On Corpus Christi, Cardinal Woelki returns to the debate

The Church celebrated the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, today. She reflects on and celebrates the wondrous presence of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament He has given to the Church. In Germany on this day, it is hard not to think of the recent debates surrounding that sacrament, and especially the question of who can receive it. In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, spoke about the situation at the end of the Mass he celebrated in the square in front of the city’s cathedral. He revealed what lies at the basis of his difficulties with the proposal to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion:

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“Some think, “What’s the point? That’s nonsense.” Others even think, “It’s a puppet show.” I think: This is about life and death. This is about death and resurrection. This is about eternal life, this is about Christ. This is about His Church and hence this is about the essence. And that is why we must fight for it and find the right way. Not just any way, but the way of the Lord, which He shows us, since He alone is the way and the truth and the life.”

We often, sometimes as a matter of course, say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of the Church. But when you really think about what that means, about what the Church teaches and professes about the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the cardinal’s passionate words make a lot of sense.

In his homily, Cardinal Woelki called the Eucharist the greatest mystery of our faith, except for the Holy Trinity. He reminded the faithful in Roncalli Square that by receiving Communion they say “Yes and amen” to the Pope and to the bishop, to the sacramental structure of the Church and to the saints and their veneration. This makes Holy Mass not just “some event” which can be replaced by a Word and Communion service, “no matter how beautiful”. Also worth remembering, especially in the current debate, is this:

“In the first place, what matters is that, in the celebration of the Mass, we have something to give – namely ourselves to God – surrendering ourselves to Him.”

Looking back on the letter sent to Rome by him and six other bishops, Cardinal Woelki said:

“Much has been written and claimed. Among other things, I was said to have secretly turned to Rome, to have secretly written something. In the words of Holy Scripture, I say: I acted openly and freely and have written and said what had to be written and said, in all openness. I say once again: We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church. All our German dioceses are incorporated in the great globe. We are all united with all other Catholic Churches around the world, united under the leadership of the Holy Father. That is why we approach Christ in unity with all other particular churches. In fidelity to the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles.”

Another bishop who mentioned the Communion issue was Essen’s Franz-Josef Overbeck. He said that a “theologically responsible solution” had to be found, but also emphasised that when the salvation of souls in an interdenominational marriage is at stake, Communion must be allowed for both spouses. The question then remains, of course, when this would be the case, and if this isn’t yet covered by the options allowed under the current Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Ottersbach (DR)

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With a new voice, CDF revisits old teachings – Cardinal-designate Ladaria on the ordination of women

After several years in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was conspicuously silent, perhaps kept silent as Pope Francis tried to decrease its importance among the curial dicasteries, a new leadership brings new sounds. Or old sounds repeated, perhaps.

Prefecto_Mons._LadariaArchbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, soon to be a cardinal, took over the reins at the CDF after Cardinal Gerhard Müller was let go about a year ago.  And since then, the Congregation published two major texts: Placuit Deo on Christian salvation, in February, and Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones on ethics in economy (published jointly with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development), in May. In comparison, that is the same number of documents released during the entire period that Cardinal Müller headed the CDF, from 2012 to 2017.

And this week, another document was released, not by the CDF itself, but by its prefect, who, it may be safely assumed, is given much more freedom to function as Pope Francis’ personal choice to head the CDF. But that does not mean that something entirely new now comes from the offices of the Congregation. Archbishop Ladaria’s recent article focusses on an issue that has been debated for decades and it is firmly rooted in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.

On the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, Archbishop Ladaria once more confirms that that is not something the Catholic Church has the authority for. He writes the article in response to “voices heard in several countries which call into doubt” this doctrine, which was so clearly declared by Pope St. John Paul II, and confirmed by his successors. The archbishop stresses that what John Paul II stated in the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis was definitive then, and remains so now.

Below I present my translation of the article, based on the German text found here.

