A German bishop is pushing the Church to reform, warning that simply repeating existing doctrines is no longer enough.

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It is not enough “just to repeat existing doctrines and church law requirements or to follow rites without errors”, Bishop of Magdeburg Gerhard Feige said January 6 in a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.

“Instead, it is necessary to translate the Christian message again and again into changing circumstances and to make it understandable to as many as possible”, the bishop insisted.

Go deeper

Feige recalled that the Church has, in its two-thousand year history, always been shaped by the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the times” in which it has found itself.

Church reform is not about starting from scratch, then, but about recalling that “even today, the so-called zeitgeist is not just a negative phenomenon”.

“The Holy Spirit can still work in it, with it and through it and tell us something as a Church”, Feige affirmed.

Christians should not therefore be sceptical from the outset “if something is not according to our own conviction”, the bishop stressed.

He added that God “may speak to other people in pictures and ideas that are strange to us”.

“[God’s] grace also works outside church walls”, Feige declared.

Why it matters

The bishop recalled that the great modernising Second Vatican Council (1962-65) coined the term “sign of the times” to designate the hidden work of God in human history.

Priests “must willingly listen to the laity, consider their wants in a fraternal spirit, recognize their experience and competence in the different areas of human activity, so that together with them they will be able to recognize the signs of the times”, Vatican II taught in its “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests”, Presbyterorum ordinis (9).

That was a challenge taken up by the great Vatican II “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, Gaudium et spes, which insisted on the “duty” the Church has “of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel”.

“In language intelligible to each generation”, the Church must respond “to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other”, for which reason the Church “must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics”, Gaudium et spes taught (4).

Bishop Feige summed this all up recalling that the Church has the duty to search for the signs of the times and to discern between events, needs and wishes of people “what are the true signs of the presence and intention of God”.

Such a view of reality is “anything but a ‘cheap adaptation to the zeitgeist‘, as you might have heard it said”, insisted Feige, urging his faithful to “differentiate very well here” and not demonise reform initiatives from the outset.

For the record

Ironically enough, Cologne cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki also dedicated his Epiphany sermon to the “signs of the times”, but in the exact opposite direction as Bishop Feige.

Only the doctrine as laid down by the apostles and preserved through the ages guarantees “that we do not set out after false lights and are misled by them”, Woelki warned.

The differences between Feige and Woelki on the zeitgeist are symptomatic of a wider reform debate in the German Church.

That debate is being worked out in the context of a two-year ‘synodal path’ process to determine the future direction of Catholicism in the country.

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