Germanicus – a look at the German position

It’s safe to say that the German Synod fathers are scrutinised more heavily by Catholic media than others, and not always fairly, in my opinion. I already mentioned my own misgivings about what Archbishop Koch said in his intervention, but that’s not even remotely the same as accusing him of apostasy and heresy, as some have done. He has a clear understanding about the reality of Catholic life in Germany (which does not differ too much from that in other Protestant/secular parts of Northwestern Europe, and the picture he paints is one we should take seriously.

synod german circle

^A glimpse of the small windowless room where the German circle, the smallest of all thirteen groups, was to meet initially. Cardinal Müller soon invited the group to relocate to the roomier and less stuffy offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Today, the reports from the Circoli minori, the smaller language groups in which the Synod fathers discussed the first part of the Instrumentum laboris, were published. Because of the aforementioned interest in what the German circle thinks and wants emphasised, I will focus on their report here.

The Circulus Germanicus consists of the following persons, mainly from the German-speaking countries, but also some from central Europe, Scandinavia and even the Middle East:

  • Moderator: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna
  • Relator: Archbishop Heiner Koch, archbishop of Berlin
  • Walter Cardinal Kasper, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, archbishop of München und Freising
  • Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites
  • Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský, archbishop of Bratislava
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrück
  • Bishop Benno Elbs, bishop of Feldkirch
  • Bishop Ladislav Német, bishop of Zrenjanín
  • Bishop Teemu Sippo, bishop of Helsinki
  • Bishop Antun Škvorcevic, bishop of Pozega
  • Bishop András Veres, bishop of Szombathely
  • Father Michael Sievernich, professor emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and the Hichschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt
  • Dr. Aloys Johann Buch, professor of Moral Theology at the Interdiocesan Major Seminary of St. Lambert and Permanent Deacon in Aachen
  • Mrs,. Petra Buch, diocesan family pastoral worker
  • His Eminence Andrej, Metropolitan of Austria-Switzerland of the Serbian Patriarchate
  • Very Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, President of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance

The report, which was composed by Archbishop Koch in his function as relator, in my translation:

In the German circle, led by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn O.P., we have considered and edited the first part of the Instrumentum laboris in an open and good atmosphere. The various views of the participants were enriching and were also perceived as such. In my opinion the work in this group once again shows: diversity enriches.

The general style of the text was met with approval. We also agree very much with the given order of the Instrumentum laboris, and with the arrangement in three chapters. It takes up the structure of papers from earlier Synod and conferences, which lead from seeing to judging, culminating ultimately in action.

We have, however, also added elements which we think are important. We suggest and ask that a section is added at the beginning of the first chapter, which describes the beauty of marriage and the mission of couples and families, drawing on the concerns and considerations of Pope Francis. Gratefully and with wonderment we notice that marriage is called to take part in the Creation of God and in His work of salvation. Marriage is not just a topic of Catholic faith, but proves to be in the profoundest sense a fundamental desire of man. It shows itself to be remarkably constant across cultural and religious boundaries and beyond all social changes in time. Man desires to love and be loved. Love is the comprehensive and unconditional Yes to another human being – for his own sake, without ulterior motives or reservations. It is also a basic trait of humanity, that love always wants to give itself again. So marriage unfolds in the love of the children and others in the family. So grows the family out of marriage, which radiates in society and Church. Christian marriage is in this way a slice of living Church.

We also suggest to say thanks, in these introductory thoughts, to the married couples and families for their great service to each other, to our society and to our Church. We also want to especially thank those who stayed together in difficult times and so became a visible sign of the faithfulness of God.

In these introductory words we also want to mention why we as bishops take a stand for marriage and family: We come from families, live like families and take part in the life of the family. In ouir responsibility as shepherds we bishops care for the lives of married couples and families. But we also want to hear about their situations and their challenges and accompany and strenghten them with the loving gaze of the Gospel.

In their respective cultural backgrounds family relationships beyond the nuclear family especially offer many kinds of possibilities of support in the raising of children and in family life. They are especially important where the life of the nuclear family is made more difficult, impaired or even destroyed because of migration, disasters or flight, but also because of the effects of job mobility or broken human relationships, In these situations especially the wide net of kinship proves itself as a valuable aid.

