The presence of Catholic faculties at state educational institutions is therefore an opportunity to advance the dialogue with society. Utilise also the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt with its Catholic faculty and the various scientific departments. As the sole Catholic university in your country this institute is of great value for all of Germany and an appropriate application by the entire Bishops’ Conference would be desirable, to strengthen its national importance and to promote the interdisciplinary exchange of views on issues of the present and the future, in the spirit of the Gospel.

When we then take a look at the parish, the community in which the faith is most often visible and lived, so the bishop must especially keep the sacramental life close to his heart. Two points need to be emphasised here: Confession and the Eucharist. The forthcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy offers the opportunity to rediscover the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Confession is where one is given God’s forgiveness and mercy. In Confession the conversion of individual faithful and the reform of the Church begins. I am confident that in the coming Holy Year and afterwards this sacrament, so important for spiritual renewal, is taken into account more often in the pastoral plans of dioceses and parishes. Likewise, it is necessary to make the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the priesthood always clearly visible. Pastoral plans which do not attach due importance to the ordained priests in their service of directing, teaching and sanctifying in connection to the building up of the Church and sacramental life, are, according to experience, doomed to failure. The valuable assistance of lay Christians in the life of the communities, especially there where vocations are sadly lacking, can not replace the priestly service or even make it appear optional. Without priests there is no Eucharist. Pastoral care of vocations begins with the desire for priests in the hearts of the faithful. An assignment of the bishop, which can not be overestimated, is ultimately the openness to life. The Church must not tire of being an advocate for life and must make no concessions on the fact that human life must be fully protected from conception to natural death. We can not make any compromises here without ourselves becoming complicit in the sadly widespread throwaway culture. How great are the wounds that our society has suffered because of the exclusion and discarding of the weakest and most defenseless – unborn life as well as the old and sick! We are all its victims.

Dear brothers, I wish that the meetings that you are having with the Roman Curia in these days will enlighten for you the path with your particular Churches in the coming years and help you to ever better fulfill your beautiful and pastoral mission. So that, with joy and confidence you can accomplish your valued and indispensable cooperation in the mission of the universal Church. I continue to ask for your prayer, that with God’s help I can exercise my Petrine ministry, and similarly, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Blesseds and Saints of your country. I gladly give you and the faithful of your dioceses the Apostolic Blessing.”

The tension between doctrine and reality – Cardinal Marx’s intervention

Earlier today we had a short Synod intervention from Cardinal Danneels, and now one of the longest, from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. It’s also one of the most fearless, as the German cardinal talks about some of the topics that he has been criticised heavily for: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and graduality.

Like the intervention of Bishop Bode, Cardinal Marx’s text is based heavily on the life experiences of the faithful concerned. And while it is essential for the Church to meet people where they are, I do miss the essential aspect of our faith: that is a revelation faith. Its foundation is objective truth, and while the way we relate to that truth, communicate it and help people achieve it (acknowledged by Cardinal Marx as he discusses our call to holiness) can and should vary according to circumstances, that truth does and can not. In the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful (a circumstance consequently referred to in this intervention as only possible when we are talking about civil divorce and marriage) this is something that we must keep in mind. It defines what we can do pastorally.

Anyway, the intervention. The original German text is here.

marxFifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council once again made the Gospel a source of inspiration for the life of individuals and society. The same is true for the “Gospel of the family” (Pope Francis). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (GS) it developed a doctrine of marriage which was further developed by the Popes after the Council. Even when the Council did not the answer all the questions which concern us now, it did lay a theological foundation which helps us to answer our current questions.

The Council understands marriage as an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS, 48) and develops the doctrine of marriage in the context of a theology of love. The love between man and woman “is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage”. This love “pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater” (GS, 49). The Council emphasises that this love between man and woman requires the institutional and legal framework of marriage, to develop and keep it permanently in good and bad days. Not in the last place does the institution of marriage serve the wellbeing of children (cf. GS, 50).

