Senior Swiss churchman calls for empowerment of the laity
A SENIOR and influential figure in the Swiss Church has issued a potentially incendiary appeal for church reform with a string of proposals to empower the laity.
The ideas, put forward in a pamphlet by Abbot Martin Werlen of Einsiedeln, include appointing women and young people as cardinals and arranging regular meetings for them with the Pope. He also proposes giving laypeople greater say in the choice of bishops, discussion of priestly celibacy and Communion for remarried divorcees.
The Benedictine abbot, who is a member of the Swiss bishops’ conference, says his objective is to end the turf wars between conservatives and progressives which he believes are having a deadening effect on the Church. His message has been made all the more significant by being backed by the future president of the Swiss bishops’ conference. Bishop Markus Büchel of St Gallen, who takes up the presidency on 1 January, thanked Abbot Werlen for his intervention and called it a boost for necessary discussion in the Church.
Abbot Werlen’s comments also seem to have struck a chord with the wider Church. He says he has received more than 1,000 emails and 100 letters, while his pamphlet sold out in three days and is being reprinted.
The pamphlet, “Discovering the Embers Under the Ashes”, echoes remarks by the late Cardinal Mario Martini in his last interview published following his death last September.
Referring to the state of the Church today, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Milan spoke of his sense of powerlessness because there were “so many ashes above the embers”.
In his metaphorical stirring up of the fire, Abbot Werlen deplores the lack of courage, vision and creativity in the Church. In particular, he says too many problems are swept under the table and discussion of too many issues is forbidden.
“Not taking a situation or a person seriously is an act of disobedience. When those in authority in the Church do not fulfil their duty and are therefore disobedient, initiatives are started as emergency measures and cries for help which can lead to schisms or people leaving the Church,” he writes, adding that his community wants to take a different approach. He points out that his Abbey of Einsiedeln is in dialogue with both the Lefebvrist Society of St Pius X and the radical Catholic theologian Hans Küng.
On the ban on remarried divorcees receiving Communion, he points out that no such bar exists in the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church has never condemned this approach.
He suggests that men and women of all ages around the world could be appointed cardinals for five‑year terms and meet the Pope every three months. “Such meetings would bring a new dynamic to church leadership,” he said.
To support the idea of ending mandatory clerical celibacy, the abbot quotes remarks from Pope John Paul II in 1992 in which he said he held married clergy – as existed in the Early Church and Oriental Churches – in “equally high esteem” with celibate priests.
Abbot Werlen, 50, was elected abbot at Einsiedeln Abbey in 2004. At that time the community had 90 priests and 40 lay brothers.
He has quasi‑episocopal authority over the abbey’s 10 parishes which serve 20,000 people. He was one of the few churchmen to issue an official apology for the sexual‑abuse crisis and side with victims. He first put forward his ideas for reform in a sermon on the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council in October.
• First published in The Tablet, 24 November 2012