As important as silence is with prayer, talking with strangers is just as important for a pilgrim. Discovering this truth goes along with my growing appreciation that “pilgrimage” is an embodied prayer done with your feet. On this pilgrimage I am discovering how important it is to take time for conversations.
These days I am staying in Gelsenkirchen, with Ralf Tietmeyer. Ralf has done a lot to make my journey successful. While I am here, he has arranged a radio interview, a newspaper interview, one bishop, and three presentations to young people, one with scouts and two with school groups. Pretty much, it is 36 hours of talking with strangers. German strangers.
Ralf arranged for me to meet with the bishop of Essen, Bishop Felix Genn. He leads the diocese at a very difficult time. The diocese currently is in a three year process of transitioning from three hundred parishes down to forty three parishes. 5/6 of the parishes are closing.
The diocese was formed in 1957 as a new diocese was carved out of Cologne, Paderborn, and Munster. Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well for the fledgling diocese. It is struck by Germany’s high unemployment rate which directly affects church finances. The Church in Germany receives money from a mandatory Church Tax that every working citizen must pay. The tax then gets administered to the Church of the payee’s choice. If people are unemployed, they don’t pay the tax. Less tax revenue means that there are less monies given to the Church by the government.
Also important is the fact that an individual’s church tax doesn’t go to a church unless that individual is associated with a particular church. The combination of unemployment and decreasing membership at Catholic Churches has led to a financial crisis so drastic, that the Diocese of Essen must close parishes, and sell its property. I am deeply saddened by this, but realize that as I learn about these realities, my concerns for the diocese become part of my prayer, prayer that they might have strength and healing in these very troubled times.
The Cathedral of the Diocese is actually an old convent for women of nobility. It is called Munster of Essen, or simply the Monastery of Essen. It has an amazing crypt church and is known for its Golden Madonna. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view the pictorial I created of the cathedral by clicking here.
In the evening, I have interviews. Reporters from the media are asking me questions in order to do a story on the One Body One Spirit Project. I hate talking with the media. I don’t do sound-bites very well. But the exercise is important. The inquiries help me focus my thoughts. I always discover things about myself, and this pilgrimage, when I am required to explain them to others. My extroverted side thinks as I speak. So when I speak to the media, I realize that I’m praying, prayer of thanksgiving for recognizing the gifts God has given me on the pilgrimage of life.
Talking with the Scouting group this evening was a true delight for me. It highlighted for me how much I tend to assume things when I talk to strangers. I thought, “I am with Scouts. They have the same merit badges, and ranks, and… oh… you don’t? Well that’s odd. You mean there is no award system for achievement? Then how are you… oh… scouting is about the character building, not about a particular system in a particular country. That makes sense.” I had to let go of my assumptions.
Letting go of assumptions is like a prayer for me. It helps me to realize that God is beyond everything, even the tyranny of our own thoughts and concepts. Letting go of assumptions helps me to realize both the value of institutions - they deliver a message - and the limitations of institutions - they themselves are not the message. Letting go of assumptions is a prayer that strengthens my sense of mystery, and awe for God.
Then I spoke to the strangest strangers of all, school kids. The secondary school kids ask me questions about different cultures and church structures across the world. The grade school kids ask me questions like “what is your favorite food.” Both are difficult to answer. But talking with these strangers is a prayer. They force me to recollect moments of wonder and awe. These moments are gifts that do not belong to me. They are meant to be shared. Sharing them causes them to grow. It is easy to see the awe in the eyes of these young people. They are receptive to learning. Sharing with them a few stories, even about how much I miss a good American hamburger, is a communion that we share with each other, and with God.