With the help of this theology of love and also the theology of the covenant, which can only be insufficiently outlined here, the Council succeeded in making the sacramentality of marriage understandable again. Marital love becomes an image of the love of Christ for His Church and the place where the love of Christ becomes tangible. In order to also express this connection between the divine and the human verbally, the Council speaks of the covenant of marriage. Finally, the indissoluble fidelity is an efficacious sign of Christ’s love in this world.

In the end, the Council sees human sexuality as an expression of love and suggests a new direction in sexual ethics. “This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will” (GS, 49). To this richness belong without doubt also, but not only, the conception and education of children. For the Council fathers expressly emphasise that marriage without children also “persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility”(GS, 50).

It is this Synod of Bishops’ task to deepen and develop this theology of respectively love and the covenant, which the Council has established in basic features, but which is not yet completely reflected in canon law, with an eye on the current challenges in the pastoral care regarding marriage and family. I would like to focus on two challenges: marriage preparation and guidance, and the question of reasonably dealing with those faithful whose marriage has failed and those – not a few – who have divorced and are civilly remarried.

It is no coincidence that the Council speaks of growing in love. That is true for living together in marriage; but it is equally so for the time of preparation for marriage. Pastoral care should be developed which shows clearer than before the travelling aspect of being Christian, also in relation to marriage and family. We are all called to holiness (cf. Lumen gentium, 39), but the road towards holiness only ends on the Last Day, when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. This path is not always straight and does not always lead directly to the intended goal. In other words: the path of life of the spouses has times of intense feelings and times of disappointment, of successful joint projects and failed plans, times of closeness and times of alienation. Often the difficulties and crises, when they are overcome together, are the ones that strengthen and consolidate the marriage bond. The Church’s marriage preparation and guidance can not be determined by moralistic perfectionism. It should not be a program of “all or nothing”. What is more important is that we see the various life situations and experiences of people in a differentiated way. We should look less at what has not (yet) been achieved in life, or perhaps what has thoroughly failed, but more at what has already been achieved. People are usually not motivated by the raised finger to go forward on the road to holiness, but by the outstretched hand. We need pastoral care which values the experiences of people in loving relationships and which is able to awaken a spiritual longing. The sacrament of marriage should in the first place be proclaimed as a gift that enriches and strengthens marriage and family life, and less as an ideal that can not be attained by human achievement. As indispensable as lifelong loyalty is for the development of love, so the sacramentality of marriage should not be reduced to its indissolubility. It is a comprehensive relationship which unfolds.

The moment of receiving the sacrament of marriage is indeed the beginning of the way. The sacrament not only happens at the moment of marrying, in which both spouses express their mutual love and loyalty, but unfolds in the road they take together. Giving shape to common life in marriage is the responsibility of the spouses. The Church’s pastoral care can and should support the spouses, but must respect their responsibility. We should give more space to the consciences of the spouses in proclamation and pastoral care. Certainly, it is the Church’s duty to form the consciences of the faithful, but people’s judgement of conscience can not be replaced. That is especially true in situations in which the spouses must make a decision in a conflict of values, such as when the openness to conceiving children and the preservation of marriage and family life are in conflict with each other.

But appreciative and supportive pastoral care can also not prevent all marriages from failing, spouses from ending their covenant of life and love and separating. The new process of establishing the nullity of a marriage can also not cover all cases in the right way. Often the end of a marriage is neither the result of human immaturity, nor of a lack of willingness in marriage. Dealing with faithful whose marriages have failed and who, often enough, entered a new civil marriage after a civil divorce, remains therefore a pressing pastoral problem in many parts of the world. For many faithful – including those whose marriages are intact – it is a matter of credibility of the Church. I know this from many conversations and letters.

Thankfully, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI left it no doubt that civilly divorced and remarried faithful are also part of the Church, and repeatedly invited them to take an active part in the life of the Church. It is therefore our duty to develop welcoming pastoral care for these faithful and involve them ever more in the life of communities. To them the Church has to witness of the love of Christ, which applies in the first place to those who have failed in their intentions and efforts. For “it is not those who are in health that have need of the physician, it is those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). It is the mission of the Church to heal the wounds caused by the failing of a marriage and the separation of spouses, and show them that God is with them, also in these difficult times. Can we really heal without allowing the sacrament of Reconciliation?

