25 years in, Bishop Hofmann leaves the seat of Würzburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Markus Hauck (POW)

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New bishops in summer

Everything, including the Church, slows down over summer. As a result, there are few appointments and consecrations of bishops in August. Nonetheless, Germany gained two of them: Msgr. Peter Kohlgraf was consecrated as bishop of Mainz on 27 August and Msgr. Franz Josef Gebert became the third auxiliary bishop of Trier last Sunday.

These two consecrations fill out the roster of German bishops: there are no vacant sees or auxiliary bishop positions among the 28 (arch)dioceses in the country. This, however, is not a situation that will continue for long: Würzburg’s Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann is already 75, while Hildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle reached that age today. Both dioceses can therefore expect a new bishop relatively soon (barring any exceptional circumstances, such as in the Austrian diocese of Innsbruck, which has been awaiting a new bishop since November of 2015).

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^Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, flanked by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Stephan Burger and Cardinal Rainer Woelki, greets people gathered after his consecration.

Bishop Kohlgraf is the successor of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who headed the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years until his retirement in May of 2016. It is a public secret that the cardinal had wanted his auxiliary Bishop Udo Markus Bentz to succeed him, but the latter’s appointment as Bishop Kohlgraf’s vicar general can be seen as a form of continuity with the Lehmann era. The previous vicar general, and diocesan administrator during the year-long sede vacante, Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, has been appointed as episcopal vicar for, among others, migration and integration, thus indicating some of the initial points of focus of the new bishop.

Bishop Franz Gebert was appointed to fill the position left by Bishop Helmut Dieser, who was appointed as Bishop of Aachen in September of last year. Like other German dioceses, Trier has a standard number of auxiliary bishops, in this case three, as episcopal vicars for individual pastoral areas are made bishops as a rule. Bishop Gebert headed the diocesan charity office before his appointment as auxiliary bishop, and will continue in that role as episcopal vicar for the caritas. Additionally, he will be responsible for pastoral visitation in the Trier area on behalf of Bishop Stephan Ackermann.

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Bishop Franz Gebert (front row, second from right) poses with the other bishops hailing from the Diocese of Trier: front row: Leo Schwarz (auziliary bishop emeritus), Robert Brahm (auxiliary bishop), Stephan Ackermann (ordinary), Franz Gebert, Jörg Peters (uxiliary bishop), Alfred Kleinermeilert (auxiliary bishop emeritus). Back row: Helmut Dieser (bishop of Aachen), Felix Genn (bishop of Münster), Georg Bätzing (bishop of Limburg).

Photo credit: [1] Stefan Sämsmer, [2] Bistum Trier

In response to falling numbers, Cardinal Marx calls for lay responsibility

marxCardinal Reinhard Marx is planning to introduce a way of managing parishes  in his Archdiocese of München und Freising which is, out of necessity, already being practiced elsewhere in Europe, La Croix reports.

Whil it is standard that a parish is led by a parish priest, who is ultimately responsible for what happens in his parish (or parishes, federation or parish cluster), Cardinal Marx wants to see if that responsibility could not also be held by lay faithful. This decision stems from the dwindling numbers of priests. While some dioceses, for example in parts of Germany and the Netherlands, cluster and merge parishes to make sure that there is still at least one priest per parish, Cardinal Marx does not believe that is the way forward.

An enlarged parish, created out of a cluster of smaller parishes, would require its sole priest to travel greater distances, and possibly, as financial means are stretched, churches to be closed and active parish communities to be similarly merged. A weekly Sunday Mass in every church in the new parish would no longer be a matter of course. Cardinal Marx believes that this withdrawal of the Church from her territorial roots will lead to increasing local invisibility.

By appointing lay faithful to take on the responsibility for parishes where there is no priest, at least not frequently or regularly, the local church could continue its activities and remain visible. And there is no real reason to not invest lay faithful with such responsibility. It is not as if one needs to be ordained in order to wield it. Some ordained priests, the cardinal says, are not particularly suited to lead parishes, but do wonderful things in other areas, such as pastoral care and liturgy.

There is an element of responsibility that comes with ordination, and that is the responsibility of the shepherd. Priests remain indispensible in the life of the Church, but they are also people, with their limitations. None can be in two places at the same time (barring those holy priests given the grace of bilocation) and there are practical limits to the size of a parish that one man can be responsible for in the way expected of a parish priest. Cardinal Marx’s plan includes an active role for his three auxiliary bishops and himself in selecting teams of lay leaders and reflecting on parish structures and organisation.

Cardinal Marx’ proposal is a response to a problem that many bishops in Northwestern Europe face: dwindling numbers of faithful, and subsequently diminishing financial means to allow for the upkeep of (sometimes ancient and monumental) buildings and pastoral networks. If it is the right response is for the future to reveal.

 

The work is never done – Bishop Dieser installed as Bishop of Aachen

With a call to unity and an eye on the future Bishop Helmut Dieser was installed as seventh bishop of Aachen on Saturday. In addition, bishop Dieser also emphasised the synodal future of the Church of Aachen, stating in his installation homily:

“No masterplan, no hey ho! we are better than those before us, and certainly no panic as if we must save the Church, but: Lord, tell us what is needed, tell us when we pray, when we speak and plan with each other, when we are critical and make decisions. Help us to be synodal with each other and with you today, meaning: to know that we are journeying together, not yet ready, but in the unity of the faith of the Church, in the diversity of gifts and tasks and responsibilities, growing towards you, the first who is already complete, so that we may also be complete.”

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He may be the seventh bishop of Aachen since the diocese was re-established in 1930, Bishop Dieser has just as much to do as any of his predecessors, he explained.

Main celebrant at the installation Mass was Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, as Aachen is a suffragan diocese of that archdiocese. In his word of welcome, he recalled the main duty of a bishop: “The first and most important task of the Apostles then and their successors the bishops now is to proclaim the joyful message of Jesus Christ […] and to be witnesses of the resurrection of Christ.”

Another word of welcome was given by Reinhard Cardinal Marx. The president of the German Bishops’ Conference knows Aachen’s new bishop well, as both come from the Diocese of Trier. Cardinal Marx was bishop there from 2001 to 2007, and Bishop Dieser was a priest of that diocese from 1989 to 2011 and later auxiliary bishop until this year. Cardinal Marx said,

“Those who know Helmut Dieser are soon impressed by his open and cheerful nature. I know the new bishop well. Dyuring my time as bishop of Trier, Helmut Dieser was an involved priest and pastor, who could listen well. With his pastoral experience, his responsibility as auxiliary bishop in Trier and his theological working and thinking, Bishop Dieser brings the best requirements for his new mission.”

Other celebrants at the installation Mass were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, and Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary if Aachen and Administrator of the diocese between the retirement of Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and the installation of Bishop Dieser.

In his closing words of thanks, Bishop Dieser began his ministry with a request:

“Let me live with you! Simply, not excessively and exaggerated. Not hidden in roles and expectations. I too am a limited human being. I too can overtax myself.

Only when you can and want to live with me, can I be bishop with you and for you!”

Bistum Aachen 2016

Bishop Helmut Dieser is the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Aachen in its current form. A first Diocese of Aachen was established in 1801, under Napoleonic rule, with territory taken from Cologne in Germany, Roermond and Batavia in the Netherlands, and Liège in Belgium. In 1821 this was once again suppressed, its territory added to Cologne, Trier and Münster. This first Diocese of Aachen only ever had a single bishop, Frenchman Marc-Antoine Berdolet, from 1801 to 1809. His appointment was part of the power struggles between Napoleon’s France and the Holy See. Following Berdolet’s death, the Holy See gave no permission to ordain a successor.

 In 1930, Aachen was re-established, this time only from territory of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

Photo credit: Andreas Steindl

In Munich, a count brings the auxiliary bishops back to three

bv-stolberg-139large_1414758497After an equal number of years, the number of auxiliary bishops for the southern German Archdiocese of München und Freising is back to three, one for each pastoral region. The new bishop, appointed today, is Rupert Graf zu Stolberg, a 46-year-old priest who has been the episcopal vicar for the Munich region since 2013 and member of the cathedral chapter, functions he will retain as bishop.

