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Humble and engaged

Christian Ignatzi / cdOctober 20, 2013

The scandal engulfing Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has cast a dark shadow over the Catholic Church in Germany. But for many local parishioners, enthusiasm for their church parishes hasn't diminished.

Halina Gola lights a candle at St. Peter's Church in Bonn Photo: Christian Ignatzi
Image: DW/C. Ignatzi

Sunday, noon, in front of the St. Peter's Church in the Vilich district of Bonn, in western Germany. Mass is over, and sexton Halina Gola replaces the candles at the altar. Church visitors stream of the building, which has been recognized as a historical monument. There are about 100 people this time, fewer than normal. Children, above all others, are few and far between. Many of them are out of town since schools are closed for autumn break.

Julian Pitzen and Micahel Hildebrand, two young men in robes of white, stand at the doorway. The alter servers share church news with members of the community. Happily so? Sure, says Julian Pitzen. The 21-year-old works during the day, studies to be an electrician during the evening, and on Sunday, he serves for the Church. Why?

"It's just fun," he said. More than anything, he still enjoys the excursions that the alter servers organize. Still, he added, you can see that fewer young people are participating in the Church.

Vilich is not Limburg

Pastor Michael Dörr was the last one out of the church was. In his mid-50s, and with a warm smile and ring of hair atop his head, he resembles a monk. He shakes hands, bids farewell to the visitors of the Mass. In Vilich, the 3,600 parish members are happy with their pastor, who they described as down-to-earth and humble. He's different than other dignitaries of the Catholic Church, said Beate Roll. Parishioners make no secret of the fact that their criticism is aimed at Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz van Elst of Limburg in the German state of Hesse.

Parishoners outside St. Peter's Church Photo: Christian Ignatzi
Parishoners exchange a few words after MassImage: DW/C. Ignatzi

That bishop's leadership has been discussed for weeks by media and the public alike, due, among other things, to construction costs at the bishop's residence, which rose from 5 million euros ($6.8 million) to 31 million euros over the course of a few years. On Wednesday (23.10.2013), Tebartz van Elst was forced to take a sabbatical and effectively removed from his post.

"Of course we're discussing that in the parish," said Roll. "If that were our bishop, then I wouldn't be visiting his masses. You can't do that!"

Her opinion is shared by many in the Vilich parish. But Roll added that the scandal had not dampened her view of her local parish. "There are black sheep everywhere, in the private sector and unfortunately in the Church as well," she said.

Helping the elderly

"Sometimes you can hardly believe the things that they do," Dörr said, referring to parishioners' generosity - not the bishop's actions. It was New Year's Day of this year when, at an assisted living facility, when he saw parishioners were already there, helping those who lived there with their food. "Even on a holiday," the pastor remarked.

A priest wearing black clothes with a white collar bends over his cluttered desk in a room cramped with books and papers. Photo: Christian Ignatzi
Pastor Michael Dörr's lifestyle is anything but easyImage: DW/C. Ignatzi

Ilsa Stodollik is one of the women who takes care of parish's oldest members. "Sundays between 8 and 12, I'm with them," she said. She picks people up from the home, goes with them to Mass and then helps them with their meals. "When my husband joins in, he cooks for me, mostly," she added.

The feeling of community, she said, is what binds Vilich's Catholics together. Many feel themselves obliged to do more than just attend Mass on Sunday.

And that is partly due to Dörr's own engagement. In addition to St. Peter's, he oversees two other churches - travelling among them by bike. Like many other parishes in Germany, Vilich also has personnel issues.

"Many think that we lead a cozy life, and only work on Sundays," Dörr said, unable to hide a smile. During the week, he celebrates baptisms and burial services. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays he celebrates masses. Vacation time is available to the pastor, just like any other employee. "I don't much time for that, though" Dörr said. This year, in a country that averages close to six weeks' vacation, he's taken just two weeks for himself.

One day a week

Employees of the parish have Monday off each week, if the schedule allows it. "Some families insist on burials on a Monday," Dörr said. In such cases, he asks his church musician to help out.

By Sunday afternoon, Dörr has returned to his office. With the Mass is over, he usually has some time to rest. But now, as his secretary is on vacation, he walks to the office to see if anyone has called. One missed message. Outside, on property belonging to the church, there's trash. If only someone would please clean it up. Dörr sighs and deletes the message. "I'll take care of that tomorrow."