With an eye on the civilly divorced and remarried faithful who take an active part in community life, many faithful ask why the Church refuses them, without exception, participation in sacramental Communion. Many in our communities can not understand how one can be in full community with the Church and at the same time excluded from the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The fact that civilly divorced and remarried faithful objectively live in adultery and as such are in contradiction to what is presented emblematically in the Eucharist, the faithfulness of Christ to His Church, is given as reason. But does this answer do justice to the situation of those concerned? And is it sacramental-theologically compelling? Can people who are considered to be in a situation of grave sin truly have the feeling of belonging completely to us?

In the German Bishops’ Conference we have also occupied ourselves intensively over the past years with the theology and pastoral ministry of marriage and family. We took the Holy Father’s assignment seriously, to think about the topic, discuss and deepen it, in the time between the Synods. The German Bishops’ Conference has organised a day of study about this, together with the Bishops’ Conferences of France and Switzerland, in May of 2015, the contributions of which have also been published. In the theological faculties too, the topics were taken up and debated in biblical-theological, exegetical, canonical and pastoral-theological perspectives. Additionally, there were conversations with theologians and publications. We have learned that the theological work about this must continue in the future.

About the topic of civilly divorced and remarried faithful the German bishops have themselves published in June of last year further considerations and question, which I would like to outline briefly.

Someone who, after the failure of a marriage has entered into a new civil marriage, from which often children were born, has a moral responsibility to the new partner and the children which he or she can not denounce without being burdened with new guilt. Even if a renewal of the previous relationship were possible – which it generally isn’t –  the person concerned finds himself in an objective moral dilemma from which there is no clear moral theological way out. The advise to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship seems unreasonable to many. There is also the question if sexual acts can be judged in isolation from the context of life. Can we assess sexual acts in a second civil marriage as adultery without exception? Independent of an assessment of the particular situation?

In sacramental-theological regard two things should be considered. Can we, in all cases and with a clear conscience, exclude faithful who are civilly divorced and remarried from the sacrament of Reconciliation? Can we refuse them the reconciliation with God and the sacramental experience of the mercy of God even when they sincerely regret their guilt in the failure of marriage? Regarding the question of allowing sacramental Communion, it must be considered that the Eucharist not only makes present the covenant of Christ with His Church, but also always renews it and strengthens the faithful on their way to holiness. The two principles of admission to the Eucharist, namely the testimony of unity of the Church and the participation in the means of grace, can at times be at odds with one another. In the Declaration Unitatis redintegratio (N. 8), the Council says: “Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice”. Beyond ecumenism, this statement is also of fundamental pastoral importance. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium the Holy Father adds, with reference to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness” (N. 47).

Starting from the theological foundations established by the Second Vatican Council we should seriously consider the possibility – based on the individual case and not in a general way – of allowing civilly divorced and remarried faithful to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion, when common life in the canonically valid marriage has definitively failed and this marriage can not be nullified, the commitments of this marriage are settled, there is regret for the guilt of the end of this marital common life and there is the honest will to live the second civil marriage in faith and raise the children in the faith.

Refugees, pastoral care, mercy and a selfie – the German bishops’ plenary has begun

Evidently some of the auxiliary bishops (and one ordinary) have too much time on their hands at the autumn plenary of the German bishops… Time enough to take a bishops selfie.

They may be excused however, as the selfie was taken during the standard photo opp on Tuesday, where all the bishops pose for an updated group photo of the conference (shared at the bottom of this post).

german bishopsFrom left to right: Dominik Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne; Matthias König, auxiliary bishop of Paderborn; Reinhard Pappenberger, auxiliary bishop of Regensburg; Herwig Gössl, auxiliary bishop of Bamberg; Franz-Josef Overbeck, bishop of Essen; Heinz-Günter Bongartz, auxiliary bishop of Hildesheim; and Andreas Kutschke, diocesan administrator of Dresden-Meißen.