“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).  Only because of her roots in Jesus Christ, her founder, can the Church give life and salvation to the entire world. These roots are in the first place to be found in the sacraments, at the heart of which is the Eucharist. Established by Christ, the sacraments are the pillars of the Church, who is continuously built up by them as His body and His bride. The sacrament of ordination is deeply connected to the Eucharist, through which Christ makes Himself present as the source of her life and action. Priests are “conformed to Christ”,  so that “they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2).

Christ wanted to confer this sacrament upon the twelve Apostles, who were all men, and they have, in time, conferred it upon other men. The Church knew herself to be bound to this decision of the Lord, which excludes validly conferring the ministerial priesthood to women. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, of 22 May 1994, John Paul II taught: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”(n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed, in response to a question regarding the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that this concerns a truth which belongs to deposit of faith (depositum fidei) of the Church.

In this light it is a great concern to me that there are voices heard in several countries which call into doubt the definitive character of the aforementioned teaching. In order to prove that this teaching is not definitive, the argument goes that is has not been defined ex cathedra and can thus be changed by a future pope or council. Spreading such doubts causes much confusion among the faithful, and not only with regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which belongs to he divine constitution of the Church, but also with regard to the ordinary Magisterium, which can infallibly pronounce Catholic doctrine.

On the first point: as for the ministerial priesthood, the Church knows that the impossibility of the ordination of women is part of the “substance” of the sacrament (cf. DH 1728). The Church lacks the authority to change this substance, as she is being built up as Church through the sacraments as established by Christ. This is not a matter of discipline, but a doctrine, as it concerns the structure of the sacraments, the first places of encounter with Christ and the transmission of faith. This is then not some obstacle which blocks the Church from fulfilling her mission in the world more effectively. When the Church can’t intervene in this question, the basis of it lies in the fact that the original love of God intervenes in it. He himself acts in the ordination of priests, so that, always and in every situation of its history, Jesus Christ is visible and active in the Church, “as the principal source of grace” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

In the awareness that she cannot change this tradition out of obedience to the Lord, the Church therefore tries to deepen its meaning. For the will of Jesus Christ, the Logos, is not without meaning. The priest acts in the person of Christ, the bridegroom of the Christ, and his being male is an indispensable aspect of this sacramental representation (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter insigniores, n. 5). To be sure, the diversity of tasks between men and women does not entail subordination, but a mutual enrichment. It must be remembered that the perfect image of the Church is Mary, the mother of the Lord, to whom was not given the apostolic ministry. This makes evident that the original language of masculinity and femininity, which the Creator has inscribed in the human body, is included in the work of our salvation. Precisely this fidelity to Christ’s plan with the ministerial priesthood allows the continuous deepening and promotion of the role of women in the Church, because “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord” (1 Cor, 11:11). This may also shine a light on our culture, which struggles to understand the meaning and beauty of the difference between man and woman, which also affects their complementary missions in society.

On the second point: the doubts raised about the definitive character of Ordinatio sacerdotalis also have a major effect on how the magisterium of the Church is to be understood. It is important to emphasise that infallibility not only refers to solemn declarations from a council or to papal definitions made ex cathedra, but also to the ordinary and general magisterium of the bishops spread throughout the world, when they declare, in unity with each other and with the pope, Catholic doctrine as ultimately binding. John Paul II based himself on this infallibility in Ordinatio sacerdotalis. He also did not declare a new dogma, but confirmed, to remove any doubts, with the authority given to him as succesor of Peter in a formal declaration, what the ordinary and general magisterium had presented as belonging to the deposit of faith throughout all of history. This very kind of statement corresponds with a style of ecclesial communion in which the pope does not wish to act alone, but as a witness in listening to an uninterrupted and living tradition. Furthermore, no one will deny that the magisterium can infallibly express truths that are necessarily connected to what was formerly revealed as good. For only in this way can it fulfill its task to keep the faith holy and interpret it faithfully.

Further proof of John Paul II’s efforts in considering this question is the prior consultation with the heads of those bishops’ conferences who most had to deal with the problem. All, without exception, declared with full confidence that the Church, out of obedience to the Lord, did not have the authority to allow women to receive the sacrament of ordination.

Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed this doctrine. In the Chrism Mass on 5 April 2012 he recalled how John Paul II had declared “irrevocably” that the Church “has received no authority from the Lord” regarding the ordination of women. With an eye on those who do not accept this teaching, Benedict XVI wonders, “But is disobedience really a way […]? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Pope Francis has likewise taken position on this question. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium he underlines: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” He also urges us not to interpret this doctrine as an expression of power, but as a service, so that the equal dignity of man and woman in one body of Christ may be better understood (n. 104). In the press conference during the return flight from the apostolic journey to Sweden on 1 November 2016 Pope Francis emphasised: “As for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”

The Church in our time is called to response to many challenges of our culture. It is essential that she remains in Christ, like the branches on the vine. The Master therefore invites us to keep His word in us: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Only being faithful to His words, which do not fade, guarantees our rootedness in Christ and in is love. Only the accepting of His wise plans, which take shape in His sacraments, strengthens the Church at her roots, so that she can bear fruit for eternal life.

Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”

From Bruges, new auxiliary bishop for Mechelen-Brussels

One year after the death of Bishop Léon Lemmens, the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels receives a new auxilary bishop, the first such appointment under Cardinal Jozef De Kesel.

koenThe new bishop, appointed as episcopal vicar for Flemish Brabant and Mechelen, is Msgr. Koen Vanhoutte. The new bishop comes from the Diocese of Bruges, where Cardinal De Kesel was bishop before being appointed to Mechelen-Brussels in 2015. The bishop-elect has served as vicar general of Bruges since 2010, and has been diocesan administrator of that diocese twice: first, in 2010, between the forced retirement of Roger Vangheluwe and the appointment of then-Bishop De Kesel, and then, for the major part of 2016, between the departure of the De Kesel and the appointment of Bishop Lode Aerts.

He has been considered a likely candidate to succeed either Vangheluwe or De Kesel in Bruges, but evidently a position as auxiliary bishop was in the cards first.

Cardinal De Kesel obviously knows Msgr. Vanhoutte well, having appointed him as his vicar general when he came to Bruges in 2010. The cardinal writes:

“When I was appointed as bishop of Bruges, Koen Vanhoutte became my vicar general. I worked with him for several years. He has great experience in both formation and the management of a diocese. […] He is very dedicated person, a hard worker, with much faith and very concerned with people and the faith communities.”

The new auxiliary bishop will wrap up his duties in Bruges over the next month and move to Mechelen in July to join auxiliary bishops Jean Kockerols and Jean-Luc Hudsyn in the archdiocese. His consecration is scheduled for 2 September in St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen. Cardinal De Kesel will be the main consecrating bishop.

About his appointment, Msgr. Vanhoutte writes:

“When hearing about my appointment, God’s word to Abram spontaneously came into my mind: “Leave your country…”Not an easy thing, but when God asks it of me through His Church, I will gladly do it.”

As episcopal motto he chose “Veni sancti Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”). The new bishop explains:

“Living in service in the spirit of the Gospel, in the mindset of Jesus, requires extra strength which the Spirit can give us. That is why I chose for my bishop’s motto the opening words of a hymn sung in the liturgy of Pentecost: “Come Holy Spirit, Veni, Sancti Spiritus”. It is good for the Church to invoke the Spirit, as a source of strength and renewal. That Spirit grants diverse gifts, but also makes us grow in unity and community.”

Bishop-elect Vanhoutte has been given the titular see of Thagora, in modern Algeria. He is the tenth titular bishop of that diocese, with Bishop Giuseppe Marciante, now of Cefalù and then an auxiliary bishop of Rome, as his immediate predecessor.

 

Careful criticism – Bishop de Korte’s thoughts after the cardinal’s comments

While there has been much said and written about Cardinal Willem Eijk’s criticism on how the Pope handled the German plans to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances, and the opposition that triggered from seven German bishops, the Dutch bishops have been rather quiet about the comments of the metropolitan of the Dutch Church province.

Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam and easily the most social media-minded among the bishops, wrote on Facebook that that was not the place to offer any commentary. Via his spokesman, Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, let it be known that he “hopes and expects that the agreements as described in the aforementioned documents [the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and the Ecumenical Directory] remain the guideline.”

bisschop-de-korteThe most extensive comment, although one without directly addressing the cardinal, comes from Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In his regular contribution to the diocesan website, the bishop addresses the accusation that Pope Francis causes confusion through his words and actions, a position that Cardinal Eijk – and others with him  – very clearly takes in his commentary. Bishop de Korte defends the Pope when he writes, “It is nowhere apparent that the Pope violates the teachings of the Church. But he does want to take into account the stubbornness of our existence.”

Addressing the topic of alleged confusion, the bishop writes:

“Some faithful, including high prelates, think that the pope allows room for confusion. But isn’t it better to speak about a papal willingness for permanent dialogue? Such an attitude does not flow from modernism of liberalism, but from the heart of the gospel. In Christ, God came to stand next to us. We in our turn are also called to accept one another. At stake is the willingness to a permanent dialogue, which does not mean the denial of our deepest convictions, but that we are open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the other.

In the end, we all live from pure mercy. That faithful realisation can make us humble, mild and modest.”

Bishop de Korte focus on dialogue is worthy, and he is correct when he says the pope, and all Catholics, should never be closed in on themselves, open to dialogue with everyone. But, and here’s what is almost absent from the bishop’s text (except from the reference to “our deepest convictions”), dialogue has to be about something. Speaking with each other for its own sake is a good starting point to create trust and friendship, but ultimately, we must speak about something. Jesus Christ spoke with people, sinners and righteous alike, but never just for the sake of speaking. He had a clear message, and did not refrain from admonishing when necessary. We are called to continue sharing that message, which is about love, hope and faith, about charity, but also salvation, about changing our behaviour and leaving things behind to follow Him.

Rather than limiting ourselves to being kind and listening, or only quoting rules, we must take the best of both, and approach the other in kindness, love and, no less important, honesty.

Ideally, the messages of both Cardinal Eijk and Bishop de Korte are read and appreciated by readers, who can find value in both. Reality, however, shows that people would rather put the one against the other and resort to name-calling or mocking in social media. Whatever the intention of a bishop in writing an article, I am quite sure that is never it.

Heading for a Roman answer, German bishops prepare

In two days’ time, on Thursday 3 May, the much anticipated meeting between representatives of the German episcopate and the heads of several Holy See dicasteries will take place, to discuss the question of Communion for non-Catholics. In February, the majority of German bishops voted in favour of devising a pastoral approach in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful could receive Holy Communion alongside their partner in certain specific cases. Seven German bishops then wrote to the Holy See to find out if this is a decision that could be taken by a bishops’ conference on its own, or if it involved doctrine and Church unity to such an extent that it is something best left to Rome.

Originally, the invitation for the meeting was extended to Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki, as well as Bishop Felix Genn, with Woelki as the sole representative of the bishops who signed the letter to Rome. Marx was included as president of the bishops’ conference, while Bishop Genn remains uncertain as to why he was invited. He doesn’t believe it is because of his membership of the Congregation for Bishops, though. Joining these three are Bishops Karl-Heinz Wiesemann and Rudolf Voderholzer, president and vice-president of the doctrinal commission of the German Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige, president of the ecumenism commission; and Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary general of the bishops’ conference. The Roman side of the discussion will consist of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Fr. Hermann Geissler, office head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A team with a heavy focus on doctrinal and legislative expertise, then.

