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.”

At St. John Lateran, the real Ad Limina

The feast day of the dedication of the basilica of St. John Lateran is already a week ago, but on the occasion of their Ad Limina visit, the German bishops celebrated Mass at the papal basilica yesterday, and Archbishop Ludwig Schick gave the homily, in which he emphasised the significance of this particular church.

Here is my translation.

archbishop ludwig schick“Dear brothers!

It is not an obligatory part of the program of an Ad Limina visit to visit the Lateran basilica and celebrate Holy Mass here. But it makes a lot of sense to make a pilgrimage to this place, to give the Ad Limina visit its actual meaning and enrich the purpose of it. In the end it is about uniting ourselves closer to Christ, the saviour of the world. Here in the Lateran basilica this can be sensed and achieved most profoundly.

Why and how?

In the ciborium over the main altar of the Lateran basilica the heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul are venerated. Ad Limina Apostolorum – here at the Lateran we find them both. Here, like nowhere else, they both point towards Him for whom they gave their lives – towards Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world. Here Saint Paul reminds us, “Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain” (Phil. 1:21). And Peter invites us to confess with and like him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). We come to the limina – the thresholds – of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and they lead us to Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, “the bishop and shepherd of our souls”. Christ is what the Church is about. He is the heart.

This church is consecrated to the Saviour, and is called “mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum urbis et orbis“. All churches, the buildings and the local churches are to service the saviour. This Ad Limina visit intends to renew us in the conviction and duty of serving Christ, HIM and His Kingdom of justice, of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (cf. Letter to the Romans).

Here at the Lateran we also symbolically meet the Pope, sign and instrument of unity. The original papal see is here. The most important task of the Pope to maintain the unity of the Church is to root that unity in Jesus Christ and serve HIM in unity. In this respect I recall the words of Pope Benedict XVI from the Encyclical Deus caritas est, words that have become proverbial and which have often been quoted by Pope Francis: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

saint john lateran

Today we celebrate a German mystic: Gertrud of Helfta. With Saint Mechthild of Hakeborn and Saint Mechthild of Magdeburg she is one of the great holy women of the Church. Her mysticism was directed at Christ, concretely the Heart of Jesus. Christ became man, the “Saviour of man”, not to atone for the debt of sin (satisfaction theory of atonement), but to re-establish the bond of love between people and God. In the bond of love with God in Jesus Christ, man turns to his neighbours, especially the poor and needy!

Dear brothers!

Ad limina apostolorum! To come, with the Apostles, to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Ad limina apostolorum! To understand with them the Church, which is built on the foundation of the Apostles, which is much more than an institution, the Body of Christ, People of God, House that provides, promotes and guarantees communion with God and each other.

Ad limina apostolorum! To serve the people of God with them and like them, to proclaim and advance the Kingdom of God with a new zeal.”

German bishops on Ad Limina

dbk logoThe German bishops have announced the dates for their Ad Limina visit to Rome, later this month. The five-day pilgrimage to the graves of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as meetings with the Curia and several audiences with the Pope, will take place from 16 to 20 November. The last time the German Bishops’ Conference made an Ad Limina visit was in 2006, almost a  decade ago, almost double the time that should theoretically separate visits.

With 67 members, the Conference is so large that there will be three audiences with Pope Francis, with a final joint meeting on the 20th.

There are four Masses planned, one in each of the Papal Basilicas:

  • Tuesday 17 November, 4pm, in Saint John Lateran
  • Wednesday 18 November, 4pm, in Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls
  • Thursday 19 November, 7:30am, in Saint Mary Major.

The Mass at the tomb of St. Peter, presumably on the 20th. is not open to the faithful because of limited space. The other Masses are open for attendance.

A press conference will be held on the final day, with Cardinal Reinhard Marx as president of the conference, in the Collegio Teutonico.

While the meetings with the Curia and the audiences with the Pope are private, the texts of the Pope’s addresses will undoubtedly be made public (whether he actually gives them or not – with the Dutch bishops in 2013 he did not give his planned address, after all). Pope Francis will find the German bishops firmly on his side in the refugee crisis, and he is not unfamiliar with some of the bishops – first of all Cardinal Marx, who is a member of the Council of Cardinals advising him about the reforms in the Curia – or their schools of thought. But as the German dioceses are among the world’s richest (and among the greatest financial donors as well), and the German state’s church tax causes unique and sometimes troublesome situations, Pope Francis may also have a thing or two to about income and expenses.

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.

Building up from reality – Bishop Bode’s intervention

It’s almost a week ago, but here is the translation of the intervention by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode. Reading it, it becomes clear that some of his points have been used in the German language groups’ report on Part II, which I shared in translation earlier.

