What kind of “believers”?

George Weigel

This past June I was in the Munich area for four days, giving a public lecture on Evangelical Catholicism and doing a lot of media interviews. My hosts were exceptionally gracious, but it was also obvious that the Catholic Church in what was once Germany’s most intensely Catholic region is in terrible shape. The numbers tell the tale.

The parish in whose rectory I stayed has some 10,000 parishioners — which is to say, the pastor knows that there are 10,000 people within the parish boundaries who, when paying their federal taxes, tick the box for the Kirchensteuer, the “Church tax.” Having seen years of statistics on Sunday Mass attendance from the German bishops’ conference, I was expecting the pastor to answer my question about his Sunday congregation with a figure somewhere between 700 and 1,000. No, he said; average Sunday Mass attendance among those 10,000 parishioners was 200. And when he asked people politely when he might see them at Mass, he frequently got the answer, “Look, I pay the Church tax; what else do you want?”

So it was with some interest that I read the recent explanation by Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx as to why he and the majority of the German bishops were defying the Vatican and plowing ahead with their “binding Synodal process,” in order to re-examine “issues” such as the Church’s sexual ethic, its teaching on marriage, and its ancient pattern of ordaining only men to the ministerial priesthood. Cardinal Marx claimed that “Countless believers in Germany consider (these issues) in need of discussion.” The not-so-tacit suggestion was that questions once thought settled by the Church were in fact open.

In light of my recent experience in the cardinal’s archdiocese, some questions immediately occurred: Who are these “countless believers”? Do they participate in the Eucharistic community of the Church or do they just pay the Church tax (and get snarky when asked why worship is not on their Sunday agenda)?

And further: How many of these “countless believers,” who seem to think that what is settled is in fact unsettled, have ever had the truths they question explained to them? How many of German Catholicism’s legion of theologians and church workers devote themselves to such teaching? The archdiocese of Munich and Freising has, I was told, some 2,000 employees. Do any of them live the vocation to explain what is challenging in the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s application of it?

Moreover, in what time-warp do these “countless believers” live? The Catholic Church has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy over the past 50 years “discussing” the “issues” that Cardinal Marx suggests are at the top of German Catholics’ concerns. Isn’t the real problem here that, after a lot of discussion and deliberation, the teaching authority of the Church resolved those issues in a way that “countless believers” didn’t like and still don’t like — perhaps because the Church’s settled answers are in severe tension with the libertine public moral culture that prevails across western Europe?

A little honesty here would go a long way.

Much of the Catholic Church in Germany (and in other German-speaking lands) is in a de facto state of schism: many of its leaders and intellectuals do not believe what the Catholic Church believes. And because of that, they do not teach what the Catholic Church teaches. Nor does this de facto schism touch on neuralgic moral questions alone. It involves the bottom of the bottom line: Is Jesus Christ the unique redeemer of humanity, such that all who are saved are saved through him (in one fashion or another)? Are there divinely revealed truths that remain binding over time? Is the Catholic Church speaking the truth when it solemnly declares that it is doing so, irrespective of what the surrounding culture thinks?

Catholicism is dying in the German-speaking world, not because the Gospel has been proclaimed and found incredible or hard, but because it hasn’t been proclaimed with joy, confidence, and zeal. Friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and incorporation into the community of disciples in mission that is the Church, has not been offered. That is why there is two percent Mass attendance in that Munich parish. Recognizing that hard truth is the only path toward a German Catholicism that has something credible to say to the rest of the world Church.

 

COMING UP: The Catholic Church has five new saints

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With 50,000 people in attendance from all continents, Pope Francis declared John Henry Newman, Mother Giuseppina Vannini, Mother Mariam Thresia Mankidiyan, Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes, and Marguerite Bays Catholic saints at the beginning of a festive mass in St. Peter’s Square, Sunday Oct. 13.

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926)

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926) was an Indian mystic and founder of the Congregation of the Holy Family. Her prayer life was characterized by frequent ecstasies in which she would sometimes levitate above the ground. In 1909, Thresia received the stigmata, after which she also suffered from demonic attacks.

Mother Thresia cared for the poor, sick, and dying in Kerala, visiting those with leprosy and measles. She also preached to the poor and the rich alike the importance of happy, healthy families to uplift all of society.  In 1914 Thresia founded the Congregation of the Holy Family, which has grown to have 176 houses around the world with 1,500 professed sisters.