The inclusion of Bishop Voderholzer means that Cardinal Woelki is not the only prelate in the delegation who expressed reservations about the issue. In a recent interview, the bishop of Regensburg explained his reasoning for signing the letter to Rome:

bischof-rudolf-voderholzer-gehend“Let me say two things in advance: I consider ecumenism as a fundamental mission from Christ Himself. In the Gospel of John, Christ prays to the Father, “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17: 22b, 23). We must remain true to this fundamental mission of Christ. It’s not a matter of ecumenism yes or no, but of the path of ecumenism, the path to unity. We all yearn for this unity – as do I!

Allow me to add another thing: I am aware of the needs and problems which occur in the education of children in confessional marriages, but also in the religious lives of the spouses. I am also aware of the tensions which come from this and which can be hurtful. I know this from conversations with people in these situations and also from my family. I take that with me as bishop.

The point of the letter which I have written with my brother bishops is to find a way which takes the needs of people seriously and which at the same time provides assistance. We are, however, of the opinion that the pastoral “outreach” sought for by the majority of the bishops’ conference, which allows evangelical spouses to receive Communion, does not resolve these problems and needs. It also does not do justice to the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “outreach” does not sufficiently take into account the different understandings of the various confessions regarding the Eucharist on the one hand, and the Last Supper on the other.

In the question of ecumenism we must, lastly, also take the views of the eastern churches into account. They regard the bond between Church community and Eucharistic community even deeper than in the western churches. When the Catholic Church hides this view, she significantly deepens the split with the orthodox churches.”

feigeOpposing the actions of the seven bishops is Bishop Gerhard Feige, bishop of Magdeburg and president of the ecumenism commission of the German Bishops’ Conference. In a contribution to Der Zeit last Thursday, Msgr. Feige stated that not taking the chance to help people deepen the joy of the faith and their participation in the Eucharist, as well as promoting ecumenical encounters and strengthening the marriage bond would be “macabre and shameful”. Contrary to other bishops, Msgr. Feige insists that the pastoral outreach exists within modern theological and legal possibilities, referring to the canon law paragraphs which allow local bishops to decide under which circumstances non-Catholic can receive Communion. These circumstances, however, are emergency situations in which the danger of death and the unavailability of ministers of a person’s own denomination play key roles.

Bishop Feige, who, as mentioned above, will also travel to Rome on Thursday, also expressed strong criticism against the seven bishops who wrote to Rome. He describes his impression

“that the labourious search for a responsible pastoral solution for individuals did not determine their interest, but rather the fundamental fear of not being truly Catholic anymore. Some still seem to be attached to a pre-Conciliar image of the Church and have little internalised the Catholic principles of ecumenism.”

With these words, Bishop Feige seems to be the one who is rather set in his ways, and it hard to see how such an attitude towards his brother bishops will be helpful in Thursday meeting.

rubrikteaserMünster’s Bishop Felix Genn is hopeful of finding a consensus. While the way in which the seven bishops expressed their difficulties with the conference’s vote did not make him happy, he understands their questions of conscience. In an interview for WDR radio Bishop Genn expressed his happiness about the way in which the standing council of the bishops’ conference discussed the issue last week. And although he would have preferred that the seven bishops had first informed the others about their letter before sending it, Bishop Genn’s attitude is perhaps the most consensus-minded in the delegation, which may be a reason for his inclusion. The bishop, for his part, simply thought of his mother’s motto when hearing about being included in the delegation: “One has never got enough work to do.”

Regardless of its outcome, Thursday’s meeting will not only be significant for the German bishops, but for the entire Church, and the entire ecumenical project. For the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith this will be the first major test under the new leadership of Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer. Likewise, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, although represented by its undersecretary, has recently come under new leadership as Archbishop Filippo Iannone succeeded Cardinal Coccopalmerio as president in early April. The question of the role of doctrine and law in a papacy devoted in the first place to pastoral care and mercy will receive a resounding answer.

“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


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For Hildesheim, the new bishop comes from Rome

csm_Heiner_Wilmer_2_9bf3e15c8cWhat’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:

“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.

There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.

On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.

On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.

But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”

The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.

Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in  1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.

Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”

Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:

“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.

[…]

Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”

From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.

“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”

Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.

The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.

With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.


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