Portrait_Hesse_webAt the plenary, which continues until Thursday, the bishops have mainly discussed the refugee crisis in Germany and the role that the Church can play in providing shelter and assistance. It is estimated that dioceses, parishes and Catholic aid organisations have already made close to 100 million euros available for this goal, of which 66.5 million will be spent for projects in Germany itself, while the remained will go to aid projects in countries of origin. The average expenditure in past years was 73 million euros. The bishops have elected Hamburg’s Archbishop Stefan Heße as special envoy for refugee questions beyond the competence and responsibility of individual dioceses. The archbishop’s first focus will be on providing shelter. For that purpose, more than 800 buildings that are property of the Church have already been made available, but that number does not include private initiatives or those of religious communities.

Other topics to be discussed at the plenary are the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy and the Synod of Bishops, now only a few weeks away. Preparations are virtually done by now, so nothing new is expected to come from this plenary.

The conference today released a document focussed on renewing the pastoral care offered in the dioceses. As Bishop Bode, chairman of the pastoral commission, explained, the new document, titled Gemeinsam Kirche sein – Wort der deutschen Bischöfe zur Erneuerung der Pastoral (Being Church together – Words from the German bishops for the renewal of pastoral care) is based on a new reading of the Council documents Gaudium et spes and Lumen gentium, with new developments in society in mind. The document, which also focusses on the common priesthood of the faithful, as well as the ordained priesthood, which both represent the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the various charisms present in the Church, can be downloaded for free or purchased here.

Opening today’s session with the celebration of Mass, Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Woelki gave the homily, in which he spoke about the two major elements in Christ’s public ministry: proclamation and healing, aspects that we are also called to make visible in our Christian life, despite any hesitation or fear we may feel.

woelki32The cardinal also explained that the Church in Germany is materially better off than ever before. She does much, employs many people and is a pillar in society. But that’s not what the Church is: she is a community of faithful.

“And exactly that, the shared content of faith, has largely dissipated into thin air. The fact that only one third of Germans believes in the resurrection of Christ should already worry the Churches somewhat, considering the fact that two thirds of the population are Christian, at least on paper. But it is even worse. Even among the faithful the core content of the Christian message is rejected en masse. 60 percent does not believe in eternal life. In contrast, one German in four believes that encountering a black cat brings bad luck. Between Flensburg and Oberammergau more people believe in UFO’s than in the final judgement. Welcome to the German diaspora. This diaspora, dear sisters and brothers, is no longer far away – in Hildesheim or the east of the republic; this diaspora is our pastoral reality everywhere.


We live in this time. But how do want to work in this time? Today’s Gospel reminds us that we are also sent – just like the young man then – “to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). The aim is to make the Church visible as a witness of God’s mercy.


The aim is to heal the wounds in people’s souls with mercy – that is the purpose of every word of eternal life; and in an unsurpaasable way the incarnate word of eternal life, in which we believe and which alone is decisive in our lives: Jesus Christ, who answered Peter’s question how often one should forgive, “not seven wrongs, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Jesus asks us to forgive and give ourselves, to be tools of forgiveness, since we have first experienced God’s  forgiveness, to be generous to all in the knowledge that God also maintains his good will towards us. In this sense, no one really needs a second shirt – except perhaps as a participant in an autumn plenary meeting of the German bishops – but rather an open heart, that lets itself be moved by the mercy of God.”

german bishops conference

Photo credit: [1] Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp, [3] Ralph Sondermann

Love, trust and Jacob – Archbishop Koch’s homily

In an almost 2,000-word long homily during his installation Mass as archbishop of Berlin, Archbishop Heiner Koch took the figure of Jacob as a starting point to delve into what the love of and for God is. Love is not an emotion, he explained, but a decision, and it is based on trust. And that is the key to experiencing God, as even Jacob, on the run and forced to sleep under the naked sky with a stone for a pillow, discovered.