Bishop-elect Stolberg was born in 1970 in Salzburg, Austria, but grew up in Passau, Bavaria. After graduating he worked at a mission station in Mexico, before returning to Germany to study medicine. He later switched to theology and the seminary in Munich and was ordained for the Archdiocese of München und Freising in 2003. He was the personal secretary of Cardinal Friedrich Wetter since 2005 and continued in that function for Cardinal Reinhard Marx when the latter was appointed in 2007. In 2011 he joined the personnel department for the pastoral regions Nord and South. In 2013, then, he succeeded retiring auxiliary Bishop Engelbert Siebler as episcopal vicar for Munich. From Bishop Siebler he took the – utterly Franciscan – habit of celebrating Christmas with homeless people.

Bishop-elect Stolberg has been a vocal opponent of the Pegida movement, warning against the racist tendencies underlying their motivations. He is a member of the speakers’ council of the Munich Alliance for tolerance, democracy and justice and a founder of the city’s religious council.

The new bishop, whose full name is Rupert Ferdinand Carl Thaddäus Antonius Maria Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg, is of noble blood. He is a member of one of the various branches of the Stolberg family, which dates back to the 13th century. In the Holy Roman Empire they were worldy rulers over a range of counties and lordships. The Stolberg-Stolberg line has included the Catholic politician Count Joseph Theodor, the Nazi General Major Christoph and opponent of Nazism and rescuer of Jews Countess Maria zu Stolberg-Stolberg.

The consecration of Bishop-elect Stolberg is scheduled for 10 December, and will undoubtedly be performed by Cardinal Marx as main consecrator and the see’s other two auxiliaries, Bishop Bernard Haßlberger and Wolfgang Bischof as co-consecrators. He has been given the titular see of Sassura, which lies in modern Tunisia.

Photo credit: Thomas Dashuber

In Germany, the numbers speak

numbersThe Catholic Church in Germany has published its annual statistics overview over 2015, and for the first time in several years there is a positive development to be noted when compared to the previous year. It remains to be seen if this development continues into the future, but it does begs the questions if this is the result of something like a Francis Effect, or of some other recent trend in the Church or the world. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, commenting on the numbers, believes it is due to there not only being an interest in what the Church has to offer, but also an active desire fore the sacraments:

“The statistics over 2015 indicate that the Church in Germany remains, as before, a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted. There is evidently not only an interest, but also an active desire for the sacraments of the Church, as the slight increase in the number of Baptisms and marriages shows. Although the number of people leaving the Church has decreased when compared to 2014, the number remains high, indicating we should persevere in our pastoral efforts. We need a “demanding pastoral approach” which does justice to the various realities of people and communicates the hope of the faith in a convincing manner. The completion of the Synod of Bishops in the past year, as well as Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Amoris laetitia are important signposts.

“But the naked numbers also show that the Church in our country is an integral part of our society. We will develop our pastoral efforts further on the basis of these statsitics. A lot has already been done in the dioceses. I am thinking of the process of dialogue concluded in the past year, which has contributed to a renewal in the Church. Pope Francis encourages us when he says that the path to the Church of the future is the part of a “synodal Church”. This means that all the faithful, laity and clergy, are required! In the future, we will bear witness of our faith together and proclaim the Gospel with conviction.”

The cardinal, who serves as the president of the German Bishop’s Conference, is optimistic, and the latest numbers do warrant some measure of optimism. Many dioceses are reporting changes in trends of several years, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages, revealing that 2014/2015 is, for now a turning point in some areas. When comparing the 2015 statstics with those of 1995, 20 years ago, it becomes clear how welcome this change is. The number of Catholics is still lower than in 1995, sometimes significantly so (of note are the Dioceses of Görlitz and Magdeburg). Baptisms, however, are more frequent in some dioceses than they were in 1995. Berlin, Dresden-Meißen and Erfurt all report increases. It is interesting to see that both these dioceses and those with the most extreme drops in Catholic faithful are in the east of Germany, where secularism is most prevalent after decades of communist rule. This increase can be partly attributed to immigration, from both Poland and the further abroad.

