“Crossing Over” to Other Cultures and to Christ

For almost 10 years, priests and lay ministers from the Dioceses of Muenster, Essen and Aachen in Germany have been “crossing over” the Atlantic Ocean for a few weeks each year to experience Catholic life in Chicago and compare notes with their counterparts here. Each year, a number of priests and lay ministers from Chicago have returned their visit and spent time observing how the church lives and works in Germany. This year, those who organize and pay for the project asked that I “cross over” with the Chicago contingent.

Looking at the reports that the Chicago group has given, I see the statistics and concerns that we consistently deal with when organizing archdiocesan activities. Our group has explained to the Germans that the Archdiocese of Chicago is small in territory but very diverse in population. Our racial and cultural diversity means that we celebrate Sunday Mass in English, Spanish, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, German, Creole, a number of African languages, Ukrainian, Tagalog, Latin and about a dozen other languages. About 20 percent of priests and more than 30 percent of lay Catholics were born outside of this country. Parish staffs are composed of priests, deacons, religious and laypeople. Lay boards are a normal and accepted part of pastoral life.

There are tensions between our faith and the norms of society in some areas, and some people try to limit the influence of religion in public life. Many Catholics with European roots have moved in 50 years from modest financial status to joining the upper-middle class. The local economy was once heavily industrial and now its bases are in finance and technology, medicine and education, management and consulting. Neighborhoods in Chicago shift from year to year in their ethnic and racial makeup. Maintaining schools as integral to the church’s mission is a constant challenge, as is fostering and protecting priestly vocations, religious communities and marriage and family life. Parish life in the Archdiocese of Chicago is usually strong, but the church is sometimes regarded merely as a purveyor of religious services. How to evangelize both individuals and cultures effectively remains a question without a completely satisfactory answer.

Catholics in Germany make comparable reports to us, although the financing of the church in Germany is more stable. The civil government collects Catholics’ donations to the church, and income remains fairly constant even when actual participation in worship declines. More slowly than in the United States, programs like the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are getting organized in German dioceses. The history of the church in Germany, like that of the civil society, goes back hundreds of years before Chicago existed or the United States became a country, and the events that mark that history also color pastoral life. Muenster, for example, is a 1,000 year-old diocese that has had 76 bishops; Chicago has had 13. These contrasts help both Germans and Americans to reflect upon themselves and the church in new and helpful ways. It is a pleasure to cross back and forth and to learn from one another.

The day I arrived in Muenster, June 28, I went to the cathedral to pray at the tomb of Cardinal Clemens von Galen, who was bishop of Muenster before and during the Second World War. As the Nazi government of Germany began to show its true colors, Bishop von Galen used the pulpit to defend the mentally and physically disabled, the frail elderly and others who were judged no longer useful to the State and therefore no longer wanted. Their quality of life was “inferior” and they began to be eliminated, at first sporadically and then in a more systematic way. The Nazi program of eugenics, abortion and euthanasia preceded and prepared the way for the extermination of the Jewish people. It enlisted the cooperation of doctors and nurses, of judges, journalists and ordinary citizens.

In the beginning, purging society of misfits and those who were “useless” was judged beneficial even by eugenicists in the United States, and many in Germany were slow to see the consequences for society as a whole. Bishop von Galen encouraged Catholics in Muenster and throughout Germany to love their country and support their troops, but he vehemently condemned the policies of the government. He preached that systematically killing the weakest and most vulnerable was not only against the Gospel of Christ but also against the moral instincts of the entire human race.

In records kept by Heinrich Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, it was clear that the government would have liked to arrest and execute the bishop. They decided to wait until after Germany won the war, because they knew that the Catholics of Muenster would defend their bishop and there could be a civil insurrection. Instead, they turned on the priests of the Diocese of Muenster, more than 80 of whom were sent to concentration camps. The bishop and his priests were upbraided in the press as enemies of the German people and traitors to the historical destiny of the German nation. At the end of the war, with Germany’s defeat and the fall of the National Socialist government, Pope Pius XII made Bishop von Galen a cardinal, the first and only bishop of Muenster to be so honored. He was created a cardinal in 1946, in the same ceremony with Cardinal Joseph Mindzenty of Hungary, who would face another form of tyranny, and with Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago in 1946. Returning to Muenster from the ceremony in Rome, Von Galen told the people that they were the reason he wasn’t martyred. “I depend on you, and you depend on me,” he told them. He died a month later, in March of 1946, and was declared “blessed” in 2005.

I will be back in Chicago for the Fourth of July. To my prayers for our country on Independence Day, I will add prayers for the people and the church in Muenster, Essen and Aachen. The church is global in her mission and universal in her teaching. The church is to help all peoples “cross over” to Christ and his kingdom. That is the context in which Catholics in America, in Germany and in every part of the world judge and pray for their own beloved countries. God bless us all and guide us according to his holy will.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

Archbishop of Chicago

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

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Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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  • http://youtube.com/Nicecatholicgirl janedoe

    I spent a year in Cologne with the Fulbright Foundation. Many thanks for posting this.

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