In my experience, the Old Testament patriarchs, with the possible exception of Moses, rarely feature in homilies. That alone makes this one worth a read. Besides that, it may also help some in thinking about their own relation with God.

koch installation

“Jacob, the supplanter, that is what they called him (cf. Gen. 27:36), and from him we hear in today’s reading. With a lie he had taken the rights of the first born from his brother Esau, and so provoked his vengeance. He had to flee and already on the first night of his flight he had to spend the night under the open sky. Night surrounded him: the night of those who have no home, of those who are guilty, of those who disappointed and alienated others. In that night he took a stone, but not only to rest his head on. He and his contemporaries attributed  a special power to stones, a divine connection: That is why they expected security and shelter from such a stone. In the middle of his night, Jacob trusts on the nearness of God through the power of the stone under his head: “I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I am with you. I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this country, for I shall never desert you” (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). In the middle of the night of his life, a dream reveals to him the closeness of God: In the middle of his homelessness he finds himself at home with God: “This is the abode of God, here God gives him, the refugee, home and security (cf. Gen. 28:17). A second dream breaks the hopelessness of his life: A ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12). Heaven is open for him, despite all his guilt and with all his desperation, powerlessness and homelessness.For him, night becomes a time of awakening is, from all seclusion and darkness.

In the middle of the night Jacob experiences what Christ proclaimed and lived: I, God, love you, man, so much, beyond all boundaries and conditions, I will not leave you. I am and will remain with you. I will be at your side:

If the powerful consider you nothing but a number, I was also a number to the powerful at the time of my birth. I am with you, refugee, as I also had to flee when I was a child. I am with you when people laugh at you, as they laughed at me. I am with you when the strike and make you bleed, as they made me bleed. I am with you, when people think your life is worthless as they did mine. I am with you when there is no room for you in the city, as there was no room for me. Neither do I come down from the Cross and leave the thief there to die. My love is without limits, my love will not leave you, man, alone: not you, Jacob, the supplanter, not the thief on the Cross and not the people and not you today.

That is the heart of the good new that we Christian far and wide vouch for: Christ the Saviour is here! You can rely on Him. He is the fundamental reason for our joy: “Gaudete semper! Dominus prope. Always be joyful! The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:4,5). I took these words from Saint Paul as the motto of my episcopal service. God doesn’t come sometimes, He is here: here and now, in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Köpenick, in Potsdam and Greifswald, Brandenburg an der Havel or Frankfurt an der Oder, always and forever, in peace and suffering, in joy and need, when I am aware of His closeness and when He seems far from me, in life and in death: He is and remains near to us.  Setting no limits to human life! That is what we Christians must stand for, also when we are not supported from all sides.

This message changes everything: what perspective on life it opens, far beyond the limits of the tangible world and beyond death. Christians are people of a wide horizon, who will not be bound by circumstances of the here and now. What hope and confidence, especially in the dark times of life, may break forth from this experience of God’s closeness!

Such commitment is there, but also challenge: Leave no one ever alone: neither the unborn child, nor the homeless, the failed, the sick, the disabled, the powerless nor the dying! Set no limits for human life!

Everything, in Berlin, in Brandenburg, in Vorpommern, now depends on learning to see HIM, to discover HIM, to find HIM especially in the darkness of our lives. That is why we are here as Church: to help people discover God in their lives, sometimes in a long struggle, a long process of searching – that is what we are here for as Christians and as Church.

But: is there really such a God? Can I experience Him as a reality or does He prove to be just an empty phrase or ideological superstructure? In answering this question all people, without exception, are believers. Man does not have the choice to be a believer or not. In the decisive questions of life, and especially in the crucial question of God, man encounters his quintessential decision of faith: one believes that there is nothing beyond the visible and understandable world, and the other believes that there is a God beyond our thinking and seeing. One believes that it all ends with death, and the other that death is the portal to eternal life. One believes that God exists and the other that He does not. Everyone lives in faith. In the de facto pursuit of life man can not be indecisive about the question of God: Either he prays to God or he doesn’t. He either struiggles with God or not, either God means something in his life, or He does not. His concrete, practical life provides the answer to the question of his faith: “Do you believe that there is a God, or do you believe that there is no God?”

