21Dec Swiss abbot appeals for church reform

A fiery appeal for church reform by an influential Swiss abbot has attracted widespread attention throughout Europe, and has, moreover, been welcomed by the future president of the Swiss bishops’ conference.

Fifty-year-old Abbot Martin Werlen, leader of the Abbey of Einsiedeln and himself a member of the Swiss bishops’ conference, first voiced his appeal in a sermon on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in October. The sermon was later published in a 39-page brochure that sold out within three days and is now in its third edition.

Titled “Discovering the Embers Under the Ashes,” it echoes remarks by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in his last interview before his death Aug. 31. Referring to the state of the church today, Martini spoke of his sense of powerlessness and how Catholicism’s “embers” were “hidden under the ashes.”

Werlen said he is alarmed by the present state of the church. “The situation of the church is dramatic, not only in the German-speaking countries,” he said. “It is dramatic not only because of the rapidly decreasing number of priests and religious or because of plummeting church attendance. The real problem is not a problem of numbers. What is missing is the fire! We must face the situation and find out what is behind it.”

He said there is leeway for reform and discussed possible reforms at length.

For example, he said, the church could learn from the way the Orthodox church deals with remarried divorced people, who are not barred from Communion. The Catholic church has never condemned the Orthodox approach, Werlen emphasized.

Local churches should also have more say in episcopal nominations, he said, recalling that religious orders have always elected their superiors democratically over the centuries.

On priestly celibacy, he quoted the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1990. The code says that clerical celibacy “is to be greatly esteemed everywhere,” but adds that “likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor.”

There is also a lot of leeway as far as cardinals are concerned, Werlen pointed out. Women and men from all over the world, both young and old, could be elected to the cardinalate for a period of five years and could meet with the pope every three months in Rome. “Such meetings could bring a new dynamism into church leadership,” Werlen suggested.

The church could also “rediscover” synodal processes. “If bishops’ synods are so influentially prepared and accompanied by the Roman Curia that nothing new can emerge, is that a witness of faith?” he asked. As at Vatican II, “bishops should realize their responsibilities and with the help of theologians, and together with the pope, face changes in full faith — and let paper remain paper!”

Werlen wrote that he deplores the lack of courage, vision and creativity in today’s church, which he says is crawling along “with the hand brake on.”

“The problems are known. Pope Benedict on occasion refers to them. But nothing concrete is done to solve them,” Werlen said.

Sweeping problems under the table or forbidding discussion of certain issues undermines the church’s credibility, he warned.

“Not taking a situation or a person seriously is an act of disobedience. When those in authority in the church do not fulfill their duty and are therefore disobedient, initiatives are started as emergency measures … which can lead to schisms or to people leaving the church. The disobedience deplored by church officials is often the consequence of those very church officials’ own disobedience. I can understand why so many initiatives were started in recent years.”

But polarization between conservatives and progressives in the church, which he said has now reached a “frightening” level, has a deadening effect, he cautioned.

“I myself together with the Einsiedeln community would like to take another path, namely that of seeking the embers in the ashes,” he said. He pointed out that Einsiedeln is in dialogue with both the Lefebvrist Society of St. Pius X and the progressive Catholic theologian Fr. Hans Küng.

Within a week after the brochure was first published, Werlen received more than a 1,000 emails and 100 letters, many from prominent Catholics. He said he was “quite overwhelmed” by this and added, “The embers are there. One can feel people of different generations heaving a deep sigh of relief.”

After reading the brochure, Bishop Markus Büchel of Sankt Gallen, newly elected president of the Swiss bishops’ conference, released the following statement: “Abbot Werlen has taken up urgent questions the faithful are asking; he has outlined the problems very clearly and has put forward possible solutions. This is an impetus for very necessary discussions in the church that are also a great concern of mine. That is why I am most thankful to him.”

Büchel has been elected to succeed Bishop Norbert Brunner of Sion as conference president for three years starting Jan. 1.

