Daniel-in-lion’s-den moment for new Catholic archbishop of free-wheeling Berlin
Like Daniel in the lion’s den, Berlin’s new Catholic archbishop met the media on Tuesday to face accusations he was homophobic and far too conservative for such a prominent post in the free-wheeling German capital. Rainer Maria Woelki, a surprise choice for the high-profile post, professed respect for gays, denied membership in the staunchly conservative Opus Dei group and said he did not come to Berlin to point a censuring finger at non-Catholics.
Berlin’s gay community and liberal media reacted with dismay to his appointment last week, saying the Cologne-based prelate was “backwards-minded” and the wrong man for the job. But interest in the new prelate was so strong that the Catholic Church, a minority of about 390,000 in a 3.5 million population mostly indifferent or hostile to religion, had to switch the news conference to a larger hall at the last minute to accomodate over 100 journalists who turned out.
“We will meet with each other,” Woelki, 54, said when asked about the city’s active gay community. “I have respect and esteem for all people independent of heritage, skin colour and individual nature. I am open to all without reservations.” Describing himself simply as Catholic, he denied being a member of Opus Dei despite having done his doctorate at the group’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. That part of his biography led to media reports over the weekend calling him “reactionary.”
“The Church is not a moral institution that goes around pointing its finger at people,” Woelki said. “The Church is for me a community of seekers and believers and the Church would like to help people find their hapiness in life.”
The left-wing daily Tageszeitung said it had expected the worst from Woelki’s premiere but concluded: “You can talk with the man of God. There will be a lot to talk about.”
Berlin’s openly gay Mayor Klaus Wowereit seems to have eased the way for Woelki by warmly welcoming him to the city and promising to work closely with him. The two will host Pope Benedict when he visits the German capital in September.
During the last papal visit to Berlin in 1996, anarchists booed and streakers darted about in front of Pope John Paul’s popemobile as he made his way to the Brandenburg Gate.
Until his new assignment, Woelki was an auxiliary bishop in Cologne to Cardinal Joachim Meisner, an arch-conservative with close ties to German-born Pope Benedict. He was hardly known outside that western German city, where he was born. Woelki’s Opus Dei aademic credentials, link to Meisner and statements reaffirming the Church view that homosexual acts are sinful sparked off a storm in Berlin.
“The Church does itself no favour by sending to Berlin a representative of a backwards persuasion that contradicts peoples’ attitudes towards life,” the gay German parliamentarian Johannes Kahrs said.
Woelki succeeds the recently deceased Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky and can expect to be elevated soon to the College of Cardinals, the elite group that elects the next pope.
– by Eric Kelsey in Berlin
John Kelly (R), who says he was abused while in Daingean Industrial School between 1965 and 1967, holds a copy of a government report into child abuse, while speaking to the media in Dublin May 20, 2009. Priests beat and raped children during decades of abuse in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland, an official report said on Wednesday, but it stopped short of naming the perpetrators. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton