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RELIGION

German Catholics challenge Vatican with sweeping reform drive

Germany's Catholic Church has ended a landmark renewal project by agreeing a slew of reforms including blessing same-sex marriages and allowing female deacons, at the risk of angering the Vatican.

Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany.
Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany. Germany's Catholic Church has voted on several reforms, including on blessing same-sex marriages and allowing female deacons. Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Bishops, priests, nuns and lay representatives of the Church gathered in Frankfurt from March 9-11 for the last assembly of Germany’s “Synodal Path”, a process launched in 2019 in response to the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Some 200 delegates voted on 15 separate issues, among the most high-profile of which was the overwhelming agreement to ordain women into the diaconate.

Deacons can assist priests during Mass, perform baptisms and bless marriages.

The final decision on whether to allow female deacons remains with Pope Francis.

The delegates in Frankfurt did not go so far as to vote in favour of female priests, a far more contentious issue.

The “Synodal Path” participants also backed offering blessings for same-sex couples, in defiance of the Vatican which considers homosexuality a sin.

Crucially, the measure was supported by a majority of German bishops, who have the authority to perform the ceremonies in their diocese without Vatican approval.

The result was welcomed by the head of the German Bishops’ Conference Georg Baetzing as a “very good” outcome.

Blessings for same-sex relationships are already offered in Germany by some Catholic priests, but the public show of support is likely to encourage more such ceremonies.

‘Can’t stay the same’

The German reform drive, which has included controversial discussions about priestly celibacy and changing the decision-making structure in Church, has sparked deep tensions with Rome and even triggered fears of a schism.

Baetzing played down those concerns in Frankfurt.

“The Synodal Path neither leads to a division nor is it the beginning of a national Church,” he told delegates.

Baetzing hopes the German proposals will be incorporated in Pope Francis’s global synod, which will see a discussion about Church reforms in October.

Germany’s Catholic Church remains the country’s largest religion, counting 21.6 million members in 2021.

But it has lost around three million members over the last decade and struggled to recruit new priests, spurring calls for modernisation and renewal.

Much of the exodus came in the wake of revelations of child sex abuse by clergy, mirroring similar scandals around the world.

A study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference and released in 2018 showed that 1,670 clergymen had committed some type of sexual attack against 3,677 minors, mostly boys, between 1946 and 2014.

However, the authors said the actual number of victims was almost certainly much higher.

The president of the lay-run Central Council of German Catholics, Irme Stetter-Karp, said she had “wished for more” change after the Frankfurt assembly.

“The Church cannot remain as it is,” said Stetter-Karp, also the co-president of the “Synodal Path”.

She praised the decision on female deacons, as well as a proposal to ask Pope Francis to re-examine priestly celibacy.

But she regretted that no progress had been made on overhauling the power structure within Germany’s Catholic Church, given a lack of the required support from bishops.

“Anyone who takes the abuse scandal seriously, must work on structural changes,” she said.

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RELIGION

Black ribbons, candles: ex-pope Benedict’s German home region in mourning

When Kurt and Anna-Maria Spennesberger heard the news about former pope Benedict XVI's death, they immediately got into their car and drove 200 kilometres to the former pontiff's southern German birth town Marktl.

Black ribbons, candles: ex-pope Benedict's German home region in mourning

They had to be at the small town bordering Austria for a special church service saying farewell to Benedict because “we knew Ratzinger personally,” said Kurt, 71, using the ex-pope’s birth name.

“We already had some personal conversations with him, meetings, and that was simply a very human, personal contact,” he added.

Renate and Dane Cupic, 58 and 68, also travelled to Marktl from Austria, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) away, on hearing about Benedict’s demise.

It was “very important” to be there to “say goodbye”, said Dane.

The small town in the southern region of Bavaria, with a population of around 2,800, is synonymous with Benedict.

Candles are seen under the Benedict Column by German artist Joseph Michael Neustifter, as people walk by the the birth house of late former Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Marktl, southern Germany, on December 31, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

The house where the former pontiff was born in 1927 stands adjacent to the town hall, which itself is just a few steps away from St Oswald church where Benedict was baptised.

Candles have been placed at the foot of the Benedict column which stands by the town hall, while a black ribbon hangs down from the flags of papal coat of arms at his birth house and at the church.

Across Bavaria, flags at official buildings have also been ordered to fly at half-mast.

“We are mourning our Bavarian pope,” said Markus Soeder, state premier of the region.

 ‘Humorous’ 

Hours after Benedict’s demise, cars began streaming into Marktl slowly as Catholics in the region travelled in to mourn one of their own.

Benedict has always kept in touch with Bavaria — where he taught at the university in the town of Regensburg between 1969 and 1977, and returned regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.

Speaking in Pentling, the district in Regensburg where Benedict once lived, his former gardener Robert Hofbauer described the ex-pontiff as someone who was always “nice and friendly to everyone, the entire neighbourhood”.

Across Bavaria, church services planned for the last day of the year were turned into remembrance ceremonies for Benedict, including in Regensburg where the cathedral was packed with around 300 people.

Candles are seen near a picture of late former Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Catholic St Oswald church in his birth place Marktl, southern Germany, on December 31, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

One parishioner paying her respects, Hilde Eisenhut, reflected on “a link with him — he was Bavarian — I did my confirmation with him,” the 61-year-old recounted.

In Marktl, about 130 kilometres away, around 200 people attended the service at St Oswald church, where a portrait of Benedict draped with black cloth stood next to a Christmas tree. Another was placed on the other side of the altar.

During the service, Franz Haringer, who is theological director at Benedict’s birth-house — now a museum — underlined the former pope’s “humorous side” and hailed him as a teacher of the faith.

Many others present also had personal memories of the ex-pope, like Josef Oberhuber, 71, who recalled filming him during his visit in 2006.

Oberhuber, a Marktl local, underlined the significance of a pope hailing from the small town.

“It was naturally a great event — such great joy,” he recalled.

Another local, Karl Michael Nuck, 55, recalled Benedict blessing his daughter.

“He was not pope yet but a cardinal. He took quite a few minutes even though it had not been planned, that was a very nice thing.”

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