Augsburg (kath.net/pl) “The national church is dying out. If the leaders of the church would recognise the signs of the times right now, they would not be using 90% of their strength to support structures that are going to be rendered obsolete in the near future, but would pour their money, creativity and immense personal abilities to build something that actually has a future. Lamentably, I don’t see any readiness to engage in such innovative thinking in many places yet. So, I’m rather worried….because without it, our churches are going to get considerably emptier.” Dr. Johannes Hartl, theologian, presents this sobering diagnosis in his interview with kath.net. The Director of the Augsburg House of Prayer, founded in 2005, fervently hopes that Catholics in German-speaking Europe “Don’t confuse church membership with being an authentic disciple of Jesus.” Because most baptised Catholics in Germany, “de facto do not live with Jesus as Lord of their lives!” “When He becomes the Lord in someone’s heart, this has massive effects on all areas of life: Your identity, the words you use, money, sexuality, thinking….”
The important thing for Hartl is not adapting to the Zeitgeist, but quite the contrary: In topics such as sexuality, marriage and family he is heartened by “The stand that the magisterium has taken and keeps taking on these topics!”
The 35-year-old Catholic theologian is married and is the father of four children. He worked in youth missions for several years and on national committees for the Charismatic Renewal. The Christian news magazine, Idea, once remarked that “There’s nothing churchy about Johannes Hartl!”, after describing Hartl’s Christian “habit” of biker boots, tight boot-cut jeans and a hoodie. Some of Hartl’s more traditional-sounding declarations may therefore seem all the more surprising to some people, just as surprising as the fact that he leads a House of Prayer where people (mostly young ones) pray around the clock: Since September 2011, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The Augsburg House of Prayer describes itself as an “initiative of young Christians within the Charismatic Renewal of the Catholic Church that came into being in 2005. We believe that God is absolutely fascinating. He is worthy to be worshipped and glorified day and night. We do that our way. Youthful, ecumenical and with modern praise music.
kath.net: Dr. Hartl, your teachings forcefully convey a very high degree of confidence in the faith. How has your relationship with Jesus changed your life? And when did it start?
Hartl: I am grateful to my parents and the Benedictine Abbey in Metten, near where I grew up, for a solid foundation in the faith.
But my first personal experience with God as a teenager made me into a passionate friend of Jesus.
Since then I have seen him work in such amazing and powerful ways that I am more convinced now than ever that Jesus is the answer to the deepest questions of humanity. I would literally need hours to tell about all of the miracles that I have already experienced.
kath.net: Have you already experienced, in yourself and in others, that when God approaches people and after the encounter they are like different people? Is this just a subjective highlight, and emotional warm-fuzzy or is there something else behind it? What happens between God and people?
Hartl: People who think this about conversion have never met anyone who has really been converted. I have been strongly shaped by the Charismatic Renewal, but ultimately it is not a matter of charismatic phenomena, or even emotional experiences. A true conversion– and I have seen a lot of them, especially among young people– is a real and lasting transformation of the heart. The New Testament therefore quite rightly calls it “being born again” (c.f. John 3:3, 1 Cor. 5:17).
kath.net: This encounter with Jesus: What concrete and visible effects on the person and his way of life are associated with it? What does Jesus want from us Catholics in German-speaking Europe– including us laypeople?
Hartl: Jesus preached the kingdom of God. He did not preach that one should be a better person, become a bit more ethical or go to church more often. Those are all results.
But the important thing in the kingdom of God is: That God is the Lord. When he becomes Lord of a person’s life, it has massive effects on all areas of life: Identity, the words you use, money, sexuality, thinking….
I think that Jesus would like to invite Catholics in German-speaking Europe not to confuse church membership with being an authentic disciple of Jesus. Because most baptised Catholics in Germany de facto do not live with Jesus as Lord of their lives! He wants the kingdom of God to break in to all areas of our lives. Nothing more and nothing less.
kath.net: At the last “MEHR-Conference”, you talked about signs of the times. Asia, Latin America, Africa, there the faith is growing at vertiginous rates, but in western Europe there is a terrible falling away. As a Christian in Germany, what are these signs of the times for me?
Hartl: I am convinced that true renewal in faith only comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. And this in turn grows decisively in prayer.
For that reason, the return to prayer, to personal discipleship with Jesus is the most urgent and important concern of the moment.
We have to look at things soberly, watching the direction in which our western society is drifting. But our response can never be mere despair or mere militancy, but must be an inner renewal in the only thing that can change Europe: The fire of the Holy Spirit.
God is just as powerful in Europe as He is in Africa or Asia. He can do the same things. If we take Him at His word, believe and pray.
kath.net: “Pray without ceasing!” (1 Thess. 5:17). Is the crisis in the West a crisis of prayer, especially in the church? You founded a house of prayer. Dr. Hartl, what are your experiences there? Does God still touch people, quite personally, quite directly, existentially?