Both of these examples should indicate that we have accepted the text presented to us in a positive way, but have also wanted to develop and add to it.

I would like to suggest one comment for the perception and evaluation of different cultural realities. A Synodal document must take the current cultural realities and differences properly into account. Especially when it deals with ambivalent or in the eyes of the Church problematic elements of modern cultural reality. Here a differentiated analysis and assessment is indispensable, to contribute to a proper and nuanced ecclesiastical-intercultural exchange. I would like to explain this with an example: the first chapter talks much about individualism. As a selfish trait it is undoubtedly a great danger to the lives of people. It should however not be confused with the individuality of people. Every single human being is uniquely and wonderfully made God and deserves esteem and protection of the dignity of his person. Our text speaks frequently about individualism, but the positive signs of the times, arising from respect for the individuality of people, are little appreciated. If we do not perceive here in a differentiatied way, we also come to different assessments of our society and subsequently different pastoral recommendations. Our circle asks not to succumb to an overvaluation of the rather pessimistic perception of our society.

Lastly: There is a double problem regarding the translation, that of the literal translation of the Italian text and that of the cultural translation of the content.

The German translation is relatively true to the Italian text, but this often makes the German text difficult to understand. The reason for this may be found in the overly long sentences, where the German prefers shorter sentences. The nested style is also bothersome. Here too, shorter sentences and a better structure of the contents is to be preferred. The translation of the final text should ensure a good style, pleasant readability and clear structure. The translation should not be interlinear, but mutatis mutandis.

In creating the text, it should be ensured that the ecclesiastical and theological position are not only understood internally, but are accessible also in a secular environment. This calls for a “cultural translation”, as well as an inculturation. From this follows the question if, in editing the joint document, a negatively confining and normatively judgemental language prevails (forensic style) or a postivie language which unfolds the Christian position, which then implicitly addresses what position are incompatible with Christianity. That also presupposes the willingness (cf. Gaudium et spes) to pick up positive developments in society.  Perhaps we need a sort of “hermeneutic of evangelisation” for the overall general style, which considers the topic “in the light of the Gospel”.

We are looking forward to further fraternal labour together and thank all for the many efforts to achieve a unanimous course and conclusion to the Synod.

In short, positive language, emphasis on the beauty and value of marriage and family life, and a nuanced relation with modern society. I am very much in favour of the first two points, while the third point requires a solid basis in the faith and the doctrine of the Church. Only if the Church is true to herself can she relate properly to society.

As a final comment, many have noticed the criticism against the Instrumentum laboris, but as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said in today’s press conference, that document is intended to be sacrificed for the final document that is to be drafted out of the suggestions made by the smaller groups.

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

Berlin’s big day as Archbishop Koch arrives

Pressegespräch mit Erzbischof Dr. Heiner KochBig day in Berlin today, as Archbishop Heiner Koch is installed as its third archbishop and tenth bishop overall. The installation, starting at 11 o’clock local time, will be streamed live via and

Opening the ceremony is Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, bishop of Görlitz, as he is the senior bishop of the province composed of Berlin and its two suffragan dioceses, Görlitz and Dresden-Meißen. With that latter see vacant, he is also the only bishop available to do that job. Bishop Görlitz will lead the archbishop to his cathedra, after which the latter officially take possession of it.

Archbishop Koch will also be receiving his pallium from the Apostolic Nuncio during the installation Mass. It had already been granted and collected by him on 29 June, but as the woollen band denoting his office of metropolitan archbishop is now officially bestowed in the home dioceses, each of these is free to determine when and where it takes place. For example, Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who was granted the pallium on the same date as Archbishop Koch, will officially be bestowed with it in November.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki, Archbishop Koch’s predecessor in Berlin, will give him the bishop’s staff that belonged to Cardinal Alfred Bengsch, bishop of Berlin from 1961 to 1979. The staff symbolises the office of shepherd.

No less than 29 bishops will be attending the installation, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk of Utrecht, and bishops from Poland and the Czech Republic, in addition to many German bishops. The ecumenical delegation consists of representatives from the Lutheran church in Germany, the Romanian-Orthodox Church, the Greek-Orthodox Church and the Coptic-Orthodox Church. Many local politicians will also attend, with the president of the Bundestag as the highest-ranking official.

In a recent interview, Archbishop Koch spoke about his years in Berlin, to which he is looking forward. But there is already some work cut out for him, as Cardinal Woelki began a number of reforms before being recalled to Cologne. What will be the new archbishop’s focus in those matters?

“In Berlin it is not just about changing certain structures. In the first place there has to be a new substantial positioning. The central questions must be: How can we be christian and Church in a major city or in the country, and how can we fullfill our mission when there are ever more people who say it doesn’t matter to them if there is or is no God.”

How does he see himself as archbishop of Berlin? Will he be mainly for the city or also for the surrounding area?

“In the first place I will be archbishop for the people in the archdiocese. Catholics from Brandenburg and Vorpommern have written to me that I should take care that it’s not only about Berlin. But of course I will also accept invitations, from the federal president to the ARD television studios in the capital, to represent Catholic positions.”

Cardinal Woelki lived in Wedding, a subburb of Berlin with low income and immigrant families. Where will Archbishop Koch live?

“In the first months in an apartment of the Military Ordinariate, and  then in a  former parish house in Lichterfelde [a more residential area in the southwest of Berlin], after it has been renovated. I want to have a very open and hospitable home, where I can eat, sit and speak with visitors. I know how much can informally be discussed over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Much more than in many meetings.”

 Photo credit: Walter Wetzler

A different perspective – the numbers behind the refugee crisis

The refugee crisis dominates headlines at the moment, and so do the opinions, as these are wont to do. There are positive opinions, that we must offer aid, shelter refugees and find solutions for the immediate need and despair we see, and these have a bigger share than I would have expected. But there are also negative ones, rooted in fear that we are welcoming terrorists, that strange cultures, religions and ideologies will come to dominate and irrevocably change our own culture and religions (or lack thereof).


In countries around us, especially in Germany and Austria, the Church has been on the frontline in welcoming refugees and speaking out for their basic human needs. The bishops of these countries have been vocal on this topic, and one bishop, Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau, recently outlined the basics behind the refugee crisis and the numbers that we must keep in mind before making sweeping statements on either side of the argument:

erzbischof_stephan_burger_q“The great number of refugees which come to us in Germany, and the numerous crisis hotspots of this world are showing us very clearly now: We are standing before a critical point on world history. The different parts of the world are increasingly intertwined with one another and ecological fragile. For the future this includes both great dangers and significant opportunities. We must acknowledge that, despite and perhaps because of the great diversity of cultures and ways of life, we are a global community. And so we also carry responsibility for this community.

Today there are nearly 60 million people are fleeing. Behind this flight lies distress, despair, lack of perspective, tragedies.

However, the frequently heard idea, that the majority of refugees are en route to Europe, does not agree with reality. We must be careful not to look at the world from a European perspective. The 28 countries of the European Union at present house less than four per cent of the total number of refugees and displaced persons in the world. regarding this it is often forgotten that about three quarters of these people, as internally displaced persons, do not even make it across their own borders – let alone to Europe. We should not lose sight of their special need. For the Kurds of northern Iraq, for example, this means that out of every four inhabitant, one is displaced. In every village, in every city in this region there now live refugees. The civil war in Syria has by now caused more than four million people to flee. Additionally there are 7.6 million interior displaced persons in the country itself.

The moving images of refugee boats in the Mediterranean urge us to ask how we can rescue people in peril on the sea and guarantee them a life in security and dignity. The question about the complex reasons why thousands of people leave their homes, is not being asked enough.

Many of the desperate refugees are fleeing from the horror of a bloody war or the terror of despots. Others are called “economic refugees”: they want to escape a life of poverty and misery, which is partly caused by the political decisions of Industrial countries and emerging markets. For example, the traditional land rights of indigenous farmers are being overridden by the rights of investors. Unfair trade agreements disrupt the livelihood of local manufacturers. International corporations are plundering the resources of Africa – without any notable benefits for the local population.

We are convinced that there is a need for more legal and secure routes to Europe. We are aware that, also in Germany, the capacity to take care of refugees is not limitless. Therefore, there is a need for a European and global effort to comprehensively address the causes of poverty and flight. The topic must remain at the top of the agenda of world politics.  The reason for the increase in refugee movements in the European Union does not come from Africa, by the way, but is in the first place an expression of political and economical problems in the Balkans and also in continuing violence in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Africans formed, in the first six months of this year, just 19 per cent of asylum seekers in the European Union – and it was similar a year earlier.

