Dr. Heinz-Lothar Barth is a professor of Latin and Greek Philology at the University of Bonn, a 200-year-old institution boasting over 30,000 students. On the University website, the school is described as “one of Germany’s most prestigious universities and also ranked among the top hundred in the world”. Founded in 1818 as Rhein University, the school has offered programs in both Catholic and Protestant theology since its inception as a “nonsectarian” institution.
Dr. Barth is a great supporter of the Traditional Latin Mass, and has written a number of books, the majority of which are on Catholic topics. In July, he participated in a seminar at Hohenfurth Abbey, a 758-year-old Cistercian monastery in the Czech town of Vyšší Brod that has recently returned to offering the traditional Mass and Cistercian office. The seminar was on the topic “The Mass of the Church – The Future of the Church”.
At one point during his talk (link goes to video, in German), Dr. Barth mentioned a difficult situation faced by theology students at his university (translation by Maike Hickson):
We still see this today in Bonn; there still exists the traditional Latin Mass in a small parish, where theology students more and more like to go, [which is] very joyous, but they have a huge fear that their names could be mentioned there. I know this exactly, it has been admitted to me. If it would be known that a theology student from the Theology Department of Bonn who wishes to become a priest would be mentioned there, he is going to be thrown out – finished, end of the formation. [These are] unbelievable conditions, even though this is supposed to be being dealt with in a different manner since Summorum Pontificum.
Bonn lies within the Archbishopric of Cologne, and the seminarians of that diocese appear to have the option of doing some of their theological training at the University of Bonn. The archdiocesan website is unclear on the arrangement, but it seems to indicate as much:
It is unusual that the priestly education in the Archbishopric of Cologne is spread over three houses. The division between Cologne and Bonn was initially historically conditioned: after the occupation of the Rhineland, the French closed the old Cologne university in 1798, and when the Rhineland fell to the Kingdom of Prussia after the liberation war in 1815, it was not reopened. Instead, the Prussians founded the still existing Friedrich Wilhelm Universtity in Bonn. Thus the training of the priests had to move to Bonn.
Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick William III of Prussia) was the founder of the University of Bonn. If it is indeed the case that the seminarians of the archdiocese begin their theological training at Bonn, one can imagine why the situation that Dr. Barth describes is problematic for them.
The Cologne Archdiocese, it should be remembered, was formerly under the leadership of the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner. It is now shepherded by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, appointed to the position by Pope Francis in 2014. In a profile written by John Allen at the time, we see an indication of the kind of prelate traditionally-inclined seminarians around the world have learned to be wary of:
Woelki, who turns 59 next month, takes over from 80-year-old Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who stepped down in February. Generally seen as an arch-conservative, Meisner had been a close confidante of Pope Benedict XVI, with the two men typically speaking on the phone at least once a week.
Born in Cologne, Woelki was perceived as a Meisner protégé early in his career, meaning someone cut from the same ideological cloth. He earned a doctorate at Opus Dei’s university in Rome, and was criticized when named to Berlin in 2011 for referring to homosexuality as an “offense against the order of creation.” Critics worried that a son of heavily Catholic Cologne would be unsuited for Berlin’s largely secular, and highly diverse, milieu.
Yet by most accounts, leading the church in such an environment brought something out in Woelki. He became an apostle of dialogue, holding meetings with leaders of the gay community and saying that, while the church believes marriage is between a man and a woman, it can also see that a long-term caring relationship between two people of the same sex deserves special moral consideration.
Woelki developed into a sort of Francis before his time, calling on the church to dial down the rhetoric in the culture wars.
“The church is not a moral institution that goes around pointing its finger at people,” he said. “The church is a community of seekers and believers, and it would like to help people find happiness in life.”
In 2012, a German “Alliance against Homophobia” actually nominated Woelki for a “Respect Award,” saying he had promoted a “new cooperation with homosexuals in society.” (Woelki expressed gratitude but politely declined.)