Like Archbishop Koch before him, Bishop Bode bases his thought on his experiences as bishop and official in the German Bishops’ Conference, as he makes clear in his opening paragraph. While not averse to theology, he underlines that the Church must meet the people where they are, in their less-than-perfect situations and with their experiences, questions and feelings.

Bishop Bode has been criticised heavily, and while I share some of that criticism, it is important to recognise what he is doing here: asking questions about what the Church is doing. Is it really effective, he wonders, and do we achieve what we set out to do?

Read the German text here, and my translation below:

bode_purpur_240I have been a bishop now for four decades, and for 20 years of those I have been ordinary of Osnabrück. Since 2010 I have also been leading the pastoral commission of the German Bishops’ Conference, and before that I was the chairman of the youth commission for fourteen years. In that capacity I speak to you:

It is a great challenge for the Church to convey her high esteem of marriage, which as sacrament is a life fulfilment of the Church, to the people of our time. There where marriage succeeds as a lifelong Union, where this “eminently human” love is experienced “from one person to another through an affection of the will” (Gaudium et Spes, 49), where spouses remain faithful, remain inclined to one another, give life to and raise children and pass on the love received, there the Church is ever new and something more than the salt of the earth and the city on the mountain. “The Church is a blessing for the family and the family is blessing for the Church”, says the Instrumentum laboris (59).

In order to bring the Catholic understanding of marriage closer to the faithful and in extension to all people of good will, and convince them in a lasting way, it is crucial to respond to each person’s individual life story, to the realities of life and their histories. Man is a historical being. He always relates to us as formed by experience, never als a neutral recipient of a message that he needs to align to. This acknowledgement of his biography is not a pastoral strategy or a methodical trick. Rather, the acknowledgement of individual life histories is itself part of Catholic teaching. The Second Vatican Council, in the opening words of Gaudium et Spes speaks of it, that there is nothing genuinely human which does not raise an echo in their hearts (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1). The Instrumentum laboris of this Synod takes on this thought when it speaks of “divine pedagogy” (39). Relating ever anew to the biography of people is an essential task, if the general and basic principles of a doctrine – especially the doctrines of marriage and family – want to have space and form in human lives. Thomas Aquinas explained the necessity of a concrete application, for example when he says, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason” (STh II-II-47, 3: “ad prudentiam pertinet non solum consideratio rationis, sed etiam applicatio ad opus, quae est finis practicae rationis“). This application can, however, not succeed without including the circumstances in the concrete action.

Tying onto the history and form of life is in that regard not possible without going to the persons, to the people, understanding their thoughts and motives, and not without concretisation of the general guiding principles to the particular life situation as far as possible. That is also a service to the truth. “The faithful’s attitude towards people who have not yet come to an understanding of the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage is expressed primarily in a personal, friendly relationship which accepts another as he/she is, without judging, and seeks to meet his/her basic needs and, at the same time, witnessing to God’s love and mercy. It is important to be clearly aware that everyone is weak and that each person is a sinner like everyone else, yet not failing to affirm the blessings and values of a Christian marriage. Moreover, people need to become aware that in God’s plan the family is not a duty but a gift, and that today the decision to enter into the Sacrament of Marriage is not a foregone conclusion but something to be developed and a goal to be achieved” (Instrumentum laboris, 61). And it is always good to take particular aspects into account and deal with material conflicts. Often enough, it is a search for the “minus malum“, the lesser evil.

Not in the last place, we should see people as being on the road to something better, for the sake of a “joyful and optimistic proclamation of the truths of the faith concerning the family” (Instrumentum laboris, 79). So questions regarding the pastoral approach to marriage and family such as the following were raised:

  • Can we really convince couples who – not only in Germany – usually first live together outside of the marriage bond, of the value of marriage, when we uphold to them: You are living in grave sin?
  • Are we sufficiently aware of the chances which are there, when couples return to the Church after a long time, with the desire for a Church wedding? Do we maintain an “open doors” culture (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 47)? Do we offer them good and long marriage preparation, a path we travel together with them?
  • Do we offer sustained spiritual help and guidance to couples and families who, for various reasons, have a hard time integrating the Good News and the faith in their lives?
  • How do meet couples in relationship crises and breaking relationships? Do we accompany these people unconditionally or do we only exert additional pressure through moral teachings?
  • And not in the least: Do we show our sisters and brothers in Christ who have entered into a new relationship after the previous one ended that they too belong to the Church? A Church with open doors, a mother with an open heart (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 46)?
  • Do we actually see the individual cases sufficiently differentiated enough? Can access to the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist really be categorically denied in every case?

From this Synod, I especially hope that the results of our discussions will send out a clear signal of support for the beneficial efforts of the Holy Father and the salvation of people.

I thank all Synod father as well the auditors for what they have already done in this regard.

Rome, 10 October 2015

Franz-Josef Bode
Bishop of Osnabrück

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