That there has now been a dramatic global increase to the aforementioned 60 million refugees, can in the first place be explained by the significant rise in forced internal migration as a result of war and violence. The truly grave humanitarian problems regarding refugees are to be found primarily in fragile states. Seen globally, cross-border flight occurred for 86 per cent in equally poor areas adjacent to crisis areas – such as in Lebanon, Kurdistan, Jordan and Kenya, in Chad and in northern Cameroon.

Both latter states especially show the results of violence, which has been ongoing for many months now, of the terrorist network “Boko Haram”. Most reports from this region that we hear in Germany are mostly about terror attacks and abductions. That the situation has also caused a wave of refugees is little known. Some 190,000 people have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger following terrorist actions. Additionally, there are some 100,000 internally displaced refugees in Cameroon, who had to flee from “Boko Haram” attacks.

Partner organisations of MISEREOR report that family members of refugees were killed by terrorists before their eyes. They speak about how combatants of “Boko Haram” came to their villages, plundered and then burnt their houses. Many families were separated; especially women and children desperately need protection.

In Germany, it is also a challenge to humanely house and care for refugees – especially with an eye on the coming winter. Certainly, more effort is needed. But we must not forget the people in those countries in the world who are not nearly as wealthy and have to offer protection and nourishment to far more refugees.”

Harvest of bishops continues in Rome’s summer.

It is summer, but you wouldn’t know it from the Congregation for Bishops, which continues churning out new bishops on a daily basis. In recent weeks we saw two appointments and a retirement in Germany:

bentzIn the Diocese of Mainz, Pope Francis has appointed Fr. Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop. He succeeds Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, who went to Erfurt in September.

Born in Rülzheim in 1967, the new bishop was ordained by Cardinal Lehmann in 1995, after completing his theology studies in Mainz and Innsbruck. He was subsequently subsequently assigned to the parish in Worms, and in 1998 he became Cardinal Lehmann’s personal secretary. In 2002 he began studying for his doctorate in dogmatics in Freiburg, which he combined with parish work. In 2007 he took over as head of the diocesan seminary. After his consecration, he will continue as such until further notice. Until 2017, he also heads the conference of seminary directors in Germany.

Judging from an interview from 2013, Bishop-elect Bentz is a man in the mold of Pope Francis:

“Faith is also and always socially and politically relevant. The Christian is a witness. And he contributes to shape of society, based on the conviction of the Gospel. In this context a priest also has a special responsibility. This aspect should not be denied. Mere ‘piety’ is not enough. One must learn to be aware of the social and political processes, to be able to critically distinguish and evaluate against the background of the Gospel”.

Bishop-elect Bentz’s has been given the titular see of Sita in modern Algeria. His consecration is set for 13 September.

dominicus-meier-osb-webOn the same day, the Archdiocese of Paderborn announced the appointment of Fr. Dominicus Meier as its new auxiliary bishop. He succeeds Bishop Manfred Grothe, whose retirement was also announced on the same day. More on him below.

Bishop-elect Meier has served the archdiocese between 1992 and 2001 as Defender of the Bond, and since 2013 as chief judge of the archdiocese. He is a Benedictine, having made his profession in 1982 at the Abbey of Königsmünster in Meschede. Born Michael, he took the name Dominicus. Between 2001 and 2013 he was the abbot of that community.

The new auxiliary bishop was born in 1959 in Lennestadt-Grevenbrück and after his profession he studied in Würzburg, Münster and Salzburg. In 1991 he became a diocesan judge in the latter archdiocese, frther completing his studies in canon law. Since 2002 he is a professor of canon law at the theological-philosophical Hochschule in Vallendar near Koblenz.

Bishop-elect Meier has been a priest since 1983 and will be consecrated as bishop on 27 September. He has been given the titular see of Castro di Sardegna.

Grothe_webAs mentioned above, Bishop Manfred Grothe retires as auxiliary bishop of Paderborn, but continues in his other office: that of Apostolic Administrator of Limburg. it is likely that that situation will continue until Limburg has a new bishop.

Bishop Grothe was auxiliary bishop of Paderborn from 2004 to 2015, and was presented with the task of putting the Diocese of Limburg back in order after the financial crisis that followed the extreme expenses on the diocesan offices and private residence of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, who resigned in 2014. How long he will continue with that job is a guess. His retirement as auxiliary bishop should perhaps not be seen as related to Limburg, as Bishop Grothe turned 76 in April and was therefore due for retirement on the basis of his age.

Currently, there remain two vacant dioceses in Germany: the aforementioned Limburg, and Dresden-Meißen, who’s bishop, Heiner Koch, will be installed as Archbishop of Berlin on 19 September. Close to retirement continue to be Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz (he turned 79 in May) and Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff of Aachen (he will turn 75 in October).

Grumblings in the east

koch berlinFollowing the appointment of Archbishop Heiner Koch (pictured at left with Berlin’s  cathedral chapter) to Berlin, the other bishops of eastern Germany have expressed concern at the trend that seems to be developing, a tendency for bishops in that part of the country to be reassigned within a few years after being made ordinaries there. And they have a point.

  • In 2010, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa left Görlitz after having been the bishop there for three years and three months.
  • In 2014, Cardinal Rainer Woelki left Berlin after having been its archbishop for three years.
  • And on Monday,  Bishop Heiner Koch left Dresden-Meißen after almost 2 and half years.

The dioceses of eastern Germany, or most of the territory of the former communist German Democratic Republic have a fairly short history in their current form. On the 27th of June, 1994, Erfurt, Magdeburg and Görlitz were promoted from Apostolic Administration to full dioceses, Berlin, which had already been a  diocese since the 1930s, became a metropolitan archdiocese, reflecting the new freedom of governance that the Church had now gained in the former communist parts of Germany. The Apostolic Administration of Schwerin, in the north, became part of the newly established Archdiocese of Hamburg in October of that same year. Dresden-Meißen was the odd one out, having existed in its current form, except for a change of name in 1979, since 1921.

The short tenures of Bishops Zdarsa and Koch and Cardinal Woelki in the dioceses mentioned above came in all cases after significantly longer tenures of their predecessors: In Dresden-Meißen, Joachim Reinelt had been bishop for 24 years; in Berlin, Cardinal Sterzinsky was ordinary for 17 years; and in Görlitz, Bishop Rudolf Müller enjoyed 12 years as bishop. The contrast is evident.

feigeIn fact, the eastern German episcopate as a whole is young. Only Magdeburg’s Gerhard Feige (pictured) has a decade as bishop behind him, and the next senior is Görlitz’s Wolfgang Ipolt, ordinary for a mere four years.

In light of all this, Bishop Feige said about the transfer of Archbishop Koch, “Given the particularly difficult situation of Catholics in the new federal states, this is likely to add to a further destabilisation of the situation of the Church […] Unfortunately the impression is being given that the eastern German dioceses are something like ‘railway shunting yards’ or ‘traineeships’ to qualify bishops for ‘higher offices'”. Bishop Ipolt said that he hoped these rapid reassignments would not become habit. “In the future we need active shepherds for the people of God, here in the Diaspora of the east of Germany”. Together with Erfurt’s Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, he does think that Archbishop Koch’s two-year experience in the east will be a boon in Berlin.

A bishop is the visible head of a local Church in matters of doctrine, worship and governance. The priests of a diocese assist him in these tasks. Stability is a great good in these matters, so it should be avoided to move bishops too often. In that sense I can understand the concerns of the bishops outlined above. On the other hand, as Archbishop Koch himself has also said, in the end a bishop goes where he is called, just like the Apostles, whose successors they are, went where they were sent.

The Archdiocese of Berlin has a bishop again, but Dresden-Meißen is vacant again. Should the bishops of the east be worried that another one of their ranks will be asked to move there? Anything is possible of course, but I don’t think that this is likely, especially since the concerns have now been voiced. But if the residing ordinaries are not be moved anymore, there are two auxiliary bishops in the area who could conceivably be tasked with governing a diocese of their own. Erfurt’s Bishop Reinhard Hauke has already done so during the two-year vacancy of the see there, before Bishop Neymeyr arrived last year. Berlin’s Bishop Matthias Heinrich is 60 and has been an auxiliary for six years.

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…