Six bishops to be elected

Six bishops to be elected

Nikola Eterovic, Norbert Trelle and Cardinal Reinhard Marx (from.l.n.r.) © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

Six bishops to be elected

Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx during the Ad Limina visit © Osservatore Romano (CBA)

Pope Francis has appointed only three new bishops in Germany's 27 dioceses so far in his tenure. In three other places, he shifted leadership staff from A to B. Now several new appointments become inevitable.

German bishops' conference faces series of personnel changes. In the next year and a half, six of the 27 Catholic bishop's seats will have to be filled, that is, almost every fourth bishop. Already vacant are two dioceses in the far west and east: Aachen and Dresden-Meissen. In the middle, Cardinal Karl Lehmann (79) of Mainz and Limburg diocesan administrator Manfred Grothe (76) are on call. And in Wurzburg and Hildesheim, Friedhelm Hofmann and Norbert Trelle will reach the regular episcopal retirement age of 75 in summer 2017.

The average age of bishops will fall

When these six dioceses are newly staffed, not only will the average age drop. For the first time, a significant number of German bishops will no longer be selected with the direct involvement of Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Instead, the signature of Munster Bishop Felix Genn and Apostolic Nuncio Nikola Eterovic is likely to be recognizable.

Both appointed by Pope Francis to key positions for bishop selection in late 2013. Genn has since become the only German bishop to sit in the "global personnel department," the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican. And Eterovic is – among other things – responsible for the quietest possible screening for the non-binding lists of candidates that will be sent to Rome. In addition, the chairman of the Bishops' Conference also has a certain influence.

Francis appointed three new local bishops in Germany so far

So far, Francis has appointed only three entirely new local bishops in Germany: Stephan Burger (Freiburg), Stefan Oster (Passau) and Stefan Hebe (Hamburg). Cologne and Berlin – and, in a provisional way, Limburg as well – have been filled with existing leadership personnel. A clear ecclesiastical "line" of new bishop appointments is therefore not yet discernible.

Six bishop appointments later, a more complete picture will emerge. Majority ratios could change noticeably.

At present, observers count the German local bishops as belonging to the "conservative," the "liberal" and the "moderately liberal" currents, about one-third each. In recent years, the conservatives have always been defeated in majority votes on the reform of church labor law or on the course to be set for the Synod on the Family.

Prussian and the Baden election procedure

With the new appointments now pending, the "how" is decisive?"always also with about the "who?". With the exception of Wurzburg, the posts will be filled according to the Prussian and Baden election procedures. This means: the pope (advised by nuncio and Congregation of Bishops) compiles the so-called list of three from the regional proposals. From these, in turn, the cathedral chapter chooses a candidate, who in the end is appointed by the pope. In Bavaria the pope chooses directly one candidate and appoints him as bishop. In former Prussian and Baden areas, the pope's freedom of choice is thus limited, tactical and church-political skill on the Vatican side is all the more required.

Another exciting question is who will take over the positions of the bishops who are retiring from important commissions. In terms of theological expertise, for example, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg could succeed Cardinal Lehmann of Mainz in the chairmanship of the Faith Commission, which is decisive in many dogmatic questions. It is also open who will lead the Liturgy Commission after Bishop Hofmann and the Migrants Commission after Bishop Trelle.

Future number of bishops eligible for papal election unclear

No one, except perhaps Pope Francis, can currently answer the Catholic "K question." How many cardinal electors will Germany have after Lehmann's 80. The bishops will still have a birthday in May? At present, only the three existing ones are certain: Marx, Woelki and, in the Vatican, prefect of the faith Gerhard Ludwig Muller. In 2005 and 2013, six German cardinals were involved in the election of the pope. And when Berlin or Mainz will again provide a cardinal, no one is able to say at the moment – especially since Pope Francis obviously prefers cardinals from the "margins" of the universal church.

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