German bishops say yes to Communion for divorced and remarried, but not as a rule

The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference* yesterday published their thoughts about the pastoral care regarding marriage and family in light of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ the Apostolic Exhortation which was released early last year. In it, as several media have already noted, the bishops express their support for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments in certain individual cases. Below, I share my translation of the relevant passage of the text:

dbk logo“Despite all the good intentions of the spouses and in spite of all marriage preparation, it does happen that relationships fail. People find themselves faced with the debris of their relationship-based lives. They suffer because of their failure to fulfill their ideal of a livelong love and relationship. To their own doubts more than enough economic concerns are often added. Especially affected are the children of a failed relationship. In this plight, it is the Church’s duty to accompany people and support them. In many cases this service is provided by the Church’s counselling centres and single-parent ministries. But in daily pastoral care it is necessary to have an even more open ear and heart, thus “encouraging openness to grace” (AL, n. 37).

So we may also answer the question of how the Church should relate to those people who, after a divorce, are civilly remarried and wish to receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist. The indissolubility of marrage is part of the indispensable deposit of the faith of the Church. Amoris laetitia leaves as little doubt about this as about the need for a differentiated view on the respective life situations of people. “[T]here is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”” (AL, n. 296). Amoris laetita highlights the three aspects of accompanying, discerning and integrating as central guiding principles, starting from the basic assessment: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” (AL, n. 297). In life situations which are experienced more often than not as exhausting and stressful, those involved should find that their Church does not forget them. In how we treat the divorced and remarried it must become clear that they belong to the Church, that God does not deprive them of His love and that they are called to love God and their neighbour and be true witnesses of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father clearly emphasises the aspect of accompaniment when he says, “Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (Al, n. 299).

What the Pope means in this regard with accompaniment becomes clear when he maintain in Amoris laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (Al. n. 301). Amoris laetitia does not offer a general rule for this subject and does not allow for an automatic and general access to the sacraments for all divorced and civilly remarried faithful. Amoris laetitia ignores neither the grave guilt that many people in such situations of the breaking and failure of conjugal relationships carry, nor the fact that a second civil marriage denies the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage, even when the person involved was left by is or her spouse through no fault of their own. But Amoris laetitia does not stop at a categorical and irreversible exclusion from the sacraments. Footnote 336 (to AL n. 300) makes clear that the distinction which “can recognise that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” must lead to differentiated consequences, also regarding the sacraments. Footnote 351 (to AL n. 305) also points out that in a situation which is objectively irregular, someone who is subjectively, but not, or at least not completely culpable, “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL, n. 305), when one receives the help of the Church and, in certain cases, also the help of the sacraments. This also speaks in favour of the possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations.

Not all the faithful whose marriage has failed and who have civilly divorced and remarried can receive the sacraments without discernment. More differentiated solutions are needed, which do justice to the individual cases and come into play when a marriage can not be annuled. In this context we encourage all who have reasonable doubt that their marriage is invalid, to make use of the Church’s marriage courts, so that a new marriage may be possible if necessary. […]

Amoris laetitia presumes a process of decision-making accompanied by a pastor. Given this process, in which the conscience of all involved is required in the highest degree, Amoris laetitia allows for the possibility to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. In Amoris laetitia Pope Francis stresses the importance of conscious deicions, when he says, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, n. 37). As it is always about integration, such a spiritual process does not lead in every case to the receiving of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. The individual decision to not, or not yet, receive the sacraments under the given circumstances, deserves respect and attention. But a decision in favour of receiving the sacraments must also be respected. An attitude of laxity without intense attention for accompaniment, discernment and integration, as does a rigorous attitude which remains in a quick judgment of people in socalled irregular situations. Instead of such extreme attitudes, the decision (Lat. discretio) must be made in personal conversation. We see it as our mission to further develop the path of conscience formation of the faithful. For that it is necessary to enable our pastors and provide them with criteria. Such criteria for the formation of conscience are provided extensively and in an outstandign way by the Holy Father in Amoris laetitia (cv. AL, n 298-300).

