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Rome silent on German diocese’s appointment of lay ‘vicar general representative’

Stephanie Rieth began serving as ‘representative of the vicar general’ in the Diocese of Mainz in April.

Mainz Cathedral, Germany. Moguntiner via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A lay woman serving as a “representative of the vicar general” in a German diocese has said that the Vatican has not responded to her appointment six months after she took up the post.

Stephanie Rieth, who assumed the new role in the Diocese of Mainz in April, told the German Catholic news agency KNA that she was not surprised by the lack of reaction in Rome to the new arrangement, which, she claims, constitutes a unique “model” in Germany.

“I am not surprised insofar as this innovation is perhaps not yet so well known or not so interesting, because the possibility of creating this office lies within the scope of the power of each diocesan bishop,” she said. “Nevertheless, it needs courage, because it is about a change in the Church’s understanding of leadership.”

According to the Code of Canon Law, bishops must appoint a vicar general to assist them in the governance of their dioceses. Vicar generals must be “priests not less than 30 years old, doctors or licensed in canon law or theology or at least truly expert in these disciplines, and recommended by sound doctrine, integrity, prudence, and experience in handling matters.”

When Rieth was appointed, the diocese in west-central Germany explained that its Bishop Peter Kohlgraf had issued a decree in the official gazette setting out the legal basis for the new office.

“As the representative of the vicar general, Rieth will not only be able to represent him in all matters internally and externally, but will also independently carry out the vicar general’s tasks in his place,” the diocese said. “This authorization does not affect tasks or activities that are reserved for a cleric because of their sacramental or liturgical connection.”

The office of vicar general automatically ends with the current bishop’s resignation. But the decree stated that the vicar general’s representative would remain in office when the see fell vacant.

Rieth is 47 and Kohlgraf is 55, so they could be working together for the next 20 years until the bishop reaches the typical retirement age.

A description of Rieth’s role on Mainz diocese’s website explained that while there is “a kind of dual leadership” consisting of the vicar general Bishop Udo Markus Bentz and his representative, “nothing is taken away from the office of the vicar general.”

“He authorizes and can also decide on the scope of the authorization,” it said. “This is the basis of canon law.”

Rieth told KNA: “Together with the auxiliary bishop, vicar general Udo Markus Bentz, I want to use the framework provided by canon law to the full, and to develop it to the best of my ability. But we deliberately do not go beyond that, because we want to show: Reform is possible, within the system.”

Last year, a Swiss bishop announced that he would be naming lay people to serve in place of episcopal vicars in his diocese. Bishop Charles Morerod, O.P., said he had selected two lay people and a deacon as his “lay representatives” in the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg.

The U.S. bishops’ conference defines episcopal vicars as “a priest or auxiliary bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in a specific part of the diocese, over certain groups in the diocese, or over certain areas of church affairs.”

The controversial German “synodal way” is currently seeking greater lay involvement in Church governance.

At the initiative’s most recent plenary meeting, delegates backed a text proposing a permanent “synodal council” composed of lay people and bishops.

The body would “take fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, future perspectives and budgetary issues of the Church that are not decided at the level of the dioceses.”

Another synodal way text calls on each German bishop to establish “binding structures of participation and co-determination of the faithful in the diocese that he leads on the basis of their responsibility in all essential questions of the Church’s life and of the Church’s mission.”

The Vatican said in July that the synodal way had no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

The German bishops are due to visit Rome in November for their first ad limina visit in seven years.

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