Integrate, dialogue, and generate, were the three key themes of the 44th Meeting of the General Secretaries of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Europe which was held in Berlin, Germany, from 30 June until 3 July, at the invitation of the General Secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, Father Hans Langendörfer SJ. Monsignor Gearóid Dullea, Executive Secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference represented the ICBC at the meeting.
In this Year of Mercy and keeping in mind the three key words (integrate, dialogue, and generate) that Pope Francis used to point out the vocation of Europe on the day he received the Charlemagne Prize, the general secretaries discussed solidarity with migrants and refugees (integrate), with the family (dialogue), and among the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the continent (generate).
The meeting was opened by the CCEE General Secretary, Mgr. Duarte da Cunha, who in his greeting recalled that the CCEE, before being an ecclesiastical body, is an opportunity, a training ground, where the leaders of the Church in Europe may exercise the communal discernment – often recalled by Pope Francis – aimed at identifying the real priorities of society, and consequently, of the Church in Europe. One of the main challenges of the work of CCEE is, in fact, promoting social and ecclesial unity in a plural world. It is about capitalizing on the diversity that characterizes our European continent, and at the same time about promoting an “ecclesial symphony” that makes each player co-responsible for the others.
Subsequently, Father Hans Langendörfer SJ, who celebrated his 20 years at the helm of the Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, offered an outlook of the Church in Germany. With a population of about 81.1 million inhabitants – including 6 million foreigners – Germany is still a country where more than half of its inhabitants confess the Christian religion. Taken together, the Evangelical Church (EKD) and the Catholic Church are the institutions with the highest number of employees in Germany.
While meeting the secretaries-general and presiding over the Eucharist with them, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference and President of COMECE, focused on the intimate relationship between Christianity and the Church in Europe. He said, “We need a renewal of evangelization, and for this we need to join together the Gospel and our commitment to Europe. The Gospel is, in fact, the central message for the European continent. We cannot understand Europe without our faith, the Gospel, and we cannot understand the Church without the history of freedom that we have experienced on this continent. The way of the Church is not a ‘reconquest’ or a castle that must be defended. The way of the Church is the mission to encourage and guide people to a responsible management of the gift of freedom. Therefore we must always watch over the quality of our work. For it is because of this quality that we reach out to people”.
On the morning of Friday 1 July, the theme of solidarity towards migrants and refugees was discussed, as expressed in numerous experiences of reception and integration promoted by the Church, but also in its implications in the relations with States. The session included the contribution of the Federal Minister of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mr. Thomas de Maizière, who focused on the migration policy implemented by the German government. Faced with the difficulties in formulating a common European migration policy and especially the spread of an unjustified fear towards migrants which can sometimes lead to real acts of xenophobia, the German Minister noted that there are difficulties connected to the language used to talk about this issue, which “does not touch any longer the hearts and minds” of both European citizens and migrants in search of a new home. Too often, the general secretaries admit, one speaks of the migration issue in terms of “crisis” instead of opportunities for our nations. In many cases, the phenomenon is very stressed and the words do not correspond to facts, numbers, or reality.
As it is the case in Germany, in many other European countries the States recognize the ”exceptional” contribution of the Church in responding generously to the emergency of immigrants. However, an examination of the different migration policies in Europe shows that they are mainly inspired by an economic interpretation of the phenomenon. We cannot continue to address this challenge limiting ourselves to simple redistribution policies. We must have the courage to also treat its underlying causes, and accompany with responsibility the issue of integration. The history of Europe is a history of migration.
The working session on the challenges of migration concluded with the intervention of the Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrian Catholics, Ignatius Joseph III Younan, and the delegate of SECAM-SCEAM (Symposium of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), Msgr. Jean-Vincent ONDON, Bishop of Oyem (Gabon), both of whom brought the testimony of the suffering and needs of those who arrive in Europe in the hope of being welcomed. The Patriarch of Antioch said he doesn’t understand the inertia of the Western politicians facing the spread of regimes based on a political Islam that apply the Sharia but do not contemplate any religious pluralism in the Middle East.
For his part, Bishop ONDON denounced the plight of those who, after crossing “hell” to land in Europe are often “crowded into squalid refugee camps” and then left “to an uncertain fate or , worse, at the hands of their exploiters.”
In light of these testimonies the general secretaries have expressed the urgent need to lay down the arms and embrace the path of dialogue in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and in all conflict areas in Africa. Peace is always possible.
In the afternoon of the same day, a working session was devoted to solidarity with the families in the light of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The theme was introduced by the Archbishop of Berlin, Msgr. Heiner Koch, who is also President of the Commission for Marriage and the Family of the German Bishops’ Conference. Bishop Koch enthusiastically shared his personal experience as a participant in the recent Synod of Bishops on the Family (October 2015). In the small, but very active and appreciated, Catholic community in Berlin (400,000 faithful in a population of 4 million), the biggest challenge is to help people understand the meaning of the sacramental nature of marriage, as most people do not feel attracted to religion. Subsequently, the General Secretary of CCEE reported on how the various bishops’ conferences intend to apply the indications contained in the Exhortation by Pope Francis. What came out is that the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences are particularly attentive to the preparation for marriage and to put forward the family as the source and goal of all pastoral action of the Church. To this end, it is increasingly necessary to establish a dialogue between youth ministry and family ministry under the form of a permanent accompaniment of the families and the promotion of “inter-family solidarity.”
Then, the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, former Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops (2004 -2013), spoke about the practice of synodality (the ‘walking together’) in the Church. Synodality is both an attitude and an ecclesial practice, implemented through the structure of the Synod of Bishops. It is a dimension of ecclesial life that allows to preserve unity in the Church despite her diversity of expressions and pastoral responses. After tracing the evolution of the concept of collegiality – a term intrinsically linked to other terms such as ‘communion’ and ‘collegiality’ in the Church – and of this Roman structure created in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council that “teaches the art of listening to the bishops,” the Nuncio went on describing its possible forms of development.
As evidence of this “walking together,” the debate at the General Secretaries meeting continued on Saturday 2 July, with the reports of CCEE and COMECE, the two European ecclesial bodies responsible for communion among the bishops of the continent, and the interventions of four general secretaries who dealt with the issue of solidarity among the bishops’ conferences, showing how the joys, sufferings, and hopes of each are a concern and also a responsibility for the other conferences.
The Meeting concluded on Sunday 3 July with Mass presided over by Archbishop Koch in the Cathedral Church of Berlin.