Audio for Zoom on German Church by Fr Bernd Hagenkord SJ, with (rough) transcript

Fr Bernd Hagenkord SJ – ACP Zoom presentation Tues 6 Oct 2020

What can the Irish Church learn from Germany?

The introduction was by host Gerry O’Connor CSsR, ACP Leadership Team, who shared John O’Donohue’s beautiful meditation poem ‘For Courage.’ This is a (rough) transcript of Fr Bernd’s Zoom presentation and the question/answer session following.

The link to the audio of the Zoom presentation is below. Unfortunately the intro and first few minutes of Fr Bernd is missing. Check the rough transcript to fill in what’s missing. 


Fr Bernd – Overview: Germany is a rich church because of the national tax system. Taxpayers declare their religious allegiance (or none) and the state deducts tax at source and hands it over to the respective church. The German Catholic church receives billions annually, allowing it to employ many professionals in various capacities, and a lot of theologians! It is very German – who like rules and regulations, which can be a weakness and a strength.

Population is circa 83million people. There is no predominant denomination in Germany – circa 33% Catholic; 33% Protestant (of all denominations) and 33% not affiliated and about 4 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews.

There are 27 dioceses (250 in Italy!) An Italian diocese equals a German parish! The German Catholic church is very proud of the millions sent abroad to support charities. (This was confirmed by Gerry O’Connor who is aware of many projects in Africa supported by the German church.) Charity is a ‘strong suit’ worn by the German church.

When people leave the church they inform the tax authorities – circa 270,000 left last year. It was the same for the Protestant denominations. Among the reasons is the child abuse issue.

It came to the fore in Germany in 2010 when victims went public. It has been difficult for all sides. There is a ‘strong conversation’ between the church and victims but it is more difficult because of the cover-up that went on. Abuse is also an issue for other churches.

Vocations are very low with seminaries/novitiates almost empty.

Synodal Way is ongoing. It is a joint effort between the Bishops and the Central Committee for German Catholics, a collective lay group. (Fr Bernd is one of two non-votng Spiritual Directors to the Synodal Way, along with Maria Boxberg, chair of a lay organisation, GCL.) It is not an easy process because of distrust between Bishops and various lay groups.

Germany-Rome – always problems between the two! There is a history of letters from Rome to the German church!

Synodal Way Topics: 1. What it means to be a priest (celibacy); 2. Moral theology and sexuality; 3. Church authority; 4. Women in the Church. “We cannot talk of the first three until we resolve how we treat women.” We need to start the process so that we become a praying community. Australia has started the Synodal process. Switzerland is not off the ground yet. We have committees and sub-committees. All produce papers – the German way! But it’s very helpful!

The presentation then opened to a Q and A format.

Q – Synodal Way impetus – where did it come from?

A – Episcopal. Two years ago. Picked up by the laity and agreed a 3:3 format joint communal committee. Four issues were identified and the pilgrimage started.

Q – Synod Participants – how were the people chosen to participate? Also get the impression many German bishops are speaking openly on women?

A – All Bishops, priests, deacons, professors, etc. participate. Lay groups are organised at EVERY level. ALL lay groups have some representation, circa 250 people. 90% of people want to get something done, even if they don’t agree on certain issues. There is no future in yesterday’s answers. Nearly all agree we need women in the running of the church. Women’s ordination is an issue but the German church can’t introduce it. We need discussion on women deacons and it’s on the table. We don’t know where it’s going!

Q –Scripture/spiritual formation – what is the standard of the laity?

A – Religion is a school subject and is broad-based. Most Catholics have a good knowledge of church life and liturgical services. Many can organise and lead various services.

Q – Priests – How theologically competent are priests?

A – The standard is very high. You have to study Latin and Greek to give you a solid Scriptural basis and most speak more than one language.

Q – With great intellectual formation is there poor human formation?

A – I won’t judge! Some priests are great with people, others may not be – no general line. Seminary education is very bourgeois – all priests get well paid. A PP is equivalent to a school headmaster. Because of the lifestyle making contact with the poor can be a problem.

Q – Pope Francis – Some say Pope Francis has given up on reform, like many women have given up on priesthood, a lack of confidence. It’s clear the patriarchal church has to end but listening to you it will be too slow!

