“I look back with gratitude”

Bishop Norbert Trelle © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

His diocese stretches from the Harz Mountains to the North Sea: Norbert Trelle has been Bishop of Hildesheim since 2006. He turns 75 this Tuesday and, according to church law, has offered his resignation to the pope. In the interview he looks back.

CBA: Your 75. Birthday falls in the year of the Reformation commemoration. What role did ecumenism play in your work?

Norbert Trelle (Bishop of Hildesheim): Church life in our diocese is organized ecumenically in many places on different occasions. I regularly celebrate services with my evangelical brothers and sisters in faith. We seek constant exchange on sociopolitical ies and, of course, on questions of faith.

I would like to remind you that in 2013, together with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover, we organized a congress entitled "Church to the power of two," at which almost 1.400 Protestant and Catholic Christians met in Hanover to reflect on the future of the Church. We are publishing a prayer book for refugees in ecumenical cooperation and doing much more together. In this respect, ecumenism plays a major role for our diocese and for me as a bishop.

CBA: How do you currently assess the relationship between the two large churches??
Trelle: We are in friendly dialogue with each other on many levels. It greatly strengthens ecumenism that the Reformation celebrations this year do not separate Catholic and Protestant Christians, but bring them together. The central reconciliation service was held in Hildesheim in March. For me, he was a strong testimony that we as Christian churches in Germany belong together. Of course, there are still hurdles along the way. But we have already achieved a lot in the past years. That should give us courage for the future.
CBA: Refugees have always been close to your heart. Are we currently facing a new refugee crisis in Europe??
Trelle: I hope not. But the fact is that there are a number of trouble spots in the Middle East and Africa that are causing people to leave their homes. As long as this does not change, thousands will continue to set out to find refuge from persecution, war or famine. This is a tragedy of huge proportions.
CBA: What are your demands to the government in dealing with the refugee situation??
Trelle: In dealing with the refugees, the burdens are very unevenly distributed among the states. I would like to see much more solidarity in Europe with countries like Italy and Greece. And we should not forget that Jordan and Lebanon have taken in well over a million refugees, even though they have nowhere near the economic resources of the EU countries. I see an urgent need for action.
CBA: Two years ago, as bishop of Hildesheim, you were able to look back on the 1200-year history of the diocese, but you also had to think about the future of the diocese. Do you see the diocese well positioned for coming times?
Trelle: We are well prepared to deal with demographic change and the resulting decline in the number of Catholics and in church tax revenues. We have had to make structural changes in recent years with all the difficult and painful concomitants. There have been parish mergers, budget cuts and more. We are currently reorganizing inter-parish pastoral care. And we have set in motion a process that we have called "local church development," which is gaining momentum more and more. Priests, professionals and committed Christians have a common responsibility to shape the church of tomorrow. There I see new beginnings that make me confident.
CBA: During your tenure, you had to close 56 churches. What were your feelings?
Trelle: Having to close a church is painful and has always made me very sad. Often enough I could have cried along when I looked into the faces of the faithful after profanation services. Unfortunately, however, it was unavoidable to give up churches, among other drastic measures, in order to consolidate the diocese and make it fit for the future.
CBA: In the last ten years, several allegations of abuse have been made in the diocese of Hildesheim against a retired priest and against one of your predecessors in office, Bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen. An independent report was completed on Wednesday, which has not yet been published. What do you hope to achieve?
Trelle: I hope for sufficient clarity and a differentiated assessment of the abuse allegations from the expert opinion. We will read the report very carefully and then present the results in a few weeks together with the institute we commissioned. Many other dioceses are also struggling with allegations of abuse.
CBA: How can the church regain its credibility?
Trelle: Credibility can only be regained through trust. People must be able to trust us to do the right thing in dealing with the terrible crime of sexual abuse. A church that cares for the victims, consistently deals with misconduct within its own ranks and does everything to prevent it in the future is a credible church.
CBA: According to canon law, you must report to the pope when you reach the age of 75. Offer your resignation at the age of 50. Have you already done this?
Trelle: This is what I have done.
CBA: Would you like to remain in office or are you looking forward to retirement?
Trelle: The pope decides whether to accept my resignation. In any case, I look back with gratitude and mostly good feelings on the more than eleven years in which I was allowed to lead the diocese of Hildesheim.
CBA: What do you plan to do as emeritus?
Trelle: I will certainly continue to celebrate services in the diocese when and wherever I am needed. Besides that: Reading a lot, hiking, and cycling to places and regions of the diocese that were previously unknown to me, as long as my "brother body" will cooperate. Perhaps I will also be able to visit those churches of the diocese in which I have not yet been. Out of more than 400 churches, that would be about 70 – quite a respectable long-term program, in my opinion.

The interview was conducted by Michael Althaus.

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