Much of this text is not new and echoes what Pope Francis and other bishops have emphasised time and again: the Church must find new ways and means to stand with people whose marriage has failed for whatever reason, and the suggestion must be avoided that these people are somehow no longer part of the Church. New, if not for many bishops (and not just those from Germany) is the conclusion that Amoris laetitia allows for the reception of the sacraments in what are called irregular situations, if in certain indivudal cases. The bishops stress, and this is something that, I fear, will be too often ignored, that the decision to receive the sacraments is not the standard decision to be made in all situations. Neither must it be made by a person alone, and it can certainly not be exercised as a right (but then again, that is true for every single Catholic receiving a sacrament).

What the German bishops are saying is that in some specific cases, often revolving about the guilt, or lack thereof, of a person in an irregular situation (compare a husband who leaves his wife and children with the wife being abandoned – both are in an irregular situation, but they are not equally guilty), receving the sacraments is allowed. But, they add, a well-formed conscience and the accompaniment of a pastor are required for this, and the pastors must be equipped with the tools and criteria to be able to properly accompany the people they are pastorally responsible for.

14_09_kardinalmuellerAnother German bishop had a different focus in a recent interview. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia in an interview, of which Sandro Magister has a partial translation. Cardinal Müller is very critical about the personal interpretations which are not in line with Catholic doctrine, saying:

Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. […] I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”

A condition for interpreting what the Pope says does seem to be clarity on the latter’s part, it must be said. The lack thereof has led to the dubia presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner and is evident in the various interpretations that exist. Cardinal Müller is correct in stressing that Amoris laetitia must be “interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church”, but this is evidently not happening everywhere. The German bishops’ interpretation also relies solely on Amoris laetitia, not on earlier magisterial documents, although they do mention the indissolubility of marriage as central tenet of Catholic doctrine.

Cardinal Müller also explains how to avoid confusion about Amoris laetitia and the teachings it does or does not contain or change:

 “I urge everyone to reflect, studying the doctrine of the Church first, starting from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, which is very clear on marriage. I would also advise not entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead. These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage. The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in Amoris laetitia, but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons. It is not Amoris laetitia that has provoked a confused interpretation, but some confused interpreters of it. All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.”

Whether the German bishops are incorrectly interpreting Amoris laetitia revolves around the tension between the question of the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care for the innocent. What seems to be clear, however, is that magisterial documents such as Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Veritatis Splendor (1993) can not and should not be disregarded when reading Amoris laetitia. These earlier teachings must offer a basis and framework for understanding and realising what Amoris laetitia presents.

*The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference is made up of one representative from each diocese and consist of the following prelates:

  • Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier
  • Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen, Fulda
  • Bishop Georg Bätzing, Limburg
  • Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker, Paderborn
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Osnabrück
  • Bishop Karl Borsch, Aachen
  • Archbishop Stephan Burger, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Bishop Gerhard Feige, Magdeburg
  • Bishop Gebhard Fürst, Rottenburg-Stuttgart
  • Bishop Felix Genn, Münster
  • Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, Mainz
  • Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, Eichstätt
  • Archbishop Stefan Heße, Hamburg
  • Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann, Würzburg
  • Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, Görlitz
  • Archbishop Heiner Koch, Berlin
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, München und Freising
  • Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, Erfurt
  • Bishop Stefan Oster, Passau
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, Essen
  • Archbishop Ludwig Schick, Bamberg
  • Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, Dresden-Meißen
  • Bishop Norbert Trelle, Hildesheim
  • Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Regensburg
  • Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Speyer
  • Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Cologne
  • Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Augsburg

 

The work is never done – Bishop Dieser installed as Bishop of Aachen

With a call to unity and an eye on the future Bishop Helmut Dieser was installed as seventh bishop of Aachen on Saturday. In addition, bishop Dieser also emphasised the synodal future of the Church of Aachen, stating in his installation homily:

“No masterplan, no hey ho! we are better than those before us, and certainly no panic as if we must save the Church, but: Lord, tell us what is needed, tell us when we pray, when we speak and plan with each other, when we are critical and make decisions. Help us to be synodal with each other and with you today, meaning: to know that we are journeying together, not yet ready, but in the unity of the faith of the Church, in the diversity of gifts and tasks and responsibilities, growing towards you, the first who is already complete, so that we may also be complete.”

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He may be the seventh bishop of Aachen since the diocese was re-established in 1930, Bishop Dieser has just as much to do as any of his predecessors, he explained.

Main celebrant at the installation Mass was Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, as Aachen is a suffragan diocese of that archdiocese. In his word of welcome, he recalled the main duty of a bishop: “The first and most important task of the Apostles then and their successors the bishops now is to proclaim the joyful message of Jesus Christ […] and to be witnesses of the resurrection of Christ.”

Another word of welcome was given by Reinhard Cardinal Marx. The president of the German Bishops’ Conference knows Aachen’s new bishop well, as both come from the Diocese of Trier. Cardinal Marx was bishop there from 2001 to 2007, and Bishop Dieser was a priest of that diocese from 1989 to 2011 and later auxiliary bishop until this year. Cardinal Marx said,

“Those who know Helmut Dieser are soon impressed by his open and cheerful nature. I know the new bishop well. Dyuring my time as bishop of Trier, Helmut Dieser was an involved priest and pastor, who could listen well. With his pastoral experience, his responsibility as auxiliary bishop in Trier and his theological working and thinking, Bishop Dieser brings the best requirements for his new mission.”

Other celebrants at the installation Mass were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, and Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary if Aachen and Administrator of the diocese between the retirement of Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and the installation of Bishop Dieser.

In his closing words of thanks, Bishop Dieser began his ministry with a request:

“Let me live with you! Simply, not excessively and exaggerated. Not hidden in roles and expectations. I too am a limited human being. I too can overtax myself.

Only when you can and want to live with me, can I be bishop with you and for you!”

Bistum Aachen 2016

Bishop Helmut Dieser is the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Aachen in its current form. A first Diocese of Aachen was established in 1801, under Napoleonic rule, with territory taken from Cologne in Germany, Roermond and Batavia in the Netherlands, and Liège in Belgium. In 1821 this was once again suppressed, its territory added to Cologne, Trier and Münster. This first Diocese of Aachen only ever had a single bishop, Frenchman Marc-Antoine Berdolet, from 1801 to 1809. His appointment was part of the power struggles between Napoleon’s France and the Holy See. Following Berdolet’s death, the Holy See gave no permission to ordain a successor.

 In 1930, Aachen was re-established, this time only from territory of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

Photo credit: Andreas Steindl

“A service to the faith of the people” – Bishop Helmut Dieser looks ahead to Aachen

Trier is a popular hunting ground for new bishops, if the last two appointments are an indication. First Germany’s oldest diocese lost its vicar general to Limburg and today one of its three auxiliary bishops is announced as the sevent bishop of the Diocese of Aachen. Bishop Helmut Dieser succeeds Heinrich Mussinghoff, who retired in December.

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54-year-old Helmut Dieser was born in Neuwied, north of Koblenz, and studied Catholic theology and philosophy in Trier and Tübingen. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and in 1992 he was attached to theological faculty of Trier University, promoting there in 1998. From 2004 onward he worked as a parish priest and teacher of homiletics at the St. Lambert study house in Lantershofen. In 2011 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Trier and titular bishop of Narona, a former diocese in what is now southern Croatia. In the German Bishops’ Conference he is a member of the faith commission and the pastoral care commission.

The appointment of Bishop Dieser was announced at noon in Trier. Dean of the cathedral chapter Manfred von Holtum described the incoming ordinary like this. “I am happy that, with him, we receive a bishop in continuity with his predecessors, Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and Bishop Klaus Hemmerle, who is open to new pastoral directions. The new bishop of Aachen, Dr. Helmut Dieser, stands for synodality in the Church and especially for ecumenism.”

Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary bishop of Aachen and diocesan administrator during the sede vacante, added: “In the meetings of the German Bishops’ Conference I have gotten to know and appreciate Bishop Helmut Dieser as a spiritual and communicative person. In the Conference he is a member of the faith and pastoral care commissions, where his counsel as a proven theologian is asked. He is an experienced shepherd, and I know that, as such, he is looking forward to meeting the faithful and communities in our diocese.”

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier described his erstwhile auxiliary bishop as a “man of the Church and a powerful witness of the Gospel”. He also underlined his communicative skills, in part due to Bishop Dieser’s experience in teaching homiletics.