A – I know there are different cultures within Catholicism. We need to be able to come together with our differences, like 200 years ago. I don’t know how it will work with priesthood and liturgy – I have seen a lot of changes, yet I see a lot of people giving up. We lost 270,000 Catholics late year, as did the Protestant churches.

Re Pope Francis – I spent a few years trying to understand him (Fr Bernd spent 10 years working in the Vatican communications department.) I think he’s on track, but he’s not European! His sense of reform is different. He’s giving Asia and Latin America a voice. We have to change from within – that’s the Jesuit way. He’s not strong on structural reform but personal reform and live together with our differences. It will take time. I think we have passed a few points of no return, e.g., red shoes! He has reformed a lot. It will take time.

Q – German Church tension – Head of German Bishops Conference making headlines with sexuality and women. Seems to be at odds with Benedict and (Cardinal) Muller. Yet look at the treatment meted out to Tony Flannery. Is there tension in the German church? Why are ye not getting a ‘Roman hammering’?

A – Rome doesn’t ‘hammer’ much anymore but people are still being silenced. If our theology doesn’t present answers then change our theology. We have to talk – always. It’s not about arguments or opinions but process. I like to protect Benedict – he’s better than presented. Muller? Well… We share many of the same things that are in the Amazon – especially about women. We in Germany have a lot of internal conflict, different churches, different traditions – not all are the same. So we try to contribute to the process to find out what the Spirit is telling us.

Q – Covid-19 effects – how can priests bring meaningful service to people in a pandemic? We have World Teacher Day and Mental Health Day – I’m here preparing ‘goodie’ bags for teachers as a school chaplain, currently at Covid Level 3 with a possibility of going to Level 5. Where will the meaningful acts come during the Covid pandemic? What’s it like in Germany?

A – You’re lucky to have the time to do the ‘goodie’ bags. Priests in Germany wouldn’t have the time, even with shared responsibility. A diocese in Italy is the same as a parish in Germany! The pressure here is for priests to be priests. We were trying to do things organisationally but the Vatican wasn’t impressed. But yes, we need to pack more ‘goodie’ bags.

Q – Discernment – is the method of discernment in the German church like Pope Francis’s on married priests in the Amazon?

A – Pope Francis on discernment is very important. He wants us to discern not just to discuss situations. He loves ‘temptations’ – he’s a man of the First Week (Ignatian Spiritual Exercises!) Someone has to lead, e.g. in viri probati (ordaining married men ‘of proven virtue’) – he said “No”! Here in Germany we don’t know the word ‘discern’, we use ‘differentiate’ – to tell apart one thing from another. Where is the Spirit leading us? The voice from the margin, etc. It’s difficult for Germans because we discuss papers. But the bishops have started a process and they’ll have to lead, enact, decide. So discernment is one thing and to lead is another. Hopefully here the dioceses will do it together and not individually.

Q – Confirmation – at what age? Covid – churches open?

A – Confirmation 14-15 years old. Covid – church openings depend on where you are. Cologne can be a problem but rural churches are different. No singing! The problem is with hospitals, care homes and prisons.

Q – Synodal Way Spiritual Directors – you and who?

A – Maria Boxberg, chair of a lay organisation, GCL.

Q – More episcopal ordinations than priestly ordinations – Why are there low numbers in Germany and Europe? How do you deal with diverse faith in Germany?

A – I’m not a sociologist! Most priests are “disconnected” from their families so it’s not seen as an attractive job. Priests are seen as belonging to a community but if that’s gone then it’s difficult. Similar numbers in Europe – but this is “worth a study.” Is the Lord not calling or are people not answering? There is strong ecumenism in Germany. It’s the cornerstone of Christian life here. It’s normal. Lutherans and Catholics are very ecumenical here.

Q – Do you have many Asians, Africans, etc. in Germany?

A – Yes, Indian, Central Africa – a post-colonial situation. We have priests from other countries. Germany has priests with Polish, Italian and other languages – it’s very diverse here.

Q – Situation with young people?

A – It’s a sad situation. I did youth work in Berlin and Hamburg – fewer organising youth now. More and more young people don’t find what we’re doing attractive. It’s an ageing church in Germany.

