Strengthened in concern – Cardinal Woelki’s visit to the USA

Returning once again to Cardinal Woelki’s summer holiday visit to the United States, the Kirchenzeitung of the Archdiocese of Cologne shares an interview with the cardinal looking back on said trip. Next to relating about friendly visits with American prelates and religious communities and finding inspiration for Church life back home, the cardinal also speaks about how the Church in Germany is seen abroad. This especially in light of the independent approach to perceived liberties allowed under the current papacy.

Cardinal Woelki says:

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210“I was surprised by how closely my conversation partners are following the situation of the Church in Europe and especially in Germany. Everywhere I was struck with the concern about current developments in Germany. A noticeable concern in many encounters was that the “synodal path” is taking us on a specifically German path, that, at worst, we are putting the communion with the universal Church at risk and are so becoming a German national church. That is not something that anyone should want, and we should take that warning very seriously. Many of my conversation partners expressed their disbelief that in Germany we appear to be willing to change the deposit of faith entrusted to us, just because this is loudly demanded of us. The fear that this could lead to a split in the universal Church, or even a split in the German Church, was openly expressed. Of course the dioceses in America are also not immune to the questions which concern us. But I am under the impression that there they are providing answers based on the faith of the universal Church, and not in the form of independent national action or some form of theological overconfidence.”

Cardinal Woelki has, of course, been one of the German bishops most critical of the synodal path promoted by his brethren. His visit to the USA strenghtened him in that.

“I feel supported in my position. I believe that the path which is currently being sought in Germany contains grave dangers – especially the risk of a split in the German church. In his letter the Pope has clearly urged us to maintain the “Sensus Ecclesiae“, the “sense of faith of the Church” and remain in communion with the universal Church and the faith of the Church. I return home encouraged and have sensed on this journey, in a very concrete way, what it means to belong to the Catholic world Church. This unity acriss all national boundaries is very valuable, especially for us Germans. We should hold fast to that.”

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European bishops reflect on the United States

Two European bishops have spent their summer holidays visiting the United States, and both have shared some of their thoughts and experiences on social media. And both have perhaps unavoidably, noticed the differences between their countries and the behemoth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Mgr. dr. G.J.N. de KorteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch travelled New England, including New York and Washington DC, with his sister, and wrote an article for Nederlands Dagblad. Noting the immense economic, military and cultural influence of the United States on the rest of the world, as well as the kind and informal attitude of its inhabitants, Bishop de Korte devotes most of his article to the political stalemate of two parties, virtually equal in size, who are increasingly unwilling to cooperate, and the media’s eagerness to contribute to this increasing polarisation, which the bishops calls “extreme”.

A similar gap exists in society, the bishop writes. Whereas most European countries have established extensive social welfare systems to help those people who can’t make ends meet, in the United States this falls mostly to private organisations and citizens, including the churches. While this expression of Christianity is far more developed than it is in Europe, it is no structural solution to solve the injustices underlying the enormous differences between rich and poor.

Bishop de Korte concludes his article with the hope that the churches can build bridges and add unity and nuance to the political and social debates. “What American society needs now are reasonable and moderate leaders in church and society”.

Another European prelate visiting the United States is the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. He shared his experiences via his Twitter account, in both German and English. Sharing encounters with religious communites (the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of Life and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal), parish  visits and meetings with brother bishops Cardinal Dolan of New York, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Wilton of Washington, as well as a harbour tour in Boston and visits to the 9/11 monument in New York and the White House, and a hamburger meal with Catholic youth in Washington, Cardinal Woelki’s account is mostly positive and hopeful. About his meeting with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, he writes:

“So many Catholic changes in America: the Franciscans of the Renewal care for the homeless in the Bronx and live from what is given to them. Their communties are small, but growing! I wonder what we can learn from them.”

And there was time to throw some hoops…

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Looking in from the outside, it is often easy to find fault with a person or, in this case, a country. And while it is clear there are problems and worrisome developments under the current American presidency, the positive things should not be forgotten. While we may be conviced that America can learn from Europe, the reverse is also true.

The Catholic involvement in American society is both inspired and down-to-earth. I see this also in those American priests and bishops I follow on social media; to be effective and make an impact in society, however great or small, it is necessary to get dirty hands, to be involved in a way that people can relate to. Sadly, this is something I don’t see often enough in the Netherlands (although it does happen). Sure, a priest and bishop has important duties and is a rolemodel and example. But he is also a person and must relate to other people. Share those personal passions and interests, show that you’re into sports, movies, music, cooking, gardening, whatever, joke around a bit… Be a man of God among men (and women). A cardinal playing basketball (or wondering why there is no thirteenth floor in his hotel, as Cardinal Woelki also did, leading to the question why faith evaporates while superstition persist): I’m all for it.

