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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

About his new ministry of service, he says,

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

When money and faith clash – Archbishop Gänswein on “disproportionate measures”

Strong words from Archbishop Georg Gänswein about the notorious German Church tax, the Kirchensteuer, in a recent interview. More specifically, the Prefect of the Papal Household criticises the measures taken against people who refuse to pay the tax: excommunication.

The Kirchensteuer is a state tax for the benefit of faith communities (not just the Catholic Church). When a citizen is officially registered as a member of a church of faith community, he is obliged to pay this tax. The only way to avoid paying this tax is to stop being a member of a church or faith community. Archbishop Gänswein explains the Catholic Church’s response to this:

gänswein“How does the Catholic Church in Germany respond to someone leaving the Church? With an automatic exclusion from the Church community, in other words: excommunication. This is excessive and incomprehensible. One can question dogmas, that hurts no one, no one is kicked out. Is not paying the Church tax then a greater misdemeanor against the faith than violations of the truths of faith? The impression created is this: it’s  not so tragic when the faith is at stake, but as soon as money is involved, the game is over. The sharp sword of excommunication when leaving the Church is disproportionate and in need of correction.”

This, and the entire fact of the Catholic Church making use of the Kirchensteuer, does more bad than good, in my opinion. Not only does it create the impression that money is more important than the individual and the various reasons that people may have to not want to pay the Church tax, it also ensnares the Church in the fiscal policies of the state, curtailing its freedom to perform her mission. Of course, money is a necessity, even for the Church, but it should never be a goal in itself. And this whole business of  excommunicating people with a simple stroke of a pen gives the impression of the latter.

Archbishop Gänswein continues:

“When the goods ultimately oppose the good – the faith – there remains only one option: one must free oneself of it. Full coffers and empty churches, this is a terrible gap, that can no longer continue going well. When the cash registers ring and the pews grow ever more empty, there will some day be an implosion. An empty church can not be taken seriously. Who is served when a diocese is extremely rich, but the faith has gradually seeped away? Are we so secularised that the faith barely plays a part anymore, or is even considered to be ballast? Ballast is cast off when it is no longer needed. Are we no longer in a position to proclaim the faith in such a way that people see that it is something great, something beautiful, which enriches and deepens life?”

These comments probably continue to make him unpopular among his brother bishops in Germany, but Archbishop Gänswein is unfazed. When asked about the probability of him being appointed to a diocese in Germany, he is clear that that is not going to happen, since no cathedral chapter is likely to choose him.

“It is indeed true: I have made no secret of my convictions. I have somehow been  branded in public as a rightwinger or a hardliner, without there being concrete examples for that. If the reason is that I do not speak in a roundabout way, but with clarity, than I have to say: Yes, that’s right. That is what I stand for. Now and also in the future.”

Nor does he have a desire to return home to be ordinary of a diocese. He is content with his duties at the side of Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

In Germany, the numbers speak

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

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

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

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

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

The long wait is over – A bishop for Limburg

It took two years, three months and a few days, but Limburg finally has a bishop again. Well, once he is ordained and installed, that is. Msgr. Georg Bätzing has been elected by the cathedral chapter and subsequently appointed yesterday by the Pope to become the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Limburg, which had been vacant since the forced retirement of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in March of 2014.

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Msgr. Bätzing was born in 1961 in Kirchen, not far from the Diocese of Limburg. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Trier in 1987 following studies in Trier and Freiburg. After serving in parishes in Klausen and Koblenz, he was appointed as subsititute rector of the diocesan seminary in Trier. From 1996 to 2010 he led the seminary and was responsible for the whole of priestly formation in the diocese. He received the title of monsignor in 2005. Since 2012 he has been the vicar general of the diocese.

“If I knew how to laugh and cry at the same time, I would do it,” Msgr. Bätzen reflected on his appointment. The past days had been emotional, he said.  But the first moments of shock after hearing the news have been replaced by joy at his new assignment. Over the past two years he had hoped for a good bishop for the neighbouring Diocese of Limburg, but he never thought it would be him. Confident that God “has nothing but good for him in store”, he looks back on Trier, where his roots lie, and forward to Limburg, the faithful of which he asks to pray for him: “That our common path in the Church of Limburg will be good and under the blessing of God.”

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier also commented on the appointment of hsi vicar general: “With Msgr. Bätzing, Limburg receives an excellent bishop. We all know that. We know Vicar General Bätzing as a person who is kindhearted, authentic and clear at the same time. Georg Bätzing can listen well, relies on participation, is a mediator, but does not shy away from making decisions. He is a priest in all his heart and an inspirational preacher.”

aachenmainzThe Diocese of Limburg was established in 1821 to cater to the Catholics in the then-current Duchy of Nassau, as well as the Free City of Frankfurt. Its territory was taken from the adjacent dioceses of Trier and Mainz. Originally a suffragan see of Freiburg, in 1929 it became a part of the Province of Cologne. In 1930 and 1933 it gained some more territory, from Fulda and Trier respectively. There are some 645,000 Catholics in the diocese, out of a total population of 2.4 million. It has few major cities aside from Wiesbaden and Frankfurt am Main, with the majority of Catholics concentrated in the south and northwest.