Werlen became abbot of Einsiedeln in 2001. The abbey is a famous pilgrimage shrine in the oldest part of Switzerland, its heartland. Between 150,000 and 200,000 pilgrims annually visit the shrine, which at times rivaled Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

• Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is an Austrian correspondent for the Catholic newsmagazine The Tablet.

7 Responses

  1. Patrick Rogers

    Abbot Martin Werlen’s sermon (50th anniversary of start of Vatican II), as reported in the Tablet, sounds like the refreshing opening chords of a symphony that could bring a new level of energy and even harmony to our beloved church. How well he has captured those themes of necessary renewal and open discussion that are dear to the ACP! And how I wish that his courage and vision will be mirrored among our own dear bishops here in Ireland.

  2. Forbolg

    For the foreseeable future the official church position will remain an obsessional preoccupation with sexual morality as distinct from building the kingdom of god on earth.

  3. Mary O Vallely

    There is nothing earth shattering in anything Abbot Martin Werlen says. It’s all very reasonable. Parishoners/local clergy to have a say in episcopal appointments, the Cardinalate open to all with elections every five years, all subjects on the table for discussion (and that discussion to be ongoing) and the possibility of both married and celibate clergy. Most important of all, no one being turned away from the the altar. I cannot see Christ objecting to anything there. It seems to be in line with the message of the Gospel, that we are all loved equally by God and that we are to show that love to God and to each other. Simple. Isn’t it?
    I do fear that the bishops’ energies will be entirely taken up with the abortion and the gay marriage issues this year and that there will be no time, nor “fire” left for any other area. It will be a great excuse to forget about reform and to forget about why associations such as the ACP/ACI were set up in the first place.
    “See how these Christians love one another” should be on the lips of all those observing us who are outside the church looking in. What would they think of how we treat those with same-sex orientation? That, I find, incredibly hard to understand. God made us and loves each of us unconditionally. Why can’t we mirror that unconditional love? How can anyone who is told they have an “intrinsic disorder” feel loved? It goes against the basic message of Christianity, does it not?
    New Year Resolutions? Let us love one another and show it.
    R.Rohr quoted Joan of Arc lately. It’s a good prayer so thought it worth sharing.
    “If I am in your truth, God keep me there. If I am not, God put me there.”
    God knows I’m still digging my way up out of ignorance(still in the lower basement) but I support all those who have the authority, the clout, to keep asking for discussions on how we make this church of ours a better, more loving family of God and I’ll keep praying that prayer of St Joan’s.
    Thank you to all contributors who keep me thinking,wondering and clinging on and encouraging and inspiring me. May we all grow in faith, courage, hope and love this New Year and may we never lose our sense of humour! :-)

  4. Stephen Edward

    In contrast we have the Trappist Abbot of Mariawald, Germany deciding to roll back all post-conciliar ‘reforms’ in the abbey. This is being done because ‘there have been no visible fruits’ of the changes, indeed many monks left the community and only 2 have joined since 1965. The abbot says that the decision has been made to put God back in the centre of their lives and to reject the ‘anthropocentric’ tendency of the post-conciliar liturgy.
    Let’s see which abbot’s community flourishes. ‘By their fruits..’

  5. Eddie Finnegan

    Roll up! Roll up!. In the German corner, the Abbot of Mariawald. In the Swiss corner, the Abbot of Einsiedeln. Referee, Katie Taylor of Bray. I have a tenner each way with Paddy Power on which corner will be first to appeal to Old Rabbi Gamaliel. I hope he hits them with a steep callout charge. No man of his years should be called out at this time of winter.

  6. Martin Murray

    Succinct, sensible and practical suggestions. That probably rules them out – in the short to medium term anyway. But at least they provide us with a vision of what the future could look like.

  7. Darlene Starrs

    The Swiss abbot is a Child of Vatican II, being 50 years old and a cleric and I think, it is very appropriate and necessary that he publicly supports changes, in the Church, that will hopefully, bring about a greater manifestation of the vision of Vatican II.