Speaking in Trier, Bishop Dieser himself describes his new mission as something great, something big in his life. “But I can say yes to this great thing, since I am confident that I will draw nearer to God, answering Him, as I follow Jesus: in this new office. God’s call does not remain vague, it becomes tangible. As tangible as this hour and as tangibe as the Diocese of Aachen and its people.”

Bishop Dieser also discussed the topic of synodality, thanking Bishop Ackermann for calling and organising a synod in the Diocese of Trier in recent years. “The experience of the synod left a deep impression on me, and its results have given us a sense of which direction to look and proceed. What I have learned and experienced in the synod, I now want to take with me to Aachen. I was happy to find, in a speech from Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff from 2011, that the Diocese of Aachen under his guidance has started in similar directions as our synod in Trier. Also in Aachen, the idea of a “community of communities” creates greater pastoral spaces which can give shape to various forms of Church life, interconnecting them.”

About his new ministry of service, he says,

“it will be a service to the faith of the people. The faith of the Gospel must in modern times be won, found and continued differently then in the past.

Many of our contemporaries are convinced: I know that I do not need to know whether God exists or not. I can live very well without knowing precisely. The Church, however, is convinced that, if we want to know more about ourselves, want to know deeper what our own life, the world, other people are and mean, we need faith. The God who surpasses all knowledge and understanding (cf. Phil. 4:7) has become completely knowable and meets us in a historical man and his life on earth: in Jesus and His Gospel.”

The bishop continues by explaining the ecumenism is an important element in this endeavour. He wants to help people acknowledge that they want to be Christians and so also know why they want to be Christians. Church life, he says, develops through the answers that people give to God and to Jesus, with their own lives and spiritual gifts, their charisms.

“So I am confident: we do not need to save the Church! She grows where the Gospel is being proclaimed and heard and answered. And there is not and will not be a time, until the end of the world, when the Gospel is not current!”

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

In Germany, the numbers speak

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, west goes to east – Heinrich Timmerevers is the new bishop of Dresden-Meißen

After a 10-month vacancy, and just before it hosts the biggest national Catholic event of the year, the 100th Katholikentag, the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen has a new bishop. He is 63-year-old Heinrich Timmerevers, until today one of the five auxiliary bishops of Münster, where he was regional bishop for the diocese’s northern exclave of Oldenburg and Vechta. The news was announced today at noon in Rome and Vechta, where the bishop currently resides.

Weihbischof_TimmereversHeinrich Timmerevers was born in the small town of Garrel, southwest of Oldenburg, as second of six children in a farmer’s family, and attended school in nearby Cloppenburg, where he graduated in 1972. he studied theology and philosophy in Münster, where he also entered the seminary. For a short time he studied in Freiburg, but returned to Münster for his graduation in 1977. In 1997 and 1978 he attended a spirituality course of the Focolare movement, which he got to know in seminary, in Rome.

Bishop Reinhard Lettmann of Münster ordained Heinrich Timmervers in 1980. Until 1984 he worked as a priest in Visbek, not far from his native Garrel. He then became subregent of the Collegium Borromaeum, Münster’s diocesan seminary and was attached to the cathedral of St. Paul. In 1990 he returned to Visbek. He represented the kfd, the Catholic Women’s Community in the Oldenburg pastoral area.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed Fr. Heinrich Timmerevers as an auxiliary bishop of Münster, with the titular see of Tulana. At the same time, Bishop Lettmann appointed him as episcopal representative in Vechta for the entire northern area of the diocese. Bishop Lettmann, together with then-auxiliary Bishop Werner Thissen (later archbishop of Hamburg, now retired) and retiring auxiliary Bishop Max Georg Freiherr von Twickel (now deceased), consecrated him on 2 September 2001. Bishop Timmerevers chose the German phrase “Suchet, wo Christus ist” as his episcopal motto. In 2002, the new bishop joined the cathedral chapter.

In the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Timmerevers is a member of the commission for vocations and Church ministry and the commission for Adveniat, the German bishops’ charity arm for Latin America. In the past he was a member of the youth commission. Since 2012, Bishop Timmerevers is also a chaplain for the Order of Malta.

220px-Karte_Bistum_Dresden-MeissenBishop Timmerevers will be the ninth bishop of Dresden-Meißen since the diocese restoration in 1921. The diocese is located in eastern Germany along the Czech border, covering most of the state of Saxony and small parts of Thuringia and is part of the Church Province of Berlin, togetehr with the Diocese of Görlitz and the Archdiocese of Berlin. With the appointment of Bishop Timmerevers, all these sees are filled again. In Germany, the dioceses of Aachen and Limburg now remain vacant.

The website of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, which went offline for a few hours following the announcement of the new bishop, features a letter of Bishop Timmerevers to his new flock:

“Dear sisters and brothers,

Today Pope Francis appointed me as new bishop of Dresden-Meißen. In the past week, Dean Klemens Ullmann informed me of the election by the cathedral chapter. It moved and pleased me greatly, but also worried me inside. I took several days until I was able to accept with all my heart this vocation and the renewed calling of Jesus to follow Him.

But I am willing and will leave my Oldenburger homeland, to come to you in the diocese. I am supported by the word addressed to Abraham (Gen. 12:1): “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. I gladly accept this new calling and mission in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen. I look forward to the people living there, to the many encounters and conversations. I also look forward to being Church together with you. I came as a learner to you and want to learn new things.

The Catholic Church in your diocese exists in a situation of diaspora and has kept the faith in difficult times. This impresses me greatly. I look forward to the challenges that await me, and will be happy to have you show me your country.

I rejoice in serving the people in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen from now on, to strengthen the Christians, to build up the Church and make her present in the world. For these tasks I pray for God’s blessing and for your active support.

Yours,

+Heinrich Timmerevers”

After the Ad Limina, Bishop Schwaderlapp on the “erosion of faith”

In his homily for the second Sunday of Advent in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary of that diocese, looked back on the recent Ad Limina visit of the German bishops. The full text of his homily can be found, in the original German, here, and below I present a translation of the relevant section concerning the Ad Limina. It touches upon some of the most frequent criticism against the German episcopate and church, and succeeds, in my opinion, in indicating where the solution lies.

schwaderlapp“Everywhere he went, John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That promise that John proclaimed can only enter into our hearts when we are willing to repent and begin anew. Repentance is painless when we want and demand it from others. It only becomes real when it is about me personally. Where do we need to repent? Where do I need to repent? When about two weeks ago we German bishops were in Rome for the Ad Limina visit, the Holy Father gave us a speech to take with us, one peppered with warnings: Clear words! In it, he speaks about the “erosion of faith” in our country. I once looked up on Wikipedia what erosion means: Improper land use removing especially fertile soil.

Dear sisters and brothers, the Church in Germany is certainly the best financed and best organised in the entire world. But what do we actually do? How can it be that – with all the means at our disposal – we must conclude that knowledge of and belief in the faith are ever more decreasing?

Are we really taking our mission to proclaim the faith seriously? We do it in other areas. For example: in our archdiocese, in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, hundreds of thousands, who are working with young people, are being trained. They must follow a set curriculum. Is there a similarly compulsory curriculum about questions of faith? No! Pope Francis has said, “New structures are continuously being created, but there are not faithful to fill them.” Are we obsessed with structures? In short, a word that is a warning for us as bishops and the Church in Germany.

And the Holy Father continues with what the erosion of faith means to him concretely. He discusses the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Holy Mass – the gift of God’s presence par excellence! Fewer than 10% of Catholics in our archdiocese attend it on Sunday. And when, because of decreasing numbers of priests, Mass times change or even, in some places, a Mass is no longer possible on every Sunday, a whole range of people stays away from Holy Mass. Has the Holy Eucharist become a sort of folklore in our lives, to embellish our Sundays? Our is it the foundation of our lives?

We are talking about new beginnings needed in our Church. Indeed, that is needed. But one thing is clear: When we do not make the first call of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, our own, when we do not make the call of John the Baptist our own, when we do not rediscover Confession as a place of God’s  mercy, there will be no new beginning! We can not make a new beginning by ourselves, but only implore God’s mercy for it.

Let us also ask ourselves: what does my faith look like? How seriously do I take it? How seriously do I take the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance? Do I try to deepen my attitude, my practice, to really experience this great gift of the mercy of God?”

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 Katholisch.de 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.

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^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 Katholisch.de. 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, dbk.de, for that), but they do work closely with them, making Katholisch.de 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.