Now that Limburg has a bishop again, there are two vacant dioceses remaining in Germany (pictured above at right): Aachen, like Limburg a suffragan of Köln, and Mainz, which borders Limburg in two separate parts to the south and east.

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

A Cold War arrangement ends as Germany is set to lose a bishop

The place of the German dioceses in the world Church is unique in several ways. Their relations with Rome are dictated by concordats which also influence the appointment of bishops (rather than the Pope choosing a new bishop from a list of three candidates, it is the other way around for most dioceses in Germany; it is the Pope providing a list of three candidates to the cathedral chapter of a given diocese, who then make their choice for the Pope to appoint). And there is also an unofficial tradition when it comes to auxiliary bishops: in at least the major (arch)dioceses, there will always be the same number of auxiliary bishops. For example, Cologne has three, one for each of its pastoral areas, and Hamburg has two.

Or had, at least.

464px-Karte_Erzbistum_HamburgIn the Archdiocese of Hamburg the tradition is about to change. Hamburg is perhaps a little too young to have very old traditions, but this goes a bit further back than the archdiocese. Established in 1994, the archdiocese was given two auxiliary bishops, one residing in Hamburg, the other in Schwerin. And in Schwerin, the tradition of having a resident auxiliary bishop goes back another 40 years, to 1973, when the area, then still part of the Diocese of Osnabrück, was made a nominally separate Apostolic Administration. This because of the political situation at the time: the new Administration was that part of Osnabrück which lay in the communist German Democratic Republic, divided from the rest of the diocese by the iron curtain. As this border between west and east prevented easy travel by the bishop from Osnabrück to the faithful in Mecklenburg and Vorpommern, the Holy See appointed an auxiliary bishop to reside in Schwerin, who could be a bishop for the faithful there when the ordinary could not. After the German reunification, major parts of Osnabrück, including Schwerin, were split off to become the new Archdiocese of Hamburg, but the auxiliary bishop in Schwerin remained, now as an auxiliary bishop of Hamburg. Since 1981, that has been Bishop Norbert Werbs, who retired in May of 2015. No successor has been appointed since then, and none will, it now seems.

3079_4_WeihbischofJaschke2013_Foto_ErbeA spokesman of the archdiocese said that, in the future, the sole auxiliary bishop would reside in Hamburg, like the archbishop. That single auxiliary is currently Hans-Jochen Jaschke (at left) who is set to retire upon his 75th birthday on 29 September of this year. Not only is this the end of a cold war arrangement, one of those which so marked the recent history of the German dioceses – of which Hamburg is the only one incorporating parts of both former East and West Germany – but also a move that decreases the number of German bishops by one. Before now any retiring bishop, be he an ordinary or auxiliary, could expect a successor to be appointed within reasonable time (auxiliaries quicker than ordinaries).

The decision to no longer appoint two auxiliary bishops for Hamburg was made by Pope Francis and Archbishop Stefan Heße together, it is said. In preparation for the selection of the single new auxiliary, to be appointed when Bishop Jaschke retires, the archbishop has asked for suggestions from some 100 people in the archdiocese.

The question of being human – Bishop Neymeyr’s message for Lent

In his message for Lent, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt tackles a difficult question – “what does it mean to be human?” – and arrives at a twofold answer. In the process he also discusses the humanity of refugees, something we must always endeavour to recognise, especially when confronted with the problems and challenges that come with accepting and sheltering people from different cultures.

The Holy Year of Mercy also gets a look in, as do the works of mercy.

“My dear sisters and brothers,

“What is being human?” At the start of Lent I invite you to reflect on this question, as it leads us to the current challenges of this year. “What is being human?” We think of other concepts, such as understanding, kindness, helpfulness. Someone who is human, sees needs and tries to alleviate them. The countless people who have come to us as refugees in recent months, experience such humanity. Many people in Thuringia consider it important not to describe or treat the refugees as a stream, flood or mass, but as people who fled out of necessity. Even when our country has to send people back when there is no danger for life and limb in their homeland, they are people, who should be treated humanely. We can not be indifferent to what happens to them at home. This striving for compassion – also with refugees – unites us with most people in Thuringia. As Christians we are bound to be more than compassionate, namely charitable. Jesus identifies Himself with people in need: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matt. 25,35). In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity!” (N. 15). Charity can also be stirred by the fate of people far away, especially when they come from the distance of the news as refugees to our neighbourhood.

The motto of the Katholikentag, which will take place from 25 to 29 May 2016 in Leipzig, leads us to another dimension of being compassionate. It is “Here is the man!”, in Latin: “Ecce homo!”. They are the famous words with which Pontius Pilate introduces Jesus to the crowd after He was brutally tortured, i.e. scourged (John 19:5). The man Jesus becomes a sacrifice for injustice and self-interest, of fanaticism and political circumstances. Someone who is human, who sees people, also sees the inhuman structures and can not stay out of politics. We lament the fate of our fellow Christians who are exposed to discrimination and persecution in Muslim and communist countries. No faith group is persecuted so much globally as Christians. In a free country we can and must raise our voices against intolerance and repression. We must also ask critically if Germany, shaped as it is by Christianity, is committed enough to the rights of our persecuted fellow Christians. The use of our freedom can not fall victim to political or economical interests. The Katholikentag in Leipzig should be a forum where the political consequences of the Gospel will be struggled with. I gladly invite you to participate. It is worth travelling to Leipzig for, even for one day.

You may perhaps have thought of a very different answer to the question, “What is being human?”, namely, “To err is human”. Another word for being human is ‘imperfect’. The wellknown sentence “To err is human” comes from the Roman philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus. From the Irish author Oscar Wilde comes the sentence: Everyone has a weakness and that only makes him human.” Both quotes remind us of the human characteristic of making mistakes, to not abide by the rules, even violating own principles. The Apostle Paul describes this human behaviour briefly and concisely in his Letter to the Romans: “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). Paul calls this the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). In the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis calls us to entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, with our tendencies and sins. In his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis writes, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands” (N. 17). Dear sisters and brothers, I want to encourage you to receive the sacrament of Confession. I know that it is not easy to look at our own humanity and sins. There is also much that we can’t simply change from one day to the next. But when we accept our weaknesses and ignore our sins, nothing will change. When we, however, take a good look at them and express them in Confession, we hold them towards the mercy of the heavenly Father. We find that we have been accepted by God, we experience the liberation of a new beginning – and who knows: the mercy of Jesus transformed the greedy tax collector Zacchaeus, and he freely returned what he took unjustly.

“What is being human?” The answers to this question are twofold: imperfect and charitable. Our language indicates an inner connection: When we are and remain aware of our own imperfection, our understanding for and charity towards other people increases. As we rely on the mercy of God, we are prompted to show mercy towards other people. Especially in the land of Saint Elisabeth, the wish of the Holy Father, which he directs at all in his Bull for the Holy Year of Mercy, should find fertile ground: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead” (N. 15). You may find the works of mercy in Gotteslob, under number 29,3.

In the Elisabeth Year of 2007 the works of mercy were reformulated for us today in Thuringia:

  • You belong.
  • I listen to you.
  • I speak well about you.
  • I am travelling with you a while.
  • I share with you.
  • I visit you.
  • I pray for you.

Dear sisters and brothers, I wish you a blessed Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy and invoke over you all the blessing of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Your bishop, Ulrich Neymeyr”

In Cologne, the auxiliaries are complete again

While the number of vacant dioceses in Germany now numbers three (Limburg continues to be without a bishop since March of 2014, Dresden-Meißen has been awaiting a new shepherd since June of this year, and Aachen became the third vacancy last week), the appointment of auxiliary bishops continues smoothly. Since June of this year the Archdiocese of Cologne, which usually has three auxiliaries for each of its pastoral areas, has had only two as Bishop Manfred Melzer retired in that month. Today his successor was appointed. He is 63-year-old Msgr. Rolf Steinhäuser.


Bishop-elect Steinhäuser will have episcopal responsibility, under that of the archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, of course, of the Central pastoral area of the archdiocese. This area includes the city of Cologne itself, as well as Leverkusen and the Rhein-Erft area. Before his new appointment, which came as a surprise to him, the new auxiliary bishop was a non-resident canon of the cathedral, head of the Edith Stein retreat house, and official for the new evangelisation in the Archdiocese of Cologne.

Of his appointment, Bishop-elect Steinhäuser said, “I was very surprised, as I had already assumed that my current assignment would be the last in my life. As auxiliary bishop I want to contribute to reform and formation of the Church, in the line of Pope Francis.” Looking ahead to the future, he added, “I hope that my duties as auxiliary bishop will allow me much direct contact with people, and that I can accompany them in the important moments of their lives”.

The consecration of the new bishop, who has been given the titular see of Thuburnica in modern Tunisia, is scheduled for 10 January. It may be assumed that Cardinal Woelki will be the main consecrator, with auxiliary bishops Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff serving as co-consecrators.

Bishop-elect Steinhäuser is a native son of Cologne, having been born there in 1952. He was ordained as a priest in 1977. From 1984 to 1997 he was involved in the pastoral care of youth, first in Bonn and later in the entire archdiocese. In 1997 he became the city dean of Düsseldorf. Pope Saint John Paul II gave him the title monsignor in 1998, and in 2006 he joined the cathedral chapter.