25 years in, Bishop Hofmann leaves the seat of Würzburg

ba5a6005As announced by the Nuncio yesterday, the retirement of Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann will begin today. The bishop of Würzburg, who celebrated his 75th birthday in May, has been at the helm of the diocese for 13 years.

The announcement of the upcoming retirement was made on Sunday when the bishop and diocese celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Before coming to Würzburg in 2004, Bishop Hofmann served as an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for 12 years.

The silver jubilee of his ordination as bishop was thus also an opportunity to thank Msgr. Hofmann for his service. Numerous bishops from Germany and abroad had come to concelebrate, among them Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Friedrich Wetter, from Munich both, Archbishop Piero Marini, and Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset, the previous nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich from Luxembourg, Bishop John Ndimbo from Mbinga in Tanzania and Bishop Bernardo Johannes Bahlmann from Óbidos in Brazil, both partner dioceses of Würzburg.

In contrast with the expressions of appreciation and gratitude for his work, from brother bishops as well as the local Lutheran bishop and the president of the Bavarian parliament, Bishop Hofmann rather more critical in his homily. Looking back on the past 25 years, he noted how the problems in society had not improved. “On the contrary, the problems became more acute and new challenges have arisen”. Examples mentioned by the bishop were the cries in the world leading to increasing streams of refugees, the increase in religiously motivated extremism, and the ethical challenges of genetic research. How can this be compatible with God’s love for us? Referring to his motto, “Ave crux, spes unica“, Bishop Hofmann said, “What may seem to us as the ultimate humiliation, is for Jesus the rising and entrance into the glory of the Father. This belief shakes us up and presupposes knowledge of the fullness of our salvation.”

In a recent interview for the Tagespost, Bishop Hofmann looked ahead to his retirement, saying:

“I am aware that I am taking a step back. I will not interfere in how my successor executes his office. I have decided that for myself. My predecessor, Bishop Scheele, did the same thing. But I am willing to help out when I am asked, for examples with confirmations. I will continue living in Würzburg.”

Said interview also contains a number of comments from Bishop Hofmann on a number of topics, comments which show that, in many respects, this is a bishop with his head screwed on right.

On same-sex marriage, promoted in Germany by the “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all) initiative, he says:

“The so-called “Ehe für alle” is, in my opinion, a catastrophe for society. Marriage is a God-willed union of man and woman, which is open to the generation of new life. An “Ehe für alle” is therefore impossible according to Catholic understanding.  Pointing this out is not remotely the same as attacking or discriminating homosexual people”.\

About the presence of Muslim immigrants (and often second- and third-generation Muslims) in German society, which in the basis remains a Christian society:

“It should be clear: when Muslims come to us and want to live here, they must accept our social rules. But for me as a Christian, the Islam is not a challenge. It is rather the failing of Christianity that we should fear. We must speak with Muslims on equal footing. We must make it clear to them that basic civilian advances such as the Charter of the United Nations of the Basic Law of Germany are based on Christian ethics. We must inform them that their freedom and wellbeing also depend on the continued existence of that Christian foundation.”

The shortage of priests is also felt in Würzburg. The number of young men knocking on seminary doors is small. Bishop Hofmann points out several reasons for this.

“These days, young men often no longer come from a Christian family. When God is not mentioned at home, when there is no prayer, it is difficult to arrive at the thought to go this path. Secondly, young people have a fear of commitment. This can also be seen with marriage. People no longer want to commit themselves to one person for their entire lives. That obviously makes celibacy a major hurdle, which many cannot overcome, although they may certainly be suitable for the priesthood. And then there is the great pressure of expectation on the priest from the community. Many priests experience this. Young people then wonder if they want to do that to themselves.”

Another hot-button topic is the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Bishop Hofmann has something to say about that, and about celibacy and the ordination of married men, too.

