Bishop Voderholzer’s remedy to dropping numbers

In a homily at the pilgrimage site of St. Anna Schäffer in Mindelstetten, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg addressed the recently released statistics regarding church attendance and such in the Catholic Church in Germany. He compares them to the equally disastrous numbers in the Lutheran church and explains that the standard liberal remedies of constantly wanting to change church and faith, and getting rid of perceived oppressive dogmas, is not the solution to the crisis.

According to Bishop Voderholzer, the numbers point out something else: an evaporation of faith. He also puts this into perspective, saying that the Lord never promised his followers to be a majority anywhere. Rather, he foresaw difficulties and opposition. So, depressing numbers should, in themselves, really not be a cause for us to give up.

1085557_m1w590q75v2214_PortrtbildBischof_2“Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Last Friday, the 21st of July, the statistics for the Catholic Churc and the Lutheran Church in Germany for the year 2016 were published. You will probably have heard a few things about it via radio and television or in the newspaper.

The outcome was not very surprising. Like before, the number of people leaving the Church are disconcertingly high, even when they have dropped by some 11 percent in the Catholic Church as compared to 2015. The number of baptisms has increased slightly, the number of marriages decreased soewhat. In Hamburg and Berlin the number of Catholics has grown, due to the influx of Catholic foreigners; but in general the number of Catholics is growing smaller.

Dear sisters and brothers, I do not want to bore you with numbers and statictics today, on the Anna Schäffer Day of Remembrance. But the public reactions to these numbers are noteworthy and lead us to look further.

As a remedy to turn these trends around and to preserve our social relevance we are continuously advised to – literally – “open up and rid ourselves of rigid conservative dogmas.”

In this case, these are:

Abolishing the celibacy of priests;

Removing the different tasks and appointments of men and women in the Church and admitting women into apostolic ministry;

Consenting to the demand of full legal equality of same-sex partnerships with marriage;

Admitting everyone to Communion, and so on.

You know the list of demands as well as I do.

Dear sisters and brothers! The problematic nature of this advice becomes clear with a quick glance at the statistics of the Lutheran church. If the application of the aforementioned pieces of advice would really be a way of improving the situation of the Church, flourishing life must be visible in the Lutheran church.

But what do the numbers say? More people leave the Lutheran church – and have done so, with the exception of 2014, for years – than the Catholic Church, despite the fact that in the Lutheran church these demands have all basically been fulfilled and all these alleged impediments to being church are no longer present. But this is generally ignored in public, even though the numbers were presented on the same day. Isn’t the reason that this is being ignored perhaps that it would reveal the blatant weakness, yes, the inconsistency and absurdity of this “good” advice to the Catholic Church?! Can one, in all seriousness, present the path of the Lutheran church as a remedy, when it is so often led to an even greater distance to the faith and the church? I say this without malice! I know Lutheran fellow Christians who completely agree with my assessment and who warn us Catholics not to make the same mistakes.

We must look much further in the whole debate. The statictics reveal a secularisation which has been progressing for years, a loss of church affiliation and lastly a decline in the substance of faith, an evaporation of the awareness of God. That is why we do not really have a shortage of priests, but a much more fundamental shortage of faith. The priest shortage is a symptom, like a fever. But the fever is not itself the disease, but it indicates the presence of an inflammation. I am certain: the fever of the priest shortage indicates the disease of lack of faith. As an aside, the Lutheran church has also long known the phantom of lack of priests, as there are too few young people who study theology and are willing to also put themselves professionally at the service of the Gospel; all this without celibacy and with the possibility for women to also assume the office of the priesthood! This should give us a sense of the true reasons for the lack of church adherence.

Dear sisters and brothers, come together at the grave of Saint Anna Schäffer! We all have the image and the fate of the Church at heart. But not in the sense that we belong to her as to a club whose public image and strength are the ultimate goal; but for the sake of the message and the sake of the people, for whose sake God became man in Jesus Christ. In the Church He takes us into service for His Gospel. The Lord did not promise us that we would always be the majority; rather, He predicted headwind and resistance.

For that reason we should not concern ourselves too much with numbers and statistics. What should concern us is that the Gospel can lighten up our environment, through our lives in faith. Everywhere where we overshadow the Gospel because of inattentiveness, lovelessness and hard-heartedness, we are called to convert and once more give the Lord space.