With that also comes the questions: “Can I perceive, see, recognise God today? Can I experience and learn to see Him like Jacob did?”

The story of Jacob provides the answer: You will see Him when you build on Him, when you trust on Him. Trust broadens the outlook, mistrust on the other hand blinds. That is just as true in politics as in personal life. When two people meet, recognise each other, as Scripture has it, they must trust one another. Precisely that is the leap of faith, it is the leap of my trust. Without such trust there can be no experiencing God. You must dare to live in trust with God, and you will experience that God exists. That is the key to God: your trust.

The theory of science describes this when she says that the object to be studied always defines the method of investigation. A scientific object must be studied with scientific methods and a historical event with historical methods. Carrying this thought over to the knowledge of God: If God is love, He can only be known through love. We see God at the cost of our hearts, our trust. There is no easier way! There can be no knowledge of God outside of my trust.

And then, love is much more than just a feeling, but rather a decision. Especially in difficult times this becomes profoundly clear in terms of God’s love: When I no longer hear antyhing from God, when I can no longer understand Him, no longer grasp Him in my own terms,, when I feel that God is greater than my thoughts and feelings, when I no longer see His path in my hour of need, then precisely these hours become a question to me: Can God rely on my love, even when I don’t see Him? Is the decision of my love for Him so strong that it proves itself in such hours? Do I trust in God even then, and can He rely on me under such a burden? I am always touched when I consider that Christ asked Peter, before he entrust him with his great office, three times, “Do you love me?”(cf. John 21: 15-23). He does not ask, “Do you believe this and do that?” but enquires three times about his love. “Do you love me?” This questions becomes also for us the decisive question about our knowledge of God: “Do you love me?” I am convinced that most people do not know God, as they are unwilling to trust God, to give Him their hearts, their love. But precisely this path is the only path to experience that I am not alone in the days and nights of my life and that my night is therefore thrown open to Easter morning. Give God a chance! Give Him your trust!

And what if we can answer Christ’s question to us, about our love, just as hesitantly as Peter or perhaps even poorer and more pathetic? Let’s look once again at Jakob, the supplanter, with this question. His path with God is not ended, he must continue on, considerably further. Love is never done, love is always searching. I also ask you, the unbaptised, and you, who have another religion, to go with us on this search. We are grateful for your life experiences. You are a great wealth for us with your searching and your meaningful questions about life and faith. We are probably much closer to each other than we think, and perhaps we will discover on our common path not only we are searching for God, but God has already been searching for us, not only that we are looking for God, but that He is looking for us. Perhaps we can help each other in this way to discover this God, who in Paradise already asked man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).

How good it is to recall at such times that our love for God is not the decisive factor,  but God’s love for us, that His love stands firm and is reliable, that He serves us and washes our feet and not we His. Perhaps a small and quick prayer can then also help, such as, “Dear God, do not let me go!”

My dear sisters and brothers! Learning to love God together and through and in Him our sisters and brothers and all people whom God entrusts to us: to proclaim this – as the Gospel tells us today – to be seeds in the hearts of men. That is the great project of our diocese in all its effects on our parishes, communities and institutions! It is the fullness of life and the love of God, from which we all live and which carries us, also with our fractures, which we can often no longer heal. Should we not address these concerns in our time in completely new ways, with new emphases, consequences and focus? The future of the Church is not a carbon copy!

Is this not also the ecumenical path, which I would join and build up consciously and decidedly? Learning to love God, how important is this mutual way for us and our society!

Does this path of love not lead directly to the weak, the poor and disadvantaged of our society, in whom God challenges us and our love? The current need of refugees and their families is for us not just a burning and challenging social question, it becomes question of our faith. Without people in need, awaiting our love, we can not find God, who is love, and we remain blind for his closeness. He is close to us in them!

Dear sisters and brothers, from my heart I want to go this path of learning to love with you. Please come with me on our common path!

+ Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch”

 Photo credit: KNA

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.”