“Our main charisma is family apostolate. We have schools, hospitals and counseling centers etc. But our main focus is the family apostolate. Making the families like a Holy Family of Nazareth,” Sister Dr. Vinaya of the Congregation of the Holy Family said.

Pope Francis recognized the second miracle attributed Mother Thresia in February. A grandmother of a dying child had a relic of Mariam Thresia and asked the nurse — a sister belonging to the Congregation of the Holy Family — to place the relic on the child’s heart and pray. From that moment forward, the young boy began to breathe normally and was cured.

Marguerite Bays (1815-1879)

This 19th century Swiss laywoman and stigmatist dedicated her life to prayer and service to her parish community without marrying or entering a religious community. As a Third Order Franciscan, she lived a simple life as a dressmaker and carried out a lay apostolate as a catechist.

When Bays was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 1853, she prayed to the Virgin Mary to be able to suffer with Jesus rather than to be healed. However, on the day that Bl. Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Sept. 8, 1854, she was miraculously healed. Pius made the proclamation on Marguerite’s 39th birthday.

“From that moment on, after Marguerite was healed of her illness in a completely inexplicable way, she proclaimed the Passion of the Lord, because every Friday she had these moments of suffering in which there was blood and the stigmata, the very pain of the Passion,” Father Carlo Calloni, the postulator for Bays’ canonization cause, told EWTN’s Vaticano.

Blessed Marguerite died on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1879 at the age of 63. After her death the Vatican approved a miracle attributed to her intercession in which a two-year-old child was completely healed after being run over by an 1,800-pound tractor wheel. She was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1995.

Mother Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911)

Giuseppina Vannini is a 19th century religious sister from Rome known for founding the congregation of the Daughters of St. Camillus dedicated to serving the sick and suffering. She is the first Roman woman to be canonized in more than 400 years, according to ACI Stampa.

Vannini spent much of her childhood in an orphanage near St. Peter’s Square after losing her father when she was four, and her mother when she was seven. She grew up among the Daughters of Charity sisters, who ran the orphanage. On the day of her first communion, young Giuseppina felt that she was called to a religious vocation.

This desire was not realized until 1892 when she was 33 because she was rejected by the Daughters of Charity after her novitiate due to her poor health.

Despite her own health problems, Vannini went on to find the Daughters of St. Camillus, whose charism is to serve the sick, even at the risk of their own lives. However, she did not live to see the congregation fully recognized by the Vatican. She died at the age of 51 in 1911.

Today the Daughters of St. Camillus have grown to 800 sisters in 22 countries. The Giuseppina Vannini Hospital in Rome is named in her honor.

Sister Dulce Lopes (1914-1992)

This Brazilian sister was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Born as Maria Rita Lopes in 1914 in Salvador de Bahia, Lopes began inviting the elderly and those in need into her home at the age of 16. Two years later she joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God.

In 1959, she founded the Charitable Works Foundation of Sister Dulce, which grew into largest charitable organization in Brazil providing healthcare, welfare, and education services. Today the foundation includes Roma teaching hospital in Bahia and the Santo Antonio Educational Center which provides free education to 800 children living in extreme poverty.

Sister Dulce died in 1992 after 30 years of respiratory illness. After her body was found to be incorrupt, Sister Dulce was beatified in 2011 and was selected as one of the patrons of World Youth Day in Krakow as a model of charity.

She is now the first Brazilian-born female saint.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

St. John Henry Newman is the most famous English theologian in modern times. Born the son of a London banker, he was baptized in the Anglican church, began studies in Oxford at the age of 16, and was ordained an Anglican priest.

After joining the Oxford Movement, he sought to recover Catholic aspects within the Church of England. However, in 1845, putting aside his academic career, he converted to Catholicism and subsequently spent the last 40 years of his life as a parish priest in Birmingham. There, he cared for the poor and wrote works that have had a major impact on Catholic theology, including in the Second Vatican Council. Leo XIII made him a cardinal, but he never became a bishop.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman in London. Benedict noted Newman’s emphasis on the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, but also praised his pastoral zeal for the sick, the poor, the bereaved, and those in prison. Saint John Henry Newman’s liturgical feast is October 9.

John Henry Newman has been called the “absent Father of Vatican II” because his writings on conscience, religious liberty, Scripture, the vocation of lay people, the relation of Church and State, and other topics were extremely influential in the shaping of the Council’s documents. Although Newman was not always understood or appreciated, he steadfastly preached the Good News by word and example.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA