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

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…

Among the bishops, three big events

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

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

^Bishop Müller launches the website of the Diocese of regensburg, in this photo from 2001.

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

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

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

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

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

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

German bishops stand for frank and faithful words

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Just to show that not all German bishops  intent on upending all Catholic teaching, as some media would have us believe, here is a translation of a letter sent by five bishops to the bishop of Passau, msgr. Stefan Oster, after the latter criticised the call from the Central Committee of German Catholics (the ZdK) to start blessing same-sex relationships as well as new relationships of divorced Catholics. The ZdK is a lay movement recognised by the Bishops’ Conference to promote the lay apostolate in the Church. Bishop Oster criticised their proposal by pointing out the Biblical basis of marriage and the understanding of Biblical revelation. He also pointed out that the “use” of Pope Francis to support the calls for change has no basis in reality.

“Honourable Lord Bishop Oster, Dear Brother Stefan,

Wethank you for taking position against the proposal presented at the ZdK’s spring assembly, titled “Building bridges between doctrine and life – Family and Church in the modern world”. Weagree woleheartedly with your remarks on the teaching about the Christian view of humanity regarding the importance for man- and womanhood, and especially its importance regarding Christian marriage, based as it is on the teaching of Jesus in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

In German we are living in a strongly secularised society. This situation should not discourage us or make us want to adapt to the opinion of the majority, but it should be seen as an opportunity to rediscover the unique nature of the Christian vocation in today’s world. A frank and faithful proclamation of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel and the development of a relationship with Him as the richness of our lives, as you have undertaken in your repy, are an essential prerequisite.

We are convinced that many faithful are also very grateful for your frank words.

In fraternal solidarity, the bishops of:

Augsburg: Dr. Konrad Zdarsa
Eichstätt: Gregor M. Hanke OSB
Görlitz: Wolfgang Ipolt
Regensburg: Dr. Rudolf Voderholzer
Würzburg: Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann”

No waiting – Cardinal Marx on the Synod

101020marx250The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, has made some comments about the upcoming second session of the Synod on the family, as the bishops of Germany are discussing the topic in their spring plenary in Hildesheim. While the full text of his words has not been published, we have to make do with interpretations, which is always risky business. Cardinal Marx, speaking for the conference as a whole, has rightly said that we should not reduce the Synod to the question of divorced and remarried Catholics, but of course that does happen, especially when the bishops explain their own intentions on this topic.

About the role of Rome in the pastoral realities of the local churches, Cardinal Marx said the following:

“We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Every  bishops’ conference is responsible for the pastoral care in their area and has to proclaim the Gospel in their own unique way. We can’t  wait for a Synod to say how we should form our pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family.”

Of course the local churches and bishops are not subsidiaries of Rome, since the Church is not a business. She is, however, one body with one faith. The practical application of that faith may vary by area and culture, sure, but the faith and the teachings of that faith are the same everywhere. It is the responsibility of the local bishops’ conferences to give hands and feet to that faith, to ensure the proper pastoral care and the most effective way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. But they are also responsible for the integrity of the faith in their care and proclamation. The synodality that Pope Francis has been promoting so heavily is a way of ensuring that, as it requires and openness to other bishops and thus prevents singular bishops or groups of bishops from acting alone.

When Cardinal Marx says that he can’t wait for a Synod to tell him what to do, this can only have very limited implications. He is right that the Synod can’t instruct him on the sort of pastoral care he provides, but he does not have the authority to apply possible future changes that are directly contradictory to teachings that only a Synod can change, or even those that no Synod can. When it comes to the topic of divorce and remarriage and access to the sacraments, we have such a change in practice that a single bishop or bishops’ conference can’t introduce. But the general impression, and that may be a wrong impression, is that the German bishops are going to do everything to promote a change like this at the Synod, and even before. The bishops advocate openness to what other bishops will contribute to the Synod, but their actions, such as the one outlined here, do not completely line up with that sentiment.

This all revolves around where doctrine and pastoral care meet. Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, one of the two other German delegates to the Synod, emphasised that both must be acknowledged and taken into account when dealing with such questions. He is right, of course. But we must avoid situations in which doctrine is seen as preventing proper pastoral care, or pastoral concerns overruling doctrine. In the end it’s all about truth. The truth of Jesus Christ, not doing what Rome says, is what dictates what the Church teaches (doctrine) and does (pastoral care).

From a Hildesheim pub, Dresden’s Bishop Koch on marriage, divorce and sacraments

In Germany, the bishops are on the eve of their spring plenary in Hildesheim, and as I announced earlier, six of them spent that eve in the pub. One of these six was Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meißen who has recently been in the news for comments in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. He was asked about this same topic tonight in an at times emotional conversation, as the hosting Diocese of Hildesheim reports.


When it comes to relating to faithful who have divorced and later married another partner, Bishop Koch said that the Church should proceed according to the principle of subsidiarity.

“With that I do not mean different local uses of the sacrament of marriage, but how we relate to people who are suffering as divorced or remarried.”

This seems to be something different than what many accuse the German bishops as a whole of: being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics access to the sacraments.  By referring to the principle of subsidiarity, Bishop Koch points out the problem must be resolved not in the higher echelons of the Church, be it the bishops’ offices or Rome, but on the ground, involving the people directly affected by the problem.

In this case it would seem to mean that Bishop Koch is not so much in favour of changing the Church’s teaching on marriage and sacraments (as, he says, life is too varied to be caught in rules anyway), but is mainly concerned with how we relate to divorced and remarried Catholics, who are most directly affected by their problem.

How this would work in practice remains to be seen, I think, although individually tailored approaches to people are always to be preferred over standardised ways of dealing with situations.

For Family Synod 2, Cardinal Eijk returns to Rome

synod of bishopsThe first group of participants in coming autumn’s Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been ratified by Pope Francis. Unlike for last year’s assembly, which was an Extraordinary one, the majority of members for this edition are elected by the bishops’ conferences of the world. The presidents of the conferences do not automatically attend, unless, as in the case of the Dutch bishops, he is elected to do so.

liesenCardinal Wim Eijk, who today coincidentally had a private audience with Pope Francis, will once again participate like he did last year, but should he not be able to do so, the bishops have chosen Bishop Jan Liesen (at right) to be his replacement. Bishop Liesen is no stranger in Rome, as he was a member of the International Theological Commission for a number of years.

The list of participants published today is far from complete. Many bishops’ conferences, such as the German, have yet to elect one of their own to go to Rome in October. The Belgian bishops likewise haven’t chosen , but they will wait for the appointment of a new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and President of the bishops’ conference, sometime in or after May.