“The ordination of women is not possible. The priest, after all, represents Christ and must therefore be a man. The Church has no leeway there. This is a different question than that of celibacy. I consider celibacy to be a very important concept. In it, the Church makes clear that she is not a great worldly concern, but is built on a different foundation. But there have always been married priests as well in our Church, for example in the Uniate churches or converts. It is therefore possible to discuss the question of the viri probati. But this discussion should not be held in such a way that one speaks ill of celibacy and considers it superfluous. It can only be about ordaining proven men, for example deacons, who have shown themselves capable of ecclesiastical service as married men. Such a step can only be made in unity with the word Church. The pope is certainly open to thinking in this direction, but at the same time he is not one who wants to rip the Church from her foundations.”

The Church in Germany is among the richest in the world. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI, himself a German, has been very critical about the wealth of the Church. Bishop Hofmann says:

“Pope Benedict was completely right. In Germany, we are a rich Church. But in the face of the needs of the world I often wonder myself if all the reserves that we are building are justified, or if we shouldn’t give that money to the poor and hungry.”

Finally, Bishop Hofmann greatly respects the retired pope, and the way that he is sometimes discussed is a discgrace.

“Pope Benedict is one of the greatest theologians to have occupied the seat of Peter. He has given the world so much that is positive and important, in word and deed. It is a tragedy that we haven’t always positively accepted this in Germany. But I am convinced that in 20, 30 years Pope Benedict will find new listeners as a Doctor of the Church of the modern age.”

232px-Karte_Bistum_WürzburgWürzburg is the second diocese, after Hildesheim, to fall vacant after a brief spell in which every German diocese had a bishop at its head. When the retirement of Bishop Hofmann begins, at noon today, auxiliary bishop Ulrich Boom will be in charge until the cathedral chapter has chosen an administrator to oversee current affairs until a new bishop has been appointed. Würzburg is the northernmost diocese in Bavaria and a part of the Church province of Bamberg.

Photo credit: Markus Hauck (POW)

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Consistory dawning – Amid controversy, one cardinal-to-be stays at home

collegeofcardinalsTomorrow, Pope Francis will create his fourth batch of cardinals. A small group of five this time (the smallest since Blessed Paul VI’s creation of four cardinals in 1977), but one unique in its variety, both in the places the new cardinals call home and in their hierarchical positions among the world’s bishops: One is an archbishop of a major metropolitan see, the other an auxiliary bishop; one runs a diocese covering an entire country, the other a sparsely-populated stretch of mountains and jungle, while another resides in a mostly Muslim society.

Jean_ZerboThis consistory, like others before it, comes with its own developments. This time, it is Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, Mali, who is at the centre of attention. Yesterday, the news broke that he will skip tomorrow’s ceremony because of health reasons, it is claimed. A valid reason for a 73-year-old man, certainly, but one made all the more interesting by the recent discovery of several Swiss bank accounts in the name of the bishops’ conference of Mali, totalling some 12 million euros in 2007. The bishops deny any misappropriation and claim full transparency about the existence of this extensive funds. Regardless of this, questions remain about the origin and purpose of this money, as journalist Marco Politi outlines, and Archbishop Zerbo, being one of three men with access to these accounts, is the subject of scrutiny, especially now that he is to be a cardinal.

Archbishop Zerbo’s absence from the consistory also influences the ceremony. Being the first-named among the new cardinals, it was his task to address a few words of gratitude to the Pope on behalf of himself and the other cardinals. It would be logical to assume that this now falls to the second name on the list, that of Archbishop Juan Omella Omella of Barcelona.

All in all, the consistory will be an intimate affair, with the four cardinals-elect, Juan Omella Omella, Anders Arborelius, Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun and Gregorio Rosa Chavéz, seated before the Holy Father, dressed in the cardinal red that signifies the servitude unto death as described by Jesus to his disciples in the reading from the Gospel of Mark, always used in consistories: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:43-45)

palliumOn Thursday, the traditional first Mass of the new cardinals with the Pope will be combined with the Mass for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, after which the pallia for the past year’s new metropolitan archbishops will be distributed. Under Pope Francis’ new rules, the actual imposition of the pallia will take place in the archbishops home dioceses. It is not mandatory for the new archbishops to attend and collect their pallia themselves, but it is expected that most of this year’s 34 will do so.

