Berlin is vacant: herald of things to come?

With today’s acceptance of the resignation of Georg Cardinal Sterzinsky, a major European capital’s Catholic flock is left without an archbishop. For the time being of course, but the cardinal archbishop, who turned 75 some two weeks ago, leaves an interesting act to follow. When he was appointed in 1989 there was no Archdiocese of Berlin. Sterzinsky, until then a priest of Erfurt-Meiningen (now simply Erfurt), became the bishop of a divided diocese in an East Germany that started to show the cracks that would lead to the German reunification in 1990. Because of the important role of Berlin in the new Germany, and its position in history among other German cities, Bishop Sterzinsky was elevated to Cardinal in 1991, aged only 55. The reorganisation of the dioceses that followed the Wende saw Berlin elevated to an archdiocese and Sterzinsky as its first archbishop.

Berlin, which includes the city of the same name, north and central Brandenburg and eastern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (including the Baltic island Rügen), is now temporarily led by its auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Matthias Heinrich, who is obliged to convene the cathedral chapter to elect a diocesan administrator, who will run the archdiocese until the pope appoints a new archbishop.

In north and western Europe, where bishops and Catholics are a bit thinner on the ground than in the south, there are a number of bishops approaching the required retirement age of 75, and also some who are already past that age. In Germany, for example, they are Bishop Wilhelm Schraml of Passau (75) and Archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner of Köln (77). Archbishop Karl Cardinal Lehmann of Mainz and Bishop Joachim Reinelt of Dresden-Meissen will reach that age later this year. Related to that, the Diocese of Görlitz has been vacant since last year.

Outside Germany, the situation is comparable, although most surrounding countries have far fewer bishops. In Norway, the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim has been vacant since 2009, with the bishop of Oslo running things temporarily. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam is vacant, although no other Dutch bishops will turn 75 for the next seven years. In Belgium, too, the next bishop up for resignation is Bishop Jousten of Liège in November of 2012. The archbishop of Luxembourg, Fernand Franck, on the other hand, will turn 77 in May, and is still in office. In the United Kingdom then, Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, and Bishops Peter Moran of Aberdeen and Edwin Regan of Wrexham are all 75 or over and still in office. Meanwhile, the bishops of Brentwood, Hallam and Portsmouth will all reach 75 this year, while the Archdiocese of Cardiff remains vacant. Ireland, then, with its spate of bishops’ resignations in the wake of the abuse crisis, is a story in itself.

The current vacancy of Berlin may be a herald of some interesting changes in the Church in and around the Netherlands, but how long those changes will take is anyone’s guess.

All that being said, Cardinal Sterzinsky’s illness leaves him bedridden in the hospital, so his resignation is nothing but understandable, although it is said that he would have liked to be able to welcome Pope Benedict XVI in function when the latter will visit Berlin in September.

Photo credit: Deutscher Depeschendienst

The value of oddball Amsterdam

The flag of Amsterdam

The Dutch capital, Amsterdam, is a bit of an oddball among European capitals. Unlike most of the others, it is not the see of a bishop. Its only compatriot in this is Bern in Switzerland, which is in the Diocese of Basel and whose bishop resides at Solothurn.

In the case of Amsterdam, the diocese is Haarlem-Amsterdam and the bishop lives in Haarlem. The reason for this is firmly entrenched in the Protestant history of these shores: when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in 1853, the city fathers of Amsterdam vetoed a bishop coming to live among them. That is why Bishop Franciscus van Vree, the first bishop of the new diocese of Haarlem, which at that time extended from the island of Texel all the way to the islands of South Holland, settled for Haarlem, no doubt with the firm idea of one day moving to Amsterdam (perhaps as archbishop, had the pedigree of Utrecht not trumped the cards of Haarlem). That never happened.

In recent years, under the episcopate of Bishop Jos Punt, Amsterdam is again slowly but surely presented as an important Catholic centre in the Netherlands (it is helped in this by the fact that it was the location of a medieval Eucharistic miracle which is still the centre of an annual night-time procession). In 2008, the diocese changed its name from Haarlem to Haarlem-Amsterdam and it is rumoured that Bishop Punt would not mind elevating the St. Nicholas church in Amsterdam as co-cathedral of his diocese.

Bishop van Burgsteden

This past weekend, the value of Amsterdam was underlined once again, when St. Nicholas priest Father Joop Stam celebrated his last Mass before enjoying his retirement. Both Bishop Punt and Auxiliary Bishop Jan van Burgsteden attended this Mass, and it is the latter who is now made administrator of the parish that Fr. Stam is leaving. He will be the de facto head of the parish until another priest is named to succeed Fr. Stam. It is therefore not a permanent position, but the fact that a bishop was appointed to the function speaks volumes.

Amsterdam is the centre of much that goes on in the Netherlands, and the local Church not only wants to reflect that, but have her presence similarly visible there.

A very special church

During the school Christmas break we take the opportunity to go and visit places. Last week, my girlfriend and I spent a few days in a hotel in the south of the country, from which we visited various cities and towns. The stop for our first day was the town of Valkenburg, in the far south of the Diocese of Roermond (and therefore of the country as a whole).

There, to my surprise, a visit to a Christmas market in a former mine complex revealed a very special former church. During the reign of Napoleon, the Netherlands was annexed to the French Empire, and the Catholic priests were required to make an oath of allegiance to that empire and its ruler. Many refused to do so, and were either imprisoned or exiled for that. Many priests had to offer their Masses in secret, and the priests of Valkenburg and surroundings chose what is now called the ‘Velvet cave’ to use for a makeshift chapel. Baptismal fonts, altars and other requirements were cut out of the soft chalk of the mine and carefully decorated. The masonry and artwork is still preserved, as are memorials to priests who were imprisoned and exiled.

In later decades, more artwork and graffiti appeared, not least from American soldiers who used the caves to fight the German oppressors during the later stages of World War 2.

A photo impression:

Memorial for Father Servaas Widdershoven, parish priest in the area during Napoleonic times.
Saints Francis and Clara, perhaps?
A baptismal font that may still be used upon request. The text reads: "They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" from Acts 19, 5
The sanctuary, with the former location of the tabernacle still very visible.
"And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles and in the communication of the breaking of bread and in prayers." Acts 2, 42
Saint Servatius, bishop of the first diocese in the Low Countries (Tongres) in the 4th century

 

Another popular saint from these parts is Saint Gerlac, a devout hermit who was fond of his pilgrimages.
"And on the first day of the week, when we were assembled to break bread ... He continued his speech until midnight. And there were a great number of lamps in the upper chamber where we were assembled." Acts 20, 7-8
List of priest of 'the canton of Valkenburg' who refused to swear the oath of loyalty to the French regime. Fr. Sewrvatius Widdershoven was imprisoned, while Fr. Joan Mathijs van den Eerdewegh was exiled to the Island of Ré, off the French coast near La Rochelle.

Cædmon’s Hymn

For a student of English with a fondness for (language) history, this is akin to a slice of fried gold:

Cædmon’s Hymn is the oldest English poem by a named author, related to us by St. Bede the Venerable. In the 7th century, the time in which the poem was created, English didn’t really sound the same as today…

Tip of the hat to Mark Shea.

Much-maligned pontiff

A very good defense of Pope Pius XII on the website of Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday. Emphases and notes mine.

Much-maligned pontiff

by Dimitri Cavalli

Some things never go away. The controversy over Pope Pius XII’s actions during World War II was recently reignited when Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree affirming that his predecessor displayed “heroic virtues” during his lifetime. When the pope visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on Sunday, Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, told him: “The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts because something should have been done.”

This was not the first time the wartime pope, who is now a step closer to beatification, has been accused of keeping silent during the Holocaust, of doing little or nothing to help the Jews, and even of collaborating with the Nazis. To what extent, if any, does the evidence back up these allegations, which have been repeated since the early 1960s?

On April 4, 1933, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, instructed the papal nuncio in Germany to see what he could do to oppose the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies.

On behalf of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli drafted an encyclical, entitled “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Anxiety”), that condemned Nazi doctrines and persecution of the Catholic Church. The encyclical was smuggled into Germany and read from Catholic pulpits on March 21, 1937.

Although many Vatican critics today dismiss the encyclical as a light slap on the wrist, the Germans saw it as a security threat. For example, on March 26, 1937, Hans Dieckhoff, an official in the German foreign ministry, wrote that the “encyclical contains attacks of the severest nature upon the German government, calls upon Catholic citizens to rebel against the authority of the state, and therefore signifies an attempt to endanger internal peace.”

Both Great Britain and France should have interpreted the document as a warning that they should not trust Adolf Hitler or try to appease him.

After the death of Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope, on March 2, 1939. The Nazis were displeased with the new pontiff, who took the name Pius XII. On March 4, Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, wrote in his diary: “Midday with the Fuehrer. He is considering whether we should abrogate the concordat with Rome in light of Pacelli’s election as pope.”

During the war, the pope was far from silent: In numerous speeches and encyclicals, he championed human rights for all people and called on the belligerent nations to respect the rights of all civilians and prisoners of war. Unlike many of the pope’s latter-day detractors, the Nazis understood him very well. After studying Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas message, the Reich Central Security Office concluded: “In a manner never known before the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order … Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” (Pick up any book that criticizes Pius XII, and you won’t find any mention of this important report.)

In early 1940, the pope acted as an intermediary between a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler and the British government. Although the conspiracy never went forward, Pius XII kept in close contact with the German resistance and heard about two other plots against Hitler. In the fall of 1941, through diplomatic channels, the pope agreed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt that America’s Catholics could support the president’s plans to extend military aid to the Soviet Union after it was invaded by the Nazis. On behalf of the Vatican, John T. McNicholas, the archbishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, delivered a well-publicized address that explained that the extension of assistance to the Soviets could be morally justified because it helped the Russian people, who were the innocent victims of German aggression.

Throughout the war, the pope’s deputies frequently ordered the Vatican’s diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews. Up until Pius XII’s death in 1958, many Jewish organizations, newspapers and leaders lauded his efforts. To cite one of many examples, in his April 7, 1944, letter to the papal nuncio in Romania, Alexander Shafran, chief rabbi of Bucharest, wrote: “It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of deported Jews … The Jews of Romania will never forget these facts of historic importance.” [Ironic, since many later did forget…]

The campaign against Pope Pius XII is doomed to failure because his detractors cannot sustain their main charges against him – that he was silent, pro-Nazi, and did little or nothing to help the Jews – with evidence. Perhaps only in a backward world such as ours would the one man who did more than any other wartime leader to help Jews and other Nazi victims, receive the greatest condemnation. [It shows the power of populaist theory. As long as it sound good, people will believe it, despite the evidence against it.]

Dimitri Cavalli is an editor and writer in New York City. He is working on books on both Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late manager of the New York Yankees.