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Albert-Peter Rethmann {*}

From the Work of Reconciliation to Partnership

A Reorientation of Catholic Pastoral Care for Expellees is Due


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2011, P. 255-260
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    A profound change takes place within the Catholic expellee associations: The development from "One Topic Associations" with the monopoly on the issues of displacement and reconciliation towards partnership associations that help form the living together in the center of Europe. For this purpose, the expellee associations have for decades built up a network that should be expanded.


The idea of how a gathering of Sudeten German expellees looks like corresponds often to widespread stereotypes: women and men in traditional costumes recall the old days. The accompanying brass band underlines the character of an event where it is primarily about questions of history, nostalgic memories of the time before the expulsion and about the repeatedly new demonstration of the injustice of the expulsion. However, many expellee associations are increasingly faced with the question of how things should go on after the death of the generation that experienced the expulsion [Erlebnisgeneration], and from where they can take the legitimacy for their existence and their commitment when the originally concerned parties are no longer there.

Last year, in the context of the 60th anniversary of the "Charter of the German Expellees" of 5 August 1950, the dispute over the interpretation of history became once again alive. On the one side are those who, like the commentator of the "Tageszeitung" (taz), see the Declaration as a document of historical misrepresentation and as evidence of an "immoral dispensing with" revenge and retribution.



On the other side is the Federation of Expellees, which together with the government coalition of CDU / CSU and FDP wants to introduce the 5 August as the nationwide commemoration day of the expulsion. The Bundestagspräsident described the Charter as "the founding document of the Federal Republic and a prerequisite for its success story."

In the Charter representatives of the expellees had proclaimed in Stuttgart in front of the castle, "We expellees dispense with revenge and retaliation." The expellees wanted to support with all their strength the creation of a common Europe and the reconstruction of Germany and Europe. The fate of German expellees and of all refugees is a world problem, whose solution requires the highest moral responsibility and the obligation to an enormous performance.

On the one hand it is important for understanding this document to know the overall climate of the West German society in which it emerged. For one thing it distanced itself from the hard-liners in the ranks of the expellee associations; for another thing it adressed the expellees as a very vital part of the young and successful Federal Republic of Germany.

On the other hand, today we cannot content ourselves with the there formulated statements. The questions have changed. Those who rely on return and the recognition of property rights in the countries of origin are a minority. They play no significant role in the democratic political discourse in Germany. Conversely, in Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries of origin of the after 1945 expelled Germans, young people, journalists, academics and NGOs are now interested in the dark pages of their own national history and inquire after what united Germans, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and others. They inquire after the common and unifying things of history, in order to establish new partnerships.

In the Czech Republic, the exhibitions and publications of the group "Antikomplex", an association of young academics, are a sensational project. In the late nineties, they took old photos of villages and towns of the former Sudetenland and photographed the sites from the same perspective again ( Without words, the pictures speak a strong language and broke the taboo, which was also cultivated by the Communists, on the appreciation of the centuries-long coexistence of Germans and Czechs. Moreover, in the Czech Republic in recent years there have been produced documentaries that deal also with the crimes of Czechs in the postwar period. Such breaches of taboos contribute to the mutual rapprochement.

The Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer's visit in the Czech Republic in December last year marks a sign of hope also in politics. It has rightly been pointed out that the interpretation of this visit as a new beginning in relations between Germans resp. Bavarians and Czechs is at least one-sided. The diverse church contacts, which since the fifties are cultivated inter alia by the Catholic "Ackermann-Gemeinde", are today the basis for the growing confidence between Germans and Czechs at the political level. This is proved by the encounter of the chairmen of the German and Czech Bishops' Conference in advance of Seehofer's visit in November last year.


A New Form of Working with Neighbours in Central Europe

The introduction of a special Memorial Day is certainly a wrong, because backward-looking approach. The national remembrance day should also in future be used for the memory of the victims of expulsion. In addition, however, with regard to the present and future relations between the nations, the expellee associations are faced with far-reaching questions, which should not be burdened by debates about a possible new memorial day.

The changed political and societal situation affects also the Catholic pastoral care for the expellees. For example, young Germans and Poles are admittedly rightly aware of the multifaceted and also injured history of their peoples, and the importance of places like Kreisau for such encounters is not to be underestimated. The debate about history, especially about its dark chapters, retains its importance. Among young people, however, issues of reconciliation are less and less in the foreground. In the focus of their attention are rather the challenges which they see for themselves and others in an integrating Europe.