EDIT: Yesterday, it was revealed that Cardinal-designate Jean Zerbo will attend the consistory, having recovered enough from a stomach ailment that would have prevented his travelling to Rome.

A great heart goes home – Bishop Lemmens passes away

This morning brought the sad news of the death of Bishop Leon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels, after a struggle with leukemia. The bishop had laid down his duties towards the end of last year and was admitted to hospital in October of 2016, which is where, at the university hospital in Louvain, he passed away last night.

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Bishop Lemmens was an auxiliary bishop of the sole Belgian archdiocese since 2011, when he was appointed as such together with Bishop Jean-Luc Hudsyn and Jean Kockerols. He was appointed for the vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen, and wuithin the bishops’ conference he was responsible for the pastoral care to prisoners, contacts with the other Christian churches and  contacts with the Muslim community. The late bishop was also member of the Community of St. Egidio. Speaking on behalf of that community, historian and member Jan De Volder characterises the bishop as follows:

“Leon Lemmens was an extraordinarily cultivated man, a polyglot, who left an impression because of his stature and sincere cordiality, also on the young people he met. He possessed a robust faith and a great heart, especially for the poor, the homeless, the refugees.”

The titular bishop of Municipa was a priest of the Diocese of Hasselt since his ordination in 1977. He studied moral theology in Rome, after which he served as parish priest in Genk in the early 1980s. A professor at the diocesan seminary since 1984, he rose to its leadership in 1997. In 1998 he was appointed as vicar general of Hasselt. In 2004, Msgr. Lemmens went to Rome, to serve as rector of the Romanian College, and in 2005 he also started working at the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. In 2011, he was one of three priests called to serve as auxiliary bishops under the then recently-appointed Archbishop Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. In 2015, shortly before being forced to relinquish his duties, Bishop Lemmens accompanied Bishop Guy Harpigny and the later Cardinal Jozef De Kesel on a solidarity mission to northern Iraq.

Aboput his final months and weeks, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt, Bishop Lemmens’ home diocese, says:

“We knew that he was ill and we visited him regularly. I spoke with him over the phone only last week. He bore his illness in full faithful surrender.”

The funeral Mass for Bishop Lemmens will take place on Saturday 10 June, in the Cathedral of St. Rombald in Mechelen.

Quoting the wish from the vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen: “Let’s remain united in prayer with him, and ask the Lord to embrace him with great affection and grant him eternal life.”

Photo credit: Philippe Keulemans

Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

A civil war strikes close to home – On the death of Fr. Hamel

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After Brussels, Paris, Nice, Würzburg and München, all the news about new terrorist attacks is getting a bit much. Yesterday the name of another town was added to the list, although as places go, it does not exactly rank among the world’s major cities. But what happened in Saint-Étienne-de-Rouvray is a horror in a too-long list of horrors.

Father Jacques Hamel, 86, brutally murdered for, we can assume, the ‘crime’ of being a Catholic priest. His murderers already served their punishment by the guns of the police. A second hostage in critical condition in the hospital. France, if it still can after recent months, in shock, and many with her.

Of course, the murder of Fr. Hamel is not unique. Christians in the countries like Iraq and Syria live in fear of their lives every day, and with good reason. The rabid dogs of ISIS and likeminded radicals do not shy away from killing all those who they consider to be enemies of a fictitious brand of pure Islam – and Christians are at the top of their lists. This is, however, the first time that such a cold-blooded murder of a priest in the process of celebrating Mass has taken place in Europe. It only serves to further add to the feelings of fear and anger that already exist.