Marriages are still in crisis, however, with the numbers halved in some places over the past 20 years (Bamberg, Berlin, Dresden-Meißen, Erfurt, Görlitz, Hamburg, München und Freising, Passau and Würzburg are the only dioceses to have kept their numbers at 50% or above).

More than just a headline – Pope Francis’ asks forgiveness

h=300Pope Francis is making headlines again, once more following an in-flight press conference on his return from a papal visit abroad, in this case to Armenia. The headlines generally follow one format: “Pope asks forgiveness from gays” or some variation thereof. While this is essentialy correct, the Holy Father’s complete answer is more nuanced and different from what more than a few readers will conclude from the headlines.

From the translation provided by the National Catholic Register comes the relevant part of the answer to a question about how the Church is said to have marginalised homosexual people in the past:

“I will repeat what I said on my first trip. I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally. One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior … Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? … But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well … this is what the catechism says, a clear catechism. Then there are traditions in some countries, in some cultures that have a different mentality on this problem. I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness — like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) — must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! — Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families …”

It is clear that Pope Francis said a whole lot more than that the Church must ask forgiveness. He starts from what the Catechisms says, and so places his comments within the larger doctrine of the Church: this is not something new that he is saying, but the Church has consistently taught that people should nto be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, that they must be respected as human beings and that the Church has an obligation to accompany them pastorally. In short, she is to treat them as she treats all human beings, starting from their innate dignity.

The Church has failed in this in the past, and sometimes still does, just like she did and does in regard to women and children who are exploited, or the victims of war and nationalism. For this, Pope Francis, says, the Church, meaning all Christians, must ask forgiveness, for it is contrary to what she is tasked with.

While the Church must always be open to accept all people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, occupation or whatever other characteristic, the story does not end there. The Church is more than just people and has a message to convey, a teaching, a relationship with a Person. And everything she does must stand in the light of the encounter with this Person, who is God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This includes how she relates to the people she welcomes.

A second interesting part of the Pope’s answer is that he says “one can condemn”. And what one can condemn is not people, but “political behaviour”, since “certain manifestations are a bit too offensive”. One can wonder what exactly is meant here, but I have seen some commenters see this as a condemnation of pride manifestations and similar. That may be so, but it could also be more general and refer to various sorts of behaviour stemming from one’s sexual orientation which could be offensive to others. The problem is then not so much about homosexuality, but consideration of the other’s thoughts and feelings. As Pope Francis says, this has little to do with the problem of marginalisation. One can disagree, even be offended, without pushing away the person one disagrees with or is offended by. Sure, it is hard, but, to mention a cliché, it is what Jesus would do. He did not shun his opponents. He entered into dialogue, challenged them to change their thoughts and behaviour, but never because he did not respect their human dignity (on the contrary even).

And then he repeats that earlier line, which caused so much debate: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is important to not make the same mistake as many people do with that line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:1), which is not simply a commandment not to judge, but rather a warning to remember that judgement goes two ways. Pope Francis describes a rather specific situation in which we should be careful not to judge: a person in some situation that is either objectively sinful or disordered, in this case someone who is homosexual, but who has the desire to do what is right and is seeking the Lord. The second part is important. Of course we should not refrain from judging actions committed by a similar person which are directed against his own or others’ wellbeing or his relationship with God, especially not when that person has no desire to do what is right or to find God. These latter conditions, good wil and seeking God, are frequently overlooked, and people are content with claiming that Pope Francis has said that we are not to judge homosexual people. Like he suggested before, the Church is not in the business of judging people, but actions. But, the Pope has insisted time and again, the Church, and therefore all Christians, are to accompany people who are of good will and seek God, not condemn and marginalise them. For, as Pope Francis also reminds us, we are all sinners, we all have our obstacles that sometimes make it hard to live according to the ideals the Church holds up.

In closing, Pope Francis’ answer is not revolutionary in that it contains any new teaching. It does, however, emphasise a different approach, a recognition of where we run the risk of failing to follow the example of Christ. Only then can ways be mended, and that, in the end, is what a Christian life is about.

Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool photo via AP