Against this background, also the church's pastoral care for the expellees must be reoriented. The question is whether and, if need be, how the pastoral care for the group of "expellees" today should still be done in the sense of pastoral care for victims. It must also be recognized within the church, that the original stock of this group has demographically changed. Even in the Catholic expellee associations, the "generation that experienced the expulsion" does no longer set the agenda alone.



Here, the Ackermann-Gemeinde as an association of Catholic Sudeten Germans has given the to date clearest signal: last year it elected a 36-year-old chairman without expellee background, the MEP Martin Kastler. And it appointed as its spiritual advisor the author of this essay, a German priest and university teacher, whose connection with the Czech Republic is substantiated by the very fact of his almost seven-year teaching at the Charles University in Prague.

Also within the group of the still living members of the generation that experienced the expulsion the self-understanding has changed. There are many who do no longer want to be addressed as expellees and to be thus reduced to a bygone period of their life. But there are others who have suffered such dramatic injuries that they suffer from them until today. The pastoral care will continue to be open for this group. In the future, however, the Catholic pastoral care for expellees will set new priorities and possibly need to find new forms of organization.

One of many considerations is to delegate the pastoral care for expellees even more to (lay) associations. With it the main focus of the work would no longer be directed only at coming to terms with the history of expulsion and at cultivating the traditions of the expellees. History of expulsion and preservation of customs and traditions are probably not subjects for which the Bishops' Conference had to care by a special bishop for the expellees. But it would be a mistake to draw from it the conclusion that the pastoral care for the expellees as a general task of the church had to be ended, and a special bishop with advisory board for the expellees would be largely unnecessary.

It would be a fatal mistake to stop cold-bloodedly the previous work of the expellee bishop, currently it is the Erfurt Auxiliary Bishop Reinhard Hauke, and the work of Catholic expellee associations by cutting the financial assistance und destroying the existing structures and committees. On the contrary, the existing structures, contacts and networks should be used, developed and even reinforced for a new form of working with our neighbours in Central Europe. Despite all considerations regarding the necessary savings, the German church could set a qualitatively new direction to her work. Who else has such cross-border structures like the church?

The pastoral care for the expellees has a chance in the future, if it does no longer focus on the expellees as such but on the expellees' cross-border work for building a new neighborhood.



From objects of pastoral care, the expellees become subjects who commit themselves to building a new neighborhood. The neighborhood between Germans and the peoples in whose midst Germans have lived in the past is not just a historical phenomenon but present and future. It needs people who are able to empathize with the character of their partners, understand their way of thinking and at least to some extent also their language. Christians as neighbors have in their shared faith a connecting link that can help to bridge national differences.

All these requirements of a successful neighborhood are met by those associations that are still called Catholic "expellee associations". Regardless of this linguistic usage, they mutated to associations that feel responsible for the development of our eastern neighbors. This finds expression in many activities that can be described as contributions to a missionary witness of faith in Europe: cross-border joint worship services and pilgrimages, partnerships between dioceses and parishes, promotion of church school system and church adult education, repair of churches, advanced training courses for priests etc.

Thus, many Catholic expellee associations have changed into "neighborhood associations", where people work with or without expulsion background. It is now important that this work, which can be seen as fulfillment of a world church mission, is also recognized by the Bishops' Conference and accompanied by a "partnership bishop". It makes sense to assign this field of work also within the Bishops' Conference to the Commission for International Church Affairs.


Local Churches in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe

Precondition for such a partnership work is the interest in the people from the local churches of Central, East and South East Europe and the knowledge of their situation. In this geographic area, the churches - here is deliberately set the plural for these historically and sociologically very differently shaped local Catholic churches -, have to cope with very diverse challenges:

So they are since 1989/90 still faced with the (sometimes up to this day as painfully felt) task to acknowledge the new situation: In a pluralistic society they are admittedly one but not (or no longer) the only religious "player" that shapes the values. After the turnaround of 1989, in many of the countries the church has experienced a large wave of benevolence: In times of communism, or what was identified by this word, she was often the only serious force of resistance - and this often on an intellectually and culturally high level. However, after the turnaround this reputation gave way relatively soon to a rather skeptical attitude of the mainstream society towards the church. Are Christians and the Church able to see the loss of political power as an opportunity? And do they dare to accept and to fulfil, possibly even more credibly without strong formal influence, the role as a moral actor in society?