Hartl: First, let me concur: Yes, there is a massive crisis of prayer in the church in the west. A large part of all believers (and also priests, consecrated religious and theologians) simply have not learned how to pray. Or at least not to pray in such a way that it actually touches them on the inside. I think that we can find new forms for people in the 21st century to develop an intense prayer life.
In the House of Prayer we see first-hand just how deeply and permanently people (and among them young people primarily) are changed once they encounter God in prayer.
I would go as far as to say that people love to pray once they have discovered that God is absolutely fascinating and that we can approach him in love. The young people who visit us and who work with us actually spend 4 hours a day in prayer and they are thrilled to do it.
kath.net: “Incense everywhere” (c.f. Mal. 1:11). What characterises authentic worship and true praise?
Hartl: If you are really pursuing Jesus, then authentic worship is always characterised by the two poles: “In spirit and in truth” (John 4:26).
For me personally the “in spirit” part means that prayer is not just something that I produce frantically, but an event in which the Holy Spirit comes and helps me. Something that is not just a human effort but is a real, actual experience of the supernatural and something that the spirit of God himself produces in me.
“In truth” means, for me, on the one hand that a response to God never misses the word that God sent out first. Concretely stated: Only through Jesus Christ, the one and only word of God, do we have access to God. Jesus who became visible authoritatively in the Holy Scripture, as the church has preserved it and interpreted it in her tradition. There is no true prayer without a true revelation of God!
At the same time, “in truth” means that I may be completely authentic. I don’t need to pretend to be someone else before God. It’s not a pious bit of pretend, not a performance sport. It’s where I may stand directly and forthrightly before the Father who shows His love to me in Jesus Christ and who makes me able to pray even in my weakness through His spirit of consolation. There, prayer does not just become authentic, but highly satisfying. It’s a great privilege!
kath.net: In your teaching at the “MEHR Conference” you cited Mal. 2:14-16 and you interpreted as follows: “This means that God says, marriage is important to me. And how you treat marriage and faithfulness is important to me. And you as priests, you as Levites, you as my people, may not call untrue what I have called true about this.” Is this topic a key question?
Hartl: At the MEHR 2014 I named five topics that I consider key topics. I think that, in the future, a whole lot is going to be decided by how Christians position themselves with respect to the topics: the role of man and woman, homosexuality, abortion, the question of Hell (or universal reconciliation) and of universalism in a larger sense (“all religions are the same”).
I am heartened by the stand that the Magisterium has taken and continues to take on these topics!
In fact, I believe that the topics of sexuality, marriage and family are really something absolutely central.
Ultimately it is not a question of morality, but of our image of man. Because in sexuality, man confronts his most intimate desires and the overpowering enchantment of love. Human sexuality is on the one hand the point where we see psychological, physical and spiritual elements of man most closely connected. At the same time it is the point of our greatest vulnerability. Everything we do in the area of sexuality will have massive effects on the lives of our souls and on our relationship with God.
Since our modern culture has increasingly distanced itself from God, sexuality has become an idol. This causes it to lose its divine beauty and take on an addictive character. But anyone who attacks this idol incurs the wrath of the masses.
For that reason, a biblical “theology of the body” is increasingly met with hostility but is more urgently needed than ever.
Because the hearts caught in the coils of a false, godless sexuality are suffering and bleeding even if many of them will not admit it.
kath.net: Dr. Hartl, what do you think the church in German speaking Europe will look like in 10, 20 years?
Hartl: The national church is dying out. If the leaders of the church would recognise the signs of the times right now, they would not be using 90% of their strength to support structures that are going to be rendered obsolete in the near future, but would pour their money, creativity and immense personal abilities to build something that actually has a future. Lamentably, I don’t see any readiness to engage in such innovative thinking in many places yet. So, I’m rather worried….because without it, our churches are going to get considerably emptier. There will also continue to be fewer and fewer priests and more and more of them will be over-worked and emotionally unstable.
But I also see that there are many people in this country who want to lead a truly spiritual life, who want a deeper faith and a community and would be open to the Gospel (which they do not know).
But often, too often, people like this find nothing in the Catholic Church that reaches them in a language that they understand and in a form that really addresses them. And that is a real shame, because the current crisis would be a terrific opportunity for real conversion.
Real conversion would mean moving away from faith in money, influence and massive structures of the national church. And toward an authentic proclamation of the faith, to conversions, to discipleship, with public courage and solid loyalty to the Gospel.
And this renewal stands or falls with prayer. Which we all talk about but hardly anyone does.
Translated by John David Martin/Texas
Dr. Johannes Hartl: Der Maleachi-Ruf
Foto Johannes Hartl (c) Gebetshaus Augsburg/Ruth Brozek
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