BERLIN (ChurchMilitant.com) - A traditionalist Catholic fraternity is causing a nationwide sensation after it challenged the Berlin Senate's coronavirus restrictions in court.
Asking the state to apply the same rules to churches that are applicable to supermarkets, the Institute of St. Philip Neri in Berlin has filed a case with the Berlin Administrative Court seeking to hold services with up to 50 congregants.
"In our opinion, the ban on all public services without exception is disproportionate because the health of the faithful in our church — especially by marking seats at the right distance — can be guaranteed much more effectively than in many supermarkets, which remain open," Dr. Gerald Goesche, provost of St. Afra Church announced on the institute's website.
"In view of this, we consider the given severe restriction of the fundamental right to religious freedom to be unacceptable," Fr. Goesche states. "You are safer in our church than in any supermarket," he told German media, reasoning that customers in supermarkets were likely to group together much closer than in a church that adopted safe distancing measures.
Goesche laments the capitulation of the German Catholic Church to the state's diktat, labeling it "a huge disappointment," especially before Easter. The current "total suppression" of services could "become dangerous at some point" when "believers then meet uncontrollably and do something," he remarks.
In turn, the Catholic hierarchy in Germany is highly critical of the lawsuit, with the German Episcopal Conference making it clear that this approach is not the position of the Catholic Church in the Wuhan virus crisis. German bishops regard the Institute's stance as "a matter of going it alone."
"For us, Jesus is the medicine of salvation and the doctor of our souls," says the priest, who continues to administer Holy Communion to his congregation five times on weekdays and four on a Sunday, after the Berlin Senate enacted an ordinance on March 23 completely prohibiting public worship.
The ordinance stipulates that anyone leaving their home must keep a minimum distance of 1.5 meters from other people. Individuals can only visit churches, mosques or synagogues for individual, quiet contemplation or prayer.
Earlier, in mid-March, the Berlin Senate issued a less-restrictive ordinance permitting public events with up to 50 participants, with those present being asked to register themselves in the list of participants.
While the German bishops ordered closure of churches, Fr. Goesche responded to the previous ordinance by inviting parishioners to attend Holy Mass only if they had a confirmed reservation — made by sending a text message to a phone number. The parish website would notify congregants if the maximum number of worshippers for each Mass had been reached.
St. Afra's Church also assigned congregants to "two meters apart" marked seating on the pews. Since the March 23 ban, no service has taken place in the church on Graunstraße in the Mitte district — a working-class district notable for its 19th- and early 20th-century social housing which now has a high percentage of Muslim immigrants.
"The growing presence of Islam, particularly in Berlin, demands priests with expert knowledge in order to instruct the faithful and to explore ways of proclaiming the Faith to Muslims," the Institute's website unapologetically declares, noting that "in a city like Berlin, the opportunities for pastoral care, evangelization and theological study and education are great."
Meanwhile, in blatant defiance of the new restrictions, over 300 Muslims gathered for Friday afternoon communal prayer in front of the Dar-as-Salam mosque in Berlin's Neukölln district.
The mosque association had announced on its Facebook page that it would regularly broadcast on loudspeakers over the streets of Neukölln an Islamic prayer parallel to the ringing of the bells of the Christian community.
The imam, the public order office and police were only partially able to persuade people to keep the prescribed distance, police said Friday evening.
The mosque community is being monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution because of connections to the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, said Falcko Liecke (CDU), deputy mayor of Berlin-Neukölln. "It has been known for years: this mosque community is liberal on the outside, but preaches Sharia on the inside," he wrote on Facebook.
"The ban applies immediately. The Berlin police will ensure compliance," he added.
A spokesman for the Berlin Administrative Court confirmed that the request for an interim order had been received and that a decision is expected soon.
In his 11-page brief on March 31, lawyer Nikolai Nikolov argued that the congregation was entitled "to allow public services to take place as a specific expression of religious life" on the basis of the right to freedom of religion, which is enshrined in Article 4 of the Basic Law.
The comprehensive ban on events by the Berlin Senate, he is arguing, "represents a disproportionate interference with the freedom to practice religion and is ineffective in this respect."
In the meantime, Catholics who wish to receive Communion can contact St. Afra's Church and penitents can phone or send a text message to reserve appointments for confession in German, English, French, Italian and Polish.
Father Goesche administers Communion on the tongue and neither priest nor congregation wears a mask. Of course, there remains a "residual risk," he agrees. "But nobody is forced go to Communion."
The Institute, established in 2004 with the encouragement of Pope Benedict XVI as a society of apostolic life under papal law, does not fall under the jurisdiction of the local bishop or the German Episcopal Conference.
The community mainly works at the St. Afra Church in Berlin, as well as in Trier, Potsdam and Görlitz.
From 20 participants at the first Sunday Mass, the number in St. Afra has increased sixfold to more than 120 Catholics. In addition, there are another 120 Catholics at the three other places of worship. Child and adult baptisms take place regularly as the average age of the worshippers is under 50 years.