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