Instead of constantly changing the structures, also and especially the sacramental structures of the Church, instead of diluting the message of the Gospel and instead of proclaiming a light version of Jesus, evangelisation is called for, a saturation of society with the Spirit of Jesus. And the first and all-important step on that way is a daily striving towards holiness, the daily listening to God’s word and the willingness to begin the reform of the Church with myself. That is reformation: the renewal of faith, the restoration of the image of Christ which was engraved in us in Baptism and Confirmation. Where this is granted to us in God’s mercy, where we succeed in this, we will make the people of our time once again curious about the faith which supports us. And then we can also explain the hope that lives within us.

Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord! In the endeavours of evangelisation in our time Saint Anna Schäffer is in every aspect an example and also an advocate.

She wanted to devote her life to the mission abroad. But the Lord had destined her for the mission in her own country. Before becoming a comforter and source of joy in faith for many, she had to allow herself to be evangelised again, and radically so. Accepting her suffering as a partaking in the cross of Christ was anything but easy. Bedridden and with her gaze upon the cross she faced this process of inner healing and transformation. She so became a bright sign of God’s work, a messenger of faith to countless people and ultimately a saint of the Catholic Church.

And so we pray today for her intercession, that the Lord will grant each and everyone of us the grace to begin the reform of the Church in ourselves; that we muster the courage to lt ourselves be evangelised anew every day and in this way be prepared to serve the mission of the Church – for the salvation of humanity and the glory of the triune God, whose is the glory, today, every day and forever. Amen.”

In new directive, Church ignores plight of coeliacs. Except it doesn’t.

eucharistIn a letter released yesterday by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Church once again emphasises what can and cannot be consecrated during Mass. In essence, the bread must be made of wheat and the wine must be real wine, with at least some fermentation having taking place. The bread, the Congregation explains, must also contain gluten, even if just a small amount “to obtain the confection of bread”.

Two things struck me in the reactions to this letter in (social) media. One, many assume these are new rules, and two, people with coeliac disease can’t receive Communion. Both assumptions are untrue.

As the authors of the letter emphasise, “the norms about the Eucharistic matter are given in can. 924 of the CIC and in numbers 319 – 323 of the Institutio generalis Missalis Romani and have already been explained in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum issued by this Congregation (25 March 2004)”.  The regulation they now present anew are not new, but have been standardised in the Code of Canon Law and various instructions. This new letter is simply a reminder to bishops that bread must be bread and wine must be wine (and not cake and lemonade, for example) – after all, that is what Jesus used at the Last Supper, and He specifically follow His example.

People who suffer from coeliac disease, and who are therefore unable to digest gluten, are in no way barred from receiving Communion. In many cases, they can receive bread with a small amount of gluten, and for those who can’t, it is perfectly possible to receive only the Blood of Christ. He is, after all, completely present in both bread and wine.

It is a shame, if not unexpected, that media outlets take this letter and present it as something it is not, ie. as something new instead of a reminder of established regulations.

Ordinations, or the lack thereof – an update

Following the discussions triggered by this post about ordinations of new priests and deacons in northwestern Europe, I have gone over the announcements from the various dioceses and created a list of all the ordinations in 2017 in the dioceses of the Netherlands, Flanders, Germany and the Nordic countries. There are more than I listed in my original post (which, it has to be emphasised, never aimed to give a complete picture).

The list, which can be found at the bottom of the sidebar on the right, is a work in progress, as ordinations, in many cases, are announced mere weeks before they take place. It is my intention to give some idea about the numbers of new priests and deacons that the Church in these parts is blessed to receive.

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold

The Good News – Pope Francis’ Message for World Communications Day 2017

Always an interesting publication for those in the Catholic blogging business, Pope Francis published his Message for World Communications Day today. He calls for a break away from focussing solely on bad news in all forms of communication and root the way we share news and thoughts in good news, the Good News even. The papal Message is food for thought for all “who, whether in their professional work or personal relationships, are like that mill, daily “grinding out” information with the aim of providing rich fare for those with whom they communicate”. I think that’s me and you.