Woelki also emerged as a leader among the German bishops on poverty relief and advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees. He took a special interest in the work of the Catholic charitable agency Caritas. At a personal level Woelki comes off as humble, not wearing a lot of ecclesiastical finery and not taking himself overly seriously.
The German news service Deutsche Welle described his profile on Friday as “open-minded, tolerant, and concerned for the poor.”
Nine priests were ordained this year in the Archdiocese of Cologne. Eight new men entered the seminary this year. These numbers, while higher than other parts of Germany, are staggeringly low for a diocese of over 2 million Catholics and 5 million souls, and some believe the fact that there are any new vocations is a holdover from Cardinal Meisner’s tenure. As of 2013, there were just 1,033 priests in the archdiocese – a ratio of over 2,000 Catholics per priest. That’s less than half the number there were in 1950, although the number of self-professed Catholics in the diocese has dropped by nearly a million as well.
This is not an environment in which the German Church — unless it is intentionally self-destructing — can afford to drive out seminarians over their affection for an approved rite of Mass. But in a nation with one of the worst vocations crises in the world, where in one diocese over 95% of the parishes are being closed, intentional self-destruction can’t be summarily dismissed. And it doesn’t seem that the Archdiocese of Cologne is particularly keen on encouraging men to make those major sacrifices the priesthood entails. From the “priestly formation” section of their website, we’re treated to the following philosophy:
Special, but not better
Being a priest is a special way of following Jesus. It is no better than other ways, not even more difficult. It is only different.
The priest imitates the devotion of Jesus to all men in a radical way and represents it. This is the meaning of celibacy.
This description immediately called to mind the words of Fr. José Miguel Marqués Campo, who, in a piece written for OnePeterFive in February, 2015, revealed how seminarians were treated in his native Spain:
At the Rite of Admission, one of seminary rectors at the time had the custom of handing out — to those who were now, at long last, considered seminarians — a jacket pin of the icthus, that is, the symbol of the fish. This emblem, in the early centuries during the Roman persecutions, was a secret identification of Christians. He said that this was now a symbol of the “catechist,” as a token for the seminarians who now were—finally!—candidates for Holy Orders. And yet the title of catechist is usually bestowed upon the laity. Why now, after four years of study where we were kept from living differently than any other lay student? Why now, after formal entry into the seminary, were those who remained committed to being ordained to the priesthood being given this title which seemed almost a demotion from the accomplishment we had just achieved? It seemed as though we were always being reminded of the concept that we were no different than laymen, even as we grew closer to the priesthood than ever before.
Make no mistake: this obsession with the elevation of the laity, instilled in the daily lives of seminarians, has done untold harm to countless young men who entered the seminary, thinking that they had a calling to the priesthood. Seminarians were being trained to think differently about the priesthood, and were constantly reminded that they were really only laymen enrolled in ecclesiastical academics. They were to dress as laymen. They were encouraged lead the life of a secular university student, insofar as possible. (Of course, this was possible but obviously not always, thank goodness!) And then after ordination, they were to realize that the laity would again practically invade all areas of pastoral care, from female and male lectors and acolytes (the latter, ironically, without being conferred the alleged “Lay Ministries”), female and male Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, and so on.
The newly ordained would also discover that a priest was considered no more than a “presider“ over the Eucharist – not a “celebrant” who was unique since only he, a priest, could offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Is it any wonder how this has caused an unprecedented identity crisis in the priesthood after Vatican II? Is it any wonder that this sad state of affairs has contributed to a great loss of vocations to the priesthood? [emphasis added]
When we consider the words of Dr. Barth, we may find ourselves dismissively thinking, “Well, it’s Germany, what do you expect?”
But don’t the German people need Holy Mass & the Sacraments?
Don’t the German people need good priests?
Shouldn’t the young German men who are trying to follow God’s calling be given an authentic priestly formation? Don’t they have the canonical right to both attend and offer the traditional Latin Mass? Isn’t it true, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. ”
Pray for the Catholics of Germany. There are good men and women there, and children even now who face a grim future with the state of Catholicism in their homeland.
They deserve better than this.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.