It is so easy to give in to those feelings. To wish death and destruction on people who are as deranged as the murderers of Fr. Hamel. But, of course, we are Christians. We are called to do better than that. To not give in to base feelings, to not in the first place think of how these horrors make us feel. In this case, our first duty should be with the victims – Fr. Hamel, the sisters and altar servers who were also held hostage, and, yes, all those who will siffer the backlash that will follow. And then, let us think of our role in that backlash. Will we allow ourselves to fear and hate the innocent who happen to share a faith (even in name alone) or cultural background with today’s killers? Our will we rise above it and make a distinction, not between Christians and Muslims, but between good and evil, between the way of God and the way of the devil?

Ultimately, the solution to the crisis in the Muslim world, which several people have already called a civil war within Islam, does not lie in more hate and fear, but neither does it lie solely with us. In the end, the Muslim world itself needs to find and implement the solution. We can help, but it can’t be enforced by us.

I am reminded of a blog post by Bishop Stefan Oster, which he wrote following the attack in Nice. The bishop of Passau began his text like this:

“After this act of terrorism – and after the ones in Paris, after Brussels, after Istanbul, after Madrid, after, after, after… After the atrocities committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in all the continents of the world, after, after, after… When will the collective, the great common outcry from all the world’s peaceloving Muslims, who are truly devoted to their god, finally come, that they will no longer let their faith be abused by terorrists? When will the religious and political leaders of the Muslim world finally come together and declare to the world that Islam and terrorism are not compatible?  And when will such a great demonstration of peacefullness finally take place among us – by the great number of Muslims living in our country?”

As for us, let’s start with prayer for the repose of the soul of Father Jacques Hamel, may he rest in peace and see the Lord whom he served for so many years and live in His glory.

The thin line between fear and charity

It’s a thin line that separates feelings when we are confronted with news report after news report about the latest terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam: the thin line between hate of everything Muslim and Christian compassion with the innocent – be they Muslim or otherwise –  and condemnation of violence. Emotionally, the choice for the former seems easy and is frequently made, also in Catholic social media: Islam is a threat and Muslims are, by definition, not to be trusted and should be refused intry into western countries.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, in an article about his blessing of 150 bicycles for refugees, has strong words about terrorism – perhaps his strongest yet – and equally about our Christian duty to help those in need, regardless of their background.

“The Gospel of Christ unequivocally calls us to generous assistance to people in need. I don’t think there can be any negotiating about that. He who is our Lord has Himself been a homeless refugee. And in the face of refugees we can discover Christ Himself. But as Christians we should not be naive. There is an Islamic civil war happening in the world today. Through a toxic mixture of social and economic slighting and feelings of humiliation a number of Muslims has been religiously radicalised and become extremely violent. Through terror they not only want to establish an imaginery Islamic dream empire, but also destabilise western society with fear. Our government has the duty to eliminate terrorists as best as possible before they can sow death and destruction. In the meantime Christians especially remain called to offer a helping hand to well-intentioned people in need, including those from Muslim countries.”

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^Bishop de Korte blessing bikes in the cathedral of St. John in Den Bosch.

Extreme choices – to either hate all or deny that there’s anything wrong –  are rarely the right ones. Bishop de Korte rightly reminds us that terrorism must be fought, but not to the detriment of those who need our help. As Christians, we are not in the business of blaming people for the misdeeds of others.

Photo credit: MIVA

When faiths meet – Refugees as missionaries

In an interview looking ahead to the 100th Catholic Day in Leipzig, which begins on 25 May, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki offers a thought-provoking answer to the question if the Muslim faith of many refugees forms a challenge to the Christian faith of the Catholic volunteers aiding them. The archbishop of Cologne says:

woelki32“I see it in many volunteers in our parishes, who work with and for refugees. When the refugees ask them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping us?” – it is for many an impulse to think anew about their own faith and consider more deeply what motivates them to do what they do. One could say that the refugees are, in this sense, missionaries.”