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Opinion

Opinion: Church still needed for solace in times of hardship

Germany is commemorating the victims of the Germanwings plane crash with a church service in Cologne Cathedral. This proves that churches are still significant for societies in distress, writes Christoph Strack.

One hundred and fifty human lives aborted, cruelly annihilated, 149 of them presumably because of a fatal decision by a sick, lonely man. Numerous schoolchildren, even infants. Hundreds of families in grief and despair. The relatives' lives have collapsed, too, and will, perhaps, never return to normal. And now it's time for soul-searching in Germany, with a church service in the Cologne Cathedral and a brief state ceremony in the same place.

It is fair to ask whether such a state ceremony is really needed in the wake of a dramatic incident of this kind - which shatters society, not the state. However, not subject to controversy is the ecumenical church service. Over decades, sociologists may have evoked the decline and even the evaporation of religious tradition. Nonetheless, it can be alive and necessary, even in an enlightenment-influenced constitutional state.

Church services following disasters

The decision in favor of a major church service that has to be, despite all publicity, as graceful as possible, follows a pattern: After an Air France plane en route from Brazil to France crashed into the Atlantic in the early hours of June 1, 2009, claiming the lives of 228 people, including 28 Germans, a memorial service for mourners from all over Germany was held in Düsseldorf's Protestant Johanneskirche. And after the Love Parade tragedy in Duisburg, in which 21 people were killed in July 2010, the city's protestant Salvatorkirche served the same purpose.

Christoph Strack Redakteur im DW Hauptstadtstudio

DW's Christoph Strack

In both cases - as well as now, in March 2015 - the office of North Rhine-Westphalia's state premier had taken the initiative to organize a church ceremony, submitting the appropriate request to the churches. Political decision-makers were looking for an environment which would be suitable for the solitary grief of the individual as well as for collective mourning. It is rather a matter of collectively sustaining and accepting questions, of uttering and sharing exasperation, than one of quick solace found in pious words.

All this does not only apply to the victims' families. Questions emanated from the speechless faces of those politicians who visited the site of the crash in the French Alps. And how many people providing first aid - rescuers, psychologists, emergency pastoral carers - reach their limits in the course of their work? After the Love Parade incident in 2010, even pastoral carers needed spiritual assistance.

A place of mourning

A suitable environment for those who grieve is still found, at least by people in the western German states, in churches. A society is often oriented towards dynamism and success; the state towards functioning and realization of almost unlimited opportunities.

By contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition represents liberation, healing, nearness to God. In addition, it offers a framework for grievances against the one called God: There are the Psalms of Lament as well as the Old Testament's Book of Job. There are rituals and prayers. And when, this Friday, countless mourners will light their candles on the steps leading up to the Cathedral, this will be a religious token - extended to the secular world.

The same place, the dignified Cologne Cathedral, will see a state ceremony after the church service. Of at least as much importance as the official, public word is the presence of the "constitutional bodies:" the president, the chancellor, presidents of federal and state parliaments, the nation's highest-ranking judge. They are unable to restore anyone's happiness, but they can show the miserable that they will not be alone in their grief. A great, a daring pledge, as the difficult investigation of the Love Parade disaster has shown.

No reason for complacency

Despite all of the above, the churches should not indulge in complacency. However, occasionally church accountants are amazed to see that only between 10 percent and 15 percent of church members (and church tax payers) attend the Sunday service or take part in church life in some other way, although about 60 percent of the German population are members of a Christian church and pay church taxes. The hope for assistance in emergency situations might play a crucial role here.