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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Cardinal Eijk’s not too outlandish encyclical suggestion

Despite many a Dutch reaction, Cardinal Wim Eijk’s suggestion that Pope Francis devote an encyclical to the errors of the gender ideology, first reported by CNS here, is not that outlandish.

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On Facebook I came across several people sharing the CNS article: the first, from an American source, came with a number of reactions, all positive. The second, from a Dutch source, had for the most part reactions that were the equivalent of the rolleyes emoticon. bdjkv-myThere’s that old-fashioned out-of-touch cardinal again, enforcing his restrictive morals on the rest of the world, they seemed to say. There may be much to be said about the social reasons for this difference, but it also, perhaps, illustrates how Cardinal Eijk – and the topic he raised – are perceived in the Netherlands as compared to abroad.

But, as I have said, his suggestion to devote an encyclical, an authoritive document on a doctrinal matter, to the question of what gender is and how it has been ideologically hijacked by some does not appear completely out of thin air. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have spoken about it on more than one occasion and most recently, Pope Francis described it as a sort of “ideological colonisation” and a threat to the family and children especially.

And that makes sense, as the theory that gender is somehow a social construct clashes on all fronts with the Catholic understanding of human nature. Our gender is a constituent part of who we are as persons, and it is therefore not something that should be tinkered with too easily. The Church does not deny the existence of people who suffer psychologically because they struggle with their own gender, but she looks for reasons and solutions elsewhere, and she will therefore always try to combat an increasing social acceptance of gender theory, as we see happening with things like abortion and euthanasia.

Is Pope Francis likely to issue an encyclical on an issue like this? I don’t believe so. Partly because encyclicals take time to write: Pope Francis will be 80 next month, and he has enough plans and work for the foreseeable future as it is. And he may also think that his comments on the matter have already been clear enough, or they may be answered as the Church continues developing what Amoris laetitia thought.

And while Cardinal Eijk has suggested it might be a good idea, he is not actually actively lobbying the Pope to write a gender encyclical, despite the conclusions that some may have already drawn.

Photo credit: CNS/Francois Gloutnay, Presence

Lenten reflection – First Saturday

The Calling of Saint MatthewMichelangelo da Caravaggio, c. 1599“When he went out after this, he noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’

And leaving everything Levi got up and followed him. In his honour Levi held a great reception in his house, and with them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples and said, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’

Jesus said to them in reply, ‘It is not those that are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the upright but sinners to repentance.'”

Luke 5:27-32

Jesus calls everyone to follow Him, but in the Gospels we see Him pointing out specific people and presents them with the choice very directly. Apparently, He does not need to have to interact much with people before asking – telling, even – them.. He sees the tax collector at work, and knows enough. This is a man He wants to be seen with.

The world doesn’t understand that, as we see in the reaction of the Pharisees. Why choose to be with these people, these sinners who are spat out by the rest of decent society? But dividing society in wanted and unwanted people is an artificial construct. After all, society is made up by all people, rich and poor, holy and sinful, good and evil. Jesus choose to become a part of this multifaceted society in order to heal it. And just like when our body is sick, we try to heal the parts that affect us adversely, not cut them off. Jesus does the same. He does not cut out the unwanted elements of society, but tries to change them for the better.

Human society, the combined body of all our interactions and relations is not an accident. It flows from our nature as human beings created by God. And as such it is wanted and has a purpose or destination in God. Christ came to put us on the right path to that destination, by healing us from our sins and ills. And he does so first in the ways of society: in the form of a social gathering. He eats and drinks with the tax collectors. We can only imagine what they talked about, but it would be a safe bet to assume that Jesus won Himself a place in the hearts of the sinners He ate with.

We are called to imitate Jesus and introduce Him to the people around us. A good way to start is simply through society, as Jesus did. Not by expounding about the evilness of their ways or pouring boatloads of information about God and faith on them. That can wait, and will come naturally when the time, and everyone involved, is ready. That is the start of evangelisation.

The male side of ‘being Church’

Archbishop Ludwig Schick, of the German Archdiocese of Bamberg, issued an interesting warning recently. The man is slowly disappearing from the Church. Just like society, the Church is ‘feminising’. The archbishop, who holds the ‘male affairs’ portfolio within the German Bishops’ Conference, stated that “we need to win them back”.

The Catholic Church has always maintained the innate equality of man and woman without making the mistake of saying that they are the same, a mistake that society is making. Physically, mentally and also spiritually, men and women are different. This difference is often ignored or outright denied in the name of equality, but they are very different concepts. One does not deny the other.

Emphasising and supporting women’s rights to do or say something is not threatened by doing the same for men, but that’s not what’s happening now, because of this fear that difference means inequality (slogans to the effect that we should “be different” or “be who we are” are just that: slogans. They merely reflect society’s acceptance of certain politically correct differences).

Archbishop Schick is right in his assessment that we lack a ‘masculine’ Church. We must engage the men in our congregations or run the risk of losing them. In my opinion that calls for a robust and practical faith life which is not afraid to take positions and have very tangible and practical goals. Simply put, we need men who are unafraid of being men. Brothers and fathers – biological and spiritual – who are unafraid to love, support and take responsibility.

Photo credit: Tobias Hase/dpa