Furthermore, it is necessary to come to terms with the history of the Catholic Church in the more than 40 years of communism: This includes on the one hand the documentation of the borne witness during the time of persecution. It must be a part of the self-understanding and the base of a healthy self-esteem of Christians and church. In some approaches of the theological interpretation of powerlessness and existential threat to the church we find the expression of deep faith and confidence. They move, inspire and encourage also Christians in a secular Western society - as e.g. some publications of the recently deceased Czech theologian Oto Madr.

On the other hand, the process of coming to terms with history includes also a fearless examination of the fact that the Catholic Church (bishops, priests and lay people) also compromised and cooperated with the communist regime - allowed or not allowed, morally understandable and sometimes morally inacceptable. Without such an often really painful analysis, the church can only with difficulty gain moral credibility in society. It is proper that up to the present day the German Bishops' Conference funds a respective research office in Erfurt. Otherwise, without such an accounting for the past, there is danger that the Church will be hunted by the often quite anticlerical tabloid media. That's why since 1990 in many local churches a deliberate examination of this period of history has taken place - more or less intensively and consistently, more or less publicly.


Arouse Young Germans' Interest in the Countries of the East

Another challenge for these local churches of Central and Eastern Europe is education and training of elites. What is meant here are intellectual, but also and especially moral elites. An example: In Sarajevo the Catholic Church runs with great success a model school. It was built by Croatian Catholics and is in the Balkans a working model for the training in religious tolerance. 30 percent of the students are of Muslim belief. In the Catholic school they have their own Islamic religious instruction. In Bosnia-Herzegovina's post-war society Catholics and Muslims learn again to live together.



Such educational institutions, but especially the Catholic schools and, if available, Catholic universities play a key role for the training of future managerial staff in church and society. The question here is whether the ecclesiastical educational institutions succeed in opening to societal groups that seek spiritual guidance outside the inner area of the church.

In the training of priests the question arises time and again: Do we adequately prepare the future priests for the often very complex and complicated situation in their country? In a study on the Church in Lithuania, which was led by the Osnabrück social ethicist Manfred Spieker, and in view of her training of priests was found that "The study regulations are not oriented toward the personal work with the Christian truths and theological issues but towards the imparting of information. Asking questions is interpreted by a large part of the teachers as immaturity and lack of vocation. (...) Future priests are not trained for the pastoral activity in the new societal situation" (Andrius Navickas, Transformationsprozesse in der litauischen Kirche, in: Manfred Spieker [ed.], Katholische Kirche und Zivilgesellschaft in Osteuropa, Paderborn 2003, 320ff.).

In Germany, we should ask ourselves how we can help ensure that young seminarians and priests can experience Church also outside their country's borders. One opportunity is perhaps the offer of summer language courses with living in German Catholic parishes, parish houses and families. What we are currently discussing with regard to foreign priests who are studying in Germany as scholarship holders of the German Church applies also here: In future we need partners who have gained experience of Germany and who are able at least to speak as much German that they in the future can build a network of multiple relationships between the German church and the church of their country. But the question is also relevant in the direction of the German Christians: How can we bring about that in Germany young people are more interested in the countries of the East?

A key issue is the strengthening and formation of the Catholic laity. Here, too, the situation is very different in the various countries of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Petr Krizek, a participant in the first phase of the Plenary Synod of the Czech Catholic Church reports, "Around 10.000 people meet regularly in the synodal groups. This is the broadest internal church activity in the Czech Republic (...) The groups are a colorful mix of generations and occupations. Nearly half of the participants are under 40 years old and have a university degree. The church becomes younger and more 'educated'. Here is a major task for the intellectuals in the Church. However, their problem seems to be that they have admittedly visions but are unable to discuss them. (...) The relation of the Church to the non-Christian world must be redesigned. (...) Instead, ideological position battles prevail. The bishops are caught in the cross-fire." It is very difficult for well-trained lay people who want to serve the church by their skills to find an opportunity to do so.

