In August of 2009, the Fraternity arrived in Cologne after 15 years of missionary work in the small city of Emmendingen, where we had first opened our house. Then, in 2015, I was asked to be the rector of the diocesan seminary. It was Cardinal Woelki, the successor of the late Cardinal Meisner, who offered me this assignment. At the time, the Cardinal’s nomination had come as a great surprise for many people: it was absolutely unexpected that a non-German, non-diocesan priest who has no doctoral degrees and who belongs to an ecclesial Movement would have been asked to accept such an important role. And furthermore, that this nomination would happen in a metropolitan diocese considered to be perhaps the most important in Germany, with more than a thousand incardinated priests!
The work of a rector is delicate but tremendously fulfilling. I am asked to serve the work that Christ has begun in every seminarian. Through the education we offer, I must help them to gain the interior stature proper to holy and missionary priests; otherwise, they would not be able to withstand the present-day situation of the Church in Germany. It is a situation that Our Cardinal has publicly defined as “dramatic”, even comparing it to the period of the Reformation. Just as in many other countries, sexual scandals concerning minors and priests have aroused legitimate dismay on social media and in society, but they have also provoked a general condemnation of the Church and Her representatives. What did society seek to do about its dismany? For many, the answer seemed to lie in catching and unmasking the guilty party. However, the guilty party was deemed to be the very structure of the Church, her organization and her teaching.
In order to identify and find a solution for those problematic parts of the Church, the bishops set in motion a synodal process in which a limited group of lay people and bishops would face the four themes considered to be decisive for the sanatio: exercise of power, renewal of sexual morality, reconsideration of the formation of priests, and the place and value of women in the Church. It will last for two years but the desire of the majority has been clear from the beginning: on the part of various groups, there is a call for greater participation of lay people on all levels of the Church, for the recognition of homosexual couples and the possibility of blessing their union, for the renunciation of the commitment to celibacy for priests, and for the admission of women to the Sacrament of Orders.
Some time ago, the Pope did something unconventional: he wrote a letter addressed to the faithful of Germany in which he highlighted the fact that a true reform cannot but consist in a stimulating renewal of evangelization; furthermore, he sustained that such a renewal cannot but take place within the communion of the Universal Church. The letter had a strange reception: though initially praised by all, it has been substantially ignored. For example, a year ago already, disagreement arose within the episcopal conference regarding the possibility for Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion. The majority of the bishops were in favor, and the discussion even reached Rome. Eventually, each bishop resolved the question as he saw fit. Even if it is illicit in Cologne to distribute the Eucharist to those outside of full communion with the Church, pastors of other dioceses are free to do so without any consequences.
I am uncertain where this Synodal process will take us. Many of the most influential groups sustain the most progressive ideas. These changes are being called for not only by bishops, but also by the members of many lay associations. Surrender seems to be generally accepted. There is a great temptation either to submit oneself to the modern mentality or to defend one’s position with clenched teeth. But we do not want these to become our position. Instead, we want to follow the broader and more intelligent position articulated by Father Massimo when he came to visit us for the first time in Cologne: “One era is about to end, and a new one is dawning. If we live out our charism intelligently, we will be authentic men of reform – not pall-bearers but collaborators of the birth of the new era…”
(Father Romano Christen was born in 1960, and ordained a priest in 1992. He is the rector of the diocesan seminary of Cologne in Bonn, Germany. Pictured, a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the presence of the Fraternity of St. Charles in Germany, and the 10th anniversary of their presence in Cologne – October 2019)