Photo credit: [1] RKKerk.nl, [2]  Cardinal Woelki’s social media team on Twitter.

Pastoral exceptions and rules – support from abroad for the Woelki position

The group of German bishops, unofficially headed by Cologne’s Cardinal Woelki, who have questioned the bishops’ conference’s proposed pastoral outreach that would allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances – and whose position was recently confirmed and supported by the Holy See – have received further support from abroad.

In a recent interview on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Nordic bishops – which I wrote about in the previous blog post – Cardinal Anders Arborelius, himself a former Lutheran and now, as a cardinal, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was asked about the discussion in Germany. He answered:

kardinalen_2_thumb“It surprises me that the topic hasn’t been discussed that much. In Sweden, we have many mixed marriages. But most Catholics aren’t married to practicing Protestants. It is not an issue for us. Of course there are evangelical Christians who would like to receive Communion, but most are non-religious.

Of course, the ideal would be that the entire Church is able to arrive at a common solution, but it is difficult: in one country, the situation is thus, in the other it is different. Hopefully, we will one day be able to find a common solution with the entire Church.”

This is exactly what Cardinal Woelki has also said: it is not up to the German bishops alone to decide upon matters that are so essential to the Catholic faith and the understanding of the sacraments. Rather, the entire Church as a whole must decide upon it, if only to avoid the situation in which a regulation is valid in one place and not in another: the Church is not a national Church, but universal, and her sacraments and faith are not bound by borders.

Μητροπολίτης-Γερμανίας-κ.κ.Αυγουστίνος-300x169Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan Augoustinos, who hosted Cardinal Woelki in Bonn for the annual plenary meeting of the Greek-Orthodox Church in Germany, expressed himself in similar words after indicating that his church is also following the debate closely. He referred to the Orthodox principle of Oikonomia, which indicates that a regulation can be ignored or a rule broken when it serves the salvation of the person involved. But he then quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, saying: “As soon as one defines the conditions under which Oikonomia can be applied, Oikonomia itself becomes a rule or regulation.”

Cardinal Woelki has spoken about the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic presenting himself for Communion is not turned away: a pastoral exception to the rule which, however, must not be made into a rule itself. That would “endanger the values that must be preserved with special care”. These values would include the Catholic (and, for that matter, Orthodox) doctrine about the Eucharist and Communion.

 

In an interview for Katholisch.de, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau also spoke about this point in the debate. He was also one of the seven signatories of the letter to Rome which questioned if the pastoral outreach did not transcend the authority of the German bishops. The bishop explains:

7I2A1125_0“It is right that we do not turn anyone away from the Communion bench. At that moment no judgement can be made about the discernment of conscience of the individual receiving. I can’t ‘expose’ anyone then. But when we take our understanding of the Eucharist seriously, there can be no superficial practice of giving Communion to just anyone. Therefore, as the priest giving Communion, I am obliged to offer people, at a suitable occasion, personal and spiritual guidance – and explain our understanding of the Eucharist more deeply. And yes, the praxis of individual pastoral care can indeed lead to singular and temporary situations. But in my opinion an official regulation of such exceptions can make it even more likely for such exceptions to become the rule. The current debate already shows that. It is basically less about the “serious spiritual need of individuals,” and more about the interdenominational marriages in general.”

Getting (too far) ahead in ecumenism

“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God. Some themes – I think of the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – merit precise and well shared reflections.”

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422Words from Pope Francis, in an audience with delegates from the German Lutheran Church yesterday. He was, not unexpectedly, speaking about ecumenism, urging continuing theological dialogue between various Christian churches and communities. The goals of ecumenism are often enticing, and this may cause some to get ahead of themselves. The themes Pope Francis mentioned – the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – reflect the goals of a shared understanding of what the Church is, a shared belief in the Eucharist and a shared understanding of the priesthood and other ministries in the Church, and which are often assumed to have been achieved already.

ladaria-ferrer.jpg_872573866This quote is especially interesting as a document was leaked yesterday which stated that the German bishops’ proposed pastoral outreach to interdenominational couples – which included the proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses to receive Communion under certain circumstances – is not fit to be published. The document is dated on the 25th of May, and was sent by the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, to the German bishops who participated in the meeting with the CDF and other dicasteries on 3 May. The letter makes it clear that it was sent with the express agreement of the Pope, who discussed the matter with Archbishop Ladaria in two separate audiences.

The prefect identifies three reasons why the proposal is problematic:

  1. “The question of allowing Evangelical Christians in interdenominational marriages  [to receive Communion] is a topic that affects the faith of the Church and is significant for the universal Church.”
  2. “This question also affects the ecumenical relationships with other churches and church communities, which cannot be underestimated.”
  3. “The topic concerns the law of the Church, above all the interpretation of canon 844. Because there are unanswered questions about this point in some parts of the Church, the competent dicasteries of the Holy See have already been tasked with bringing about a speedy clarification of these issues at the level of the unversal Church. It seems particularly appropriate to leave the judgement of the existence of an “urgent grace necessity” to the diocesan bishop.”

In short, the judgement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is much like what Cardinal Rainer Woelki said several days ago: “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.”

Recently, Cardinal Woelki again explained his reasons for opposing to proposed outreach. He indicated the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic spouse presenting him- or herself for Communion is never sent away, but, the Cardinal said, these “pastorally motivated exceptions” can’t be “codified onto a new norm.” They belong in the “area of personal pastoral care, of spiritual guidance, of confession and the individual conscientious decision of the faithful” and can’t be formally tied into the status of interdenominational spouses.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference and one of the supporters of the pastoral outreach, has admitted his surprise as the CDF letter. Perhaps rightly, he contrasts it with the initial request from the pope, that the bishops try and find a solution that is as unanimous as possible. Cardinal Marx said that that hasn’t been tried, let alone achieved, yet. He sees the need to discuss the topic in the meetings of the standing council of the conference and the autumn plenary meeting, but also with the dicasteries in Rome and with the Holy Father himself.

 

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)

At the Katholikentag, German cardinals underline peace

With 90,000 participants* it was the largest edition of the event since 1990. The 101st biannual Katholikentag (despite its name, a multiple-day event) took place in Münster from 9 to 13 May this year, with “Suche Frieden” (look for peace) as its central theme. Peace on a global scale, but also in smaller ways, such as in families, parishes, and, yes, among bishops.

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^30,000 people gathered in Münster’s Schlossplatz for the closing Mass of the Katholikentag 2018. 

As the German bishops have been seemingly rather divided on the topic of Communion for non-Catholics, and despite the words from Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer that the Katholikentag should not be used to exert pressure on either side of the debate**, the topic was raised on more than a few occasions. Your author found Bishop Stefan Oster discussing questions regarding ecumenism in light of these recent developments in a question and answer session at his diocese’s stand at the Kirchenmeile (a massive information market for all manner of Catholic organisations, including the German dioceses), to name but one example.

The two main players in the debate, if only because of their red hats, are Cardinals Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Reinhard Marx of München und Freising (who also happens to chair the German Bishops’ Conference as president). Both cardinals have gone out of their way to express the importance of unanimity at the Katholikentag. Not in a response to the Communion debate, but in emphasising the continued fraternity and, yes, peaceful conditions among the bishops.

In his weekly “Wort des Bischofs” Youtube talk, Cardinal Woelki said yesterday:

“The many small wars in our communities, in our families, yes also among us bishops must also end in peace. That does mean that one can’t argue about the correct path. I am convinced that debate about a good cause is very necessary, even. But the goal, a fraternal living together at all human levels in harmony with God’s creation, is something that we must not lose sight of!”

urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-180513-99-284653-large-4-3In his homily at the closing Mass of the four-day event, Cardinal Marx reiterated that the Catholic Church must make its unity clear, and that includes its bishops.

The efforts of both cardinals, and other bishops as well, are clearly directed at changing the image of division that is the result of the planned pastoral outreach, the letter of the seven bishops and the meeting in Rome. At the same time, as Cardinal Woelki has stated in the quote above, the debate continues, with the added dimension that the papal directive to strive for unanimity has resulted in different interpretations that must be discussed as well.

Despite good intentions and fraternity, the story is far from over.

*This reflects only the number of tickets sold. While many outdoor events were free of charge, tickets gave access to workshops, exhibitions, discussions, tours and other events. The actual number of people who visited Münster for the Katholikentag will exceed 90,000.

**Regarding finding a solution to the question, with Pope Francis’ request in mind that the German bishops come to a unanimous decision, the bishop of Regensburg said on 9 May: “This task will not be an easy one, since the community of the Church transcends the borders of Germany. A possible unanimous decision can only be made in unity with the joint world episcopate, with the world Church, equally with the bishops’ conference of Canada and with that of Indonesia.”

Photo credit: [1] Guido Kirchner/dpa, [2] dpa/Rolf Vennenbernd

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.