After the turnaround of 1989, the church and Christians had and have to find their place again in society and must become aware of the fact that the basic principle of missiology applies also to them: Evangelization is possible only via inculturation of faith. That's why the Church's preaching must not arouse the illusion that it is the Christians' aim to build a counter-society opposed to the world in which they live. The acceptance of the given societal situation is rather the precondition of convincingly bearing witness to one's faith in a pluralistic and liberal society. Christians are only in this way in a position to shape this society from within.


Cooperation of the Church with Civil Society

There are attempts in this direction at individual universities or Catholic faculties. Two years ago, the Catholic Faculty at Charles University in Prague has, at the suggestion of the Czech Bishops' Conference, established e.g. a course in "Applied Ethics" with a focus on business ethics, political ethics, media ethics and bioethics. It is aimed at societal groups beyond the core group of committed Catholics. Such approaches are not without controversy within the church, because they require an opening of the Catholic educational institutions. The last year new appointed Archbishop of Prague, the Dominican Dominik Duka, promotes decidedly efforts in this direction.

In some countries of East Central and Eastern Europe, the commitment to marginalized groups contributes much to the reputation and also to a new self-understanding of the Church and Christians in the changed situation of a plural society: for example, the church's work with Roma in Eastern Slovakia, but also her work with HIV-infected and AIDS patients in Eastern Europe. Also the importance of the hospices in various countries of East Central and Eastern Europe should not be underestimated: They contribute to a new culture of dealing with illness, death and dying.

In his study on religion and church in (East) Central Europe Paul M. Zulehner states, "Between 1997 to 2007 the image of the Church has darkened." Among those who had adopted a position, the view had become more frequent (a rise from 45 percent to 49 percent) that the church was rather interested in earthly power than in the otherworldly salvation.



In 1997, a third (32 percent) of respondents held the view that the church was rather "a natural ally of the rich than of the poor." In 2007 two out of five (41 percent) expressed this view (Paul M. Zulehner, Miklós Tomka, Inna Naletova, Religionen und Kirche in Ost[Mittel]Europa. Ostfildern 2008, 97). The investigations have shown that these trends (with the exception of Lithuania) are valid in all countries, albeit to varying degrees. The image of the Church in Hungary has extremely deteriorated (see HK, March 2011, 149ff.).

Nevertheless, the Christians and the Church of East Central Europe have a real opportunity for evangelization and the shaping of their society when they become aware of their role: to proclaim God as the reconciler and the hope of those who need especially assistance, who have no voice, but who experience the Church as a place where they feel unconditionally accepted - regardless of their performance.

A key issue is for the church whether she will succeed in coming in contact with the societal elites, in conducting an unbiased and professional dialogue with them, in caring for their education and formation; and whether she participates in shaping a society and a Europe where the Christians are perhaps not the only ones who set the tone but where they draw the attention to problems and opportunities and to marginalized social groups that would otherwise be overlooked.

For the Christians in the countries mentioned above, the appropriate partner on the German side are often missing. That's why exactly here the Catholic expellee associations have a chance: if they succeed in developing from a "one topic association", with the monopoly on the issues of expulsion and reconciliation, to partnership associations that help to shape the coexistence in the heart of Europe. Politics alone can not procure the resources for it. The expellee associations, however, have for decades been building up a network that can be expanded. Also the German Bishops' Conference should rely on it when it deals with the development of the pastoral care for expellees.

After all, the time is long gone when the assistance was a one-way street from West to East. On the contrary, in the committed partnership with Christians from the eastern part of Europe Christians in Western Europe can learn as much as vice versa. It is important that on both sides people identify the common societal and ecclesiastical structural tasks - and then sometime no longer speak of "two sides" (West and East) with an imaginary border-line between the two parts, but again from a common lebensraum. A lebensraum that has become larger: Europe.


    {*} The Münster priest Prof. Dr. Albert-Peter Rethmann (born in 1960) is director of the Institut für Weltkirche und Mission at Sankt Georgen, Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt. From 2002 to 2009 he was professor of theological ethics at the Catholic Theological Faculty of Charles University in Prague. Since 2009 he is spiritual advisor of the Ackermann-Gemeinde, since 2010 deputy member of the Advisory Board of the Foundation "Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation" (SFVV).


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'