Q – Is the German church a field hospital? Pope Francis said the church should be like a field hospital where all are welcome. We’ve failed those who are gay, remarried or had abortions – I feel the church is for those who are good.

A – There are a lot of pastoral attempts here but sexuality creates difficulties. Most support things quietly. If you speak publicly you risk problems with the bishop and canon law! One of the Synodal Way sub-groups is moral theology – that is code for ‘How do we change our theology and pastoral ways to welcome gay people?’ It’s sad but it’s the way.

Q – Synodal Way/Schism – will people have the patience for the Synodal Way or will there be a second Reformation?

A – There is no energy for a schism! People will just leave.

Q – Women/Laity and Priesthood – Some women are no longer interested in becoming priests. What about the priesthood of the laity? How do bishops do this because there’s little movement regarding lay empowerment here?

A – Try this – organise things a different way. If it works, great! Tell people about the mistakes you make. Bismark (150 years ago) disempowered German bishops so the laity had to take control, so there is a strong lay tradition here. We try to develop it further. We still get ‘The priest will say the prayer’ moments! Try, make mistakes, learn. What’s the alternative? There’s no choice!

Q – Has Covid quickened the demise of the church, showing stronger cracks?

A – We measure faith through the church tax because people have to tell the authorities they want to leave! We predicted a number who would leave by 2025 – we’ve reached that number now because of Covid. It has brought forward effects alongside its own effects. The question is how de we accompany the sick and refugees during Covid? We need to talk more about this. We need to learn ‘Covid lessons’ for the Church. We need a European discussion on this.

Q – Uniform Reform Voice – It’s easy for the Vatican to treat reformers with disdain – there needs to be a unification of reform voices worldwide. Interesting to see the Synodal Way in Germany. People like Tony Flannery, Seán Fagan, etc. silenced and oppressed because there is no pushback. How is it allowed to continue?

A – Reform is difficult when translated! I don’t think all reform groups want the same thing. I don’t think it will be a unified voice, e.g., even in a European conversation western/central Europe is different to other parts. Also, there are different issues in the Amazon, Korea, etc. We can learn a lot from a church, e.g., Korea, that’s only 500 years old! We can also learn from the Amazon.

Q – Islam – will it replace Christianity in Europe?

A – No, it won’t. A few German Jesuits studied this – there is no one Islam – it’s too diverse, e.g., Turkish, Libyan, Saudi – they’re all different.

Q – Christian/Muslim dialogue – you have many Syrians. Some difficulties here between Pakistani and Syrian Muslims. Also some Imams preach negative about other religions. How is the Christian/Muslim dialogue?

A – Muslims have a problem with clericalism too! On the ground meeting people is different. There are conflicts – is it religious or migrants being promised riches that can’t be attained? Many are traumatised, from poor countries coming to a rich country, so there are problems. It’s part of Germany now. It’s mostly going well but there are some conflicts.

Q – Pope Francis/Imam Joint Statement – there’s hope in this (and teachers in Ballyhaunis – Ireland’s most diverse town use it in class for ALL religions.)

A – The new encyclical ­Fratelli Tutti is based on this. The far right is destructive and they will destroy everything.

Q – Fratelli Tutti – title is a missed opportunity to include women.

A – In German the word is feminine! We’re very happy with the German translation. Nervous before but happy now

Q – Angela Merkel – a good influence in the church?

A – Yes, a practising Christian, a Protestant. She listens. She paid a state visit to the Pope, without calling into Italy! She is trying to strengthen the refugee movement. She will leave a gap when gone.

Q – Pope Francis – Temptation – Week 1 of Ignatian Spiritual Exercise – wondering if he’s just a worldwide spiritual director, not a leader.

A – Pope Francis tries not to lead by directive but by empowering local churches to make their own decisions. And that’s the problem! How do you empower local churches to deal with local problems while maintaining church unity? He doesn’t want to be a church dictator, even with Cardinals – he wants people to listen more to the Holy Spirit. There is no perfect way forward. I’d prefer a Pope who admits mistakes and moves on.

Host Gerry O’Connor CSsR thanked Fr Bernd for his presentation and also acknowledged German church support for Redemptorist projects in Africa.


Liamy Mac Nally

ACP Admin Secretary

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