19 June 2012

(No) Catholic alternative? And a new cathedral

Here is an interesting article about the Old Catholic Diocese in Germany from Deutschland Radio, a state radio network. The title, "(K)eine katholische Alternative", is deliberately provocative – the Old Catholics are often portrayed as being an alternative to Rome, but the report makes clear, that a true alternative is a long way off simply because of the reality on the ground.

Here are some excerpts, translated from German and edited for brevity by me:

The Old Catholics are able to record a small increase in numbers

The Old Catholic church is an association of independent Catholic churches. It was formed in 1870 because a majority of the Bonn seminary faculty's professors refused to accept the dogmas of papal infallibility and supremacy. As a result of this protest, in 1873 the Old Catholic Seminary was founded at the University of Bonn.

Two years after his ordination as bishop, Matthias Ring can lay hard numbers on the table: The Diocese of Old Catholics in Germany counted 15,420 members in 2011, over 100 more than in the previous year. More Old Catholics are in Germany than in any other country save Poland, with its 19,000 members, and somewhat less in Austria and Switzerland. Together with the members in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, the Union of Utrecht, the European association of Old Catholics, can claim over 70,000 members.

Bishop Ring says for Germany that the Old Catholics are growing, if slowly. For some years, about three or four new members join for each one that leaves. More than half of the new members come from the Roman Catholic church – like Bishop Ring himself, who says:

"A church that is mainly one of new members has a certain inner dynamic. Every new person brings new ideas along. That is not always easy, especially at the local parish level. Though of course two or three people can also have a lot influence. That is of course also an opportunity. So one can do much more in a small church than in a large one. But that is a dynamic process that doesn't always go smoothly."

Matthias Ring is a wandering bishop. [Note: this is a sarcastic reference to episcopi vagantes, a topic that has long been a thorn in the eye of European Old Catholics – literally means "wandering bishops".] Between Easter and Advent, he has over 100 engagements where he celebrates church services far from his episcopal see in Bonn. Sometimes out in the boondocks, sometimes in big cities like Munich, Augsburg or Hannover:

"We are an urban phenomenon. That was the case in the 19th century – in the city, one could belong to a minority. And I believe that will stay that way. We naturally also have more rural regions where we are in effect the popular church, such as in southern Baden, where I see a very positive development. But such small rural parishes have it difficult."

For example, upper Franconia in the Free State of Bavaria. The local parish is spread out across Coburg, Bayreuth, Weidenberg and Neustadt an der Orla. The services in Münchberg were cancelled for lack of interest. In the main center at Weidenberg, however, one finds a lively parish with a choir, a flute group and board game evenings. A parish member, Lothar Adam, writes:

"In the outer regions of our parish where there are only occasional services, there are not many Old Catholics. Our history is tied to the refugees from the Sudetenland, who brought their Old Catholicism with them. Not many of those are left. Often when their spouse was not Old Catholic, then the children were not as well. Out in the extreme diaspora, we have the problem that the numbers are shrinking."

The opposite development, growth in urban areas, can be seen in new Old Catholic parish churches being built in Hannover and Augsburg. The new Old Catholic cathedral in Bonn also demonstrates a new confidence. €7.5 million was spent by the building owner, the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to renovate the Church Holy Name of Jesus near Beethoven's birthplace. The church was formerly the location of the university Roman Catholic parish.

Of 640 members of the Bonn Parish of St. Cyprian, only 100 are over 65. In Bonn, there is an Old Catholic kindergarden and the only Old Catholic seminary in Germany at the University of Bonn. Founded in 1873 by Bonn seminary professors, a majority of whom refused the dogmas of papal infallibility and supremacy, today it has 40 students, among which are four candidates for the priesthood for the whole diocese.

The Dutch Archbishop of Old Catholics, Joris Vercammen, is chair of the Union of Utrecht, founded in 1889 as the European federation of several smaller national Catholic churches independent of Rome. He regrets the wave of departures from the larger Roman sister church, because most turn their backs on Christian life altogether. The Old Catholic Church, with its synodical-democratic organization and funded by the national church tax, stands ready to welcome the disappointed. Does he have a vision to grow by a factor of ten? He says, "no problem":

"That has to be organized. That has to be structured. That is a different job for a million than for 100,000 or 200,000 people. But we are able to organize that, that is not a problem. But the ideals must stay, for that is our calling."