“Fear not, for I am with you” (Is 43:5):
Communicating Hope and Trust in our Time

Access to the media – thanks to technological progress – makes it possible for countless people to share news instantly and spread it widely. That news may be good or bad, true or false. The early Christians compared the human mind to a constantly grinding millstone; it is up to the miller to determine what it will grind: good wheat or worthless weeds. Our minds are always “grinding”, but it is up to us to choose what to feed them (cf. SAINT JOHN CASSIAN, Epistle to Leontius).

I wish to address this message to all those who, whether in their professional work or personal relationships, are like that mill, daily “grinding out” information with the aim of providing rich fare for those with whom they communicate. I would like to encourage everyone to engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster a culture of encounter, helping all of us to view the world around us with realism and trust.

I am convinced that we have to break the vicious circle of anxiety and stem the spiral of fear resulting from a constant focus on “bad news” (wars, terrorism, scandals and all sorts of human failure). This has nothing to do with spreading misinformation that would ignore the tragedy of human suffering, nor is it about a naive optimism blind to the scandal of evil. Rather, I propose that all of us work at overcoming that feeling of growing discontent and resignation that can at times generate apathy, fear or the idea that evil has no limits. Moreover, in a communications industry which thinks that good news does not sell, and where the tragedy of human suffering and the mystery of evil easily turn into entertainment, there is always the temptation that our consciences can be dulled or slip into pessimism.

I would like, then, to contribute to the search for an open and creative style of communication that never seeks to glamourize evil but instead to concentrate on solutions and to inspire a positive and responsible approach on the part of its recipients. I ask everyone to offer the people of our time storylines that are at heart “good news”.

Good news

Life is not simply a bare succession of events, but a history, a story waiting to be told through the choice of an interpretative lens that can select and gather the most relevant data. In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning. Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them. If we change that lens, reality itself appears different. So how can we begin to “read” reality through the right lens?

For us Christians, that lens can only be the good news, beginning with the Good News par excellence: “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mk 1:1). With these words, Saint Mark opens his Gospel not by relating “good news” about Jesus, but rather the good news that is Jesus himself. Indeed, reading the pages of his Gospel, we learn that its title corresponds to its content and, above all else, this content is the very person of Jesus.

This good news – Jesus himself – is not good because it has nothing to do with suffering, but rather because suffering itself becomes part of a bigger picture. It is seen as an integral part of Jesus’ love for the Father and for all mankind. In Christ, God has shown his solidarity with every human situation. He has told us that we are not alone, for we have a Father who is constantly mindful of his children. “Fear not, for I am with you” (Is 43:5): these are the comforting words of a God who is immersed in the history of his people. In his beloved Son, this divine promise – “I am with you” – embraces all our weakness, even to dying our death. In Christ, even darkness and death become a point of encounter with Light and Life. Hope is born, a hope accessible to everyone, at the very crossroads where life meets the bitterness of failure. That hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5) and makes new life blossom, like a shoot that springs up from the fallen seed. Seen in this light, every new tragedy that occurs in the world’s history can also become a setting for good news, inasmuch as love can find a way to draw near and to raise up sympathetic hearts, resolute faces and hands ready to build anew.

Confidence in the seed of the Kingdom

To introduce his disciples and the crowds to this Gospel mindset and to give them the right “lens” needed to see and embrace the love that dies and rises, Jesus uses parables. He frequently compares the Kingdom of God to a seed that releases its potential forletter t life precisely when it falls to the earth and dies (cf. Mk 4:1-34). This use of images and metaphors to convey the quiet power of the Kingdom does not detract from its importance and urgency; rather, it is a merciful way of making space for the listener to freely accept and appropriate that power. It is also a most effective way to express the immense dignity of the Paschal mystery, leaving it to images, rather than concepts, to communicate the paradoxical beauty of new life in Christ. In that life, hardship and the cross do not obstruct, but bring about God’s salvation; weakness proves stronger than any human power; and failure can be the prelude to the fulfilment of all things in love. This is how hope in the Kingdom of God matures and deepens: it is “as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow” (Mk 4:26-27).

The Kingdom of God is already present in our midst, like a seed that is easily overlooked, yet silently takes root. Those to whom the Holy Spirit grants keen vision can see it blossoming. They do not let themselves be robbed of the joy of the Kingdom by the weeds that spring up all about.

The horizons of the Spirit

Our hope based on the good news which is Jesus himself makes us lift up our eyes to contemplate the Lord in the liturgical celebration of the Ascension. Even though the Lord may now appear more distant, the horizons of hope expand all the more. In Christ, who brings our human nature to heaven, every man and woman can now freely “enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Heb 10:19-20). By “the power of the Holy Spirit” we can be witnesses and “communicators” of a new and redeemed humanity “even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7‑8).

Confidence in the seed of God’s Kingdom and in the mystery of Easter should also shape the way we communicate. This confidence enables us to carry out our work – in all the different ways that communication takes place nowadays – with the conviction that it is possible to recognize and highlight the good news present in every story and in the face of each person.

Those who, in faith, entrust themselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit come to realize how God is present and at work in every moment of our lives and history, patiently bringing to pass a history of salvation. Hope is the thread with which this sacred history is woven, and its weaver is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Hope is the humblest of virtues, for it remains hidden in the recesses of life; yet it is like the yeast that leavens all the dough. We nurture it by reading ever anew the Gospel, “reprinted” in so many editions in the lives of the saints who became icons of God’s love in this world. Today too, the Spirit continues to sow in us a desire for the Kingdom, thanks to all those who, drawing inspiration from the Good News amid the dramatic events of our time, shine like beacons in the darkness of this world, shedding light along the way and opening ever new paths of confidence and hope.

From the Vatican, 24 January 2017

Francis

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

 

“The bishop bearing witness to the Cross” – Cardinal Woelki’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Bätzing

On Sunday, Bishop Georg Bätzing was ordained and installed as the 13th bishop of Limburg. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, gave the homily, which I share in my English translation below. The cardinal also served as consecrator of the new bishop, together with Bishop Manfred Grothe, who lead the diocese as Apostolic Administrator during the two and a half years between bishops, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the new bishop’s native Diocese of Trier.

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

An ordination – be it to deacon, to priest or, as today, to bishop – is always a public act; an effective action which changes both the person being ordained – although he is an remains the same person – and his environment. This is true even when an ordination must be performed in secret for political reasons. And so public interest, especially at an episcopal ordination, is a most natural thing. Today too, many eyes are focussed on Limburg; perhaps even more eyes than usual at an episcopal ordination. In recent years, the focus of the media on Limburg and its bishop has been too strong, if the question of how things would proceed now was not one well beyond the Catholic press.

The man who will be ordained as the thirteenth Bishop of Limburg today, is being sent to “bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted” (cf. Is. 61:1). He knows the wounds that need healing; he knows that the faithful in this diocese must be brought together and united again, and he knows the challenges which face not just the Church in Limburg, but everywhere, when she wants to proclaim, credibly,  Christ as the salvation of all people, also in the future. His motto, then, advances what has already been important to him in his various pastoral duties in Trier: he was and is concerned with unity in diversity – Congrega in unum. It is no coincidence that today’s ordination concludes the traditional week dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Diocese of Limburg.

The feast of the Cross and the Week of the Cross have a long tradition here, which is applicable in this situation. At the introduction of the feast in 1959 by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf its goal was to establish an identity in a young diocese. He chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as diocesan feast, with an eye on the relic of the Holy Cross kept in the reliquary of the cathedral treasury of Limburg. But not from this artistic and outstanding treasure of Byzantine art, before which one can linger in amazement and admiration like before an exhibit in a museum, does the Church in Limburg derive her identity. No, it is from that which is hidden within: the precious Cross of the Lord, by which we are saved. Only that grants the Church of Limburg, yes, the entire Church, her identity. The Apostle Paul knew this, and following him, everyone who is appointed to the episcopal ministry therefore knows this.

Our new bishop also knows. Because this is the heart of his calling and mission as bishop: to proclaim Christ, as the Crucified One in fact. He is not to proclaim Him with clever and eloquent words, so that the Cross “might not be emptied of his meaning” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17).

On the Cross hangs the unity of the Church, because from the crucified Body of Jesus the Church emerged. In her all the baptised are woven together. All the diversity of the Spirit, which animates and moves the Church, has its origin there. Understanding the mystery of Christ depends on the Cross. No salvation without the Cross! Without the Cross no Gospel, no Christianity! Only in the Cross do we recognise who God and who man is, what God and what man is capable of. We say that God is love. These horribly absurd, often abused and yet so eagerly awaited words gain their sober and exhilerating depth and truth against all kitsch and all shallow romanticism only in the light of the Crucified One.

Saint John the Evangelist reminds us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only son (cf. John 3:16). This was not an “either-or” devotion. It was not a game of God with Himself without us humans, no large-scale deception, no comedy. Christ died and so He become equal to us all, we who received everything that we have from God and who always violently want to “be like God”, on our own strength, as we can read in the first pages of the Bible, in the history of the fall. And then he, the Son of God, did not want to cling to His divinity with violence, like a robber, but He emptied Himself, became man, creature, became the second Adam, who did not want to be like God on his own strength, but wanted to be obedient until the death on the Cross. Only in this humiliation, in this selfless devotion to God’s love for us, He is raised: the Crucified One lives! The humiliated one reigns!

This is then the case: The God who we imagined as unapproachable, as fearsome, is dead, definitively dead! It was not us who killed him, as Nietzsche claimed, but this Jesus of Nazareth, He has killed him. But the true God lives, the God who came down to us, unimaginably close in Jesus Christ. This God lives, who we recognised on the cross as God-with-us, and whom we continue to recognise only through the cross of Christ, recognise in that complete sense in which recognition means acknowledging, loving, being there for others.

And so, after all, understanding this world and our lives also depends on the cross. Its image assures us that we are ultimately embraced by the mercy of God. That, dear sisters and brothers, is our identity as Christians and therefore also our identity as Church. That is what a bishop is to proclaim, even more, to live. Before everything, he is to be a witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decivise salvific act of God. From this everything else flows: our commitment to and engagement  with Church and society, our commitment to peace and social justice, to human dignity and rights, to the poor and homeless, to the suffering, the sick, the dying, to life, also of the unborn. Everything flows from the mystery of the cross, and so the bishop promises just before his ordination to care for all, to be responsible and seek out the lost to the very end. “Tend to my sheep,” (John 21:16) does not mean, “Tend to my sheep where it is easy, where no dangers lurk.” It means to protect every human being as God Himself does – also there where it becomes abysmal and dark; where people lose themselves, where they put trust in false truths or confuse having with being. God knows how vulnerable we people are, and how much care and mercy each of us needs to live in such a way that it pleases God: not loving ourselves, but God and our neighbour. The cross is the reality of this love which desires to exclude no one, but which also recognises the “no” of those which it addresses. The openness of the most recent Council to a universal understanding of divine salvation allows us to see those who believe differently, only half or not at all as potential sisters and brothers. Such an understanding of and relationship with all people also permeates our Holy Father, when he wants to cure the sickness in ecclesial and social coexistence with the medicine of mercy (cf. Jan Heiner Tück).

As universal sacrament of salvation the Church only has one single Lord: Jesus Christ. God Himself anointed Him (Is. 61:1). That is why we always must ask ourselves what He wants from us and where He wants to lead His Church. The future of the Church is critically dependant on how the different charisms that God has given us can be developed. At the time that Bishop Kempf established the feast of the Cross it was, in addition to establishing an identity, about bringing together unity and diversity, centre and periphery in the young diocese.

This program can not be better summarised than in the new bishop’s motto: “Congrega in unum“. Also today, it is the mission of a bishop to discover charisms, recognise talents, guide developments, allow unity in diversity: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom. 12:4-5). Where he succeeds in this service, oaks of justice can grow (Is. 61:3) and plantings can develop through which the Lord can show His justice (61:3) – in the heart of history, in the here and now, in the heart of this diocese. Where this service is successful people are encouraged and empowered to imitate and let God guide their lives – also when He may lead them, for a short while, “where they do not want to go” (John 21:18). We humans may be sure – in all hazards to which we are exposed or expose in faith – that we are protected by God; He has entrusted the bishop with the most valuable task that He has to give: “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:17).  Nothing more – but that absolutely.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Bistum Limburg