Church hails arrival of "courageous" Pope

Agnell Rickenmann feels the Pontiff will bring hope and faith Keystone

Switzerland’s Catholic bishops spent many months preparing for the Pope’s visit to Bern this weekend.

This content was published on June 5, 2004 - 23:52

Agnell Rickenmann, the secretary-general of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, talked to swissinfo about his hopes for the visit.

The Pontiff’s first visit to Switzerland in 20 years has generated huge media interest and has sparked debate about his ability to continue as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

A recent survey found that 74 per cent of Swiss think the Pope should retire because of his age and poor health

But Rickenmann said questions about the Pope’s health should not be allowed to obscure the importance of his message of hope.

swissinfo: Are you excited about the Pope’s visit?

Agnell Rickenmann: Yes, I’m excited in a positive way. We are all very glad that he’s coming. I think it will give a new impulse to Swiss Catholicism.

But don’t forget that this is not only a visit of the Pope. It is first of all a meeting of young people – the first national youth meeting in Switzerland.

swissinfo: But not everybody is welcoming his arrival.

A.R.: The bishops themselves are very glad that he’s coming. But evidently not everyone has the same relationship to the Holy Father. We have some priests who are perhaps a little more critical of the Pope, but I still think that the fundamental sentiment is a very positive one.

But since the Pope is coming there are naturally the traditional questions [being raised] here in Switzerland about the ordination of women, celibacy and other issues.

But I think the message of this youth meeting, and also of the Pope’s visit, should be one of hope and of faith – that is the central message.

swissinfo: What is your reaction to the fact that Catholics are among those calling on the Pope to retire?

A.R.: Catholic people… are influenced by opinions outside the Church. And I think it’s natural that they are reacting in the same way as other people.

But look at the message this old - even sick - man conveys. It’s a great message of hope for those who are ill, who are on the margins of society, or who are handicapped. It’s a message that you can be old and retain your dignity.

swissinfo: Why do you think the Pope is coming to Switzerland? It’s rather a surprise, isn’t it?

A.R.: It’s only his second trip to Switzerland in 20 years. There was a question about whether he would go to Austria instead. And yes, the fact that he chose Switzerland is a surprise.

I admire the Pope in the sense that if he had gone to Austria, there would have been a great Mass and an enthusiastic welcome. But coming to Switzerland shows he has courage, because he is coming to a land that is perhaps a little more critical and asks more questions. For me that’s a sign that he isn’t afraid.

swissinfo: It’s also been suggested that he’s not very happy with the Church in Switzerland. Do you think that he might have a particular message for the bishops here?

A.R.: No. When we were preparing this visit with our friends in Rome we saw that it was first and foremost a pastoral visit. The central meaning, I think, is that he is coming to give Swiss Catholics hope, faith, and he wants to strengthen our Catholicism.

swissinfo: You’ve talked about your hopes for the visit. Do you really think the Pope can give a message of encouragement to young people?

A.R.: Yes. Young people are really fascinated by his person. He speaks not only as the Pope but also as Karol Wojtyla with his history, and people are very curious about that.

Young people are not better or worse than 50 years ago, but face different difficulties. I suppose the first difficulty is a question of access to the message of the Pope and the message of faith. Perhaps the meeting we’re preparing will provide a bridge, giving access to such a message.

I think a lot of people will receive strength for their faith, because they will see they are not alone and that the Catholic Church in Switzerland is not dead but alive.

swissinfo-interview: Morven McLean

Key facts

Agnell Rickenmann biography:
1963 – born in St Gallen.
1989 – Ordained a priest after completing studies in Rome and Strasbourg.
1989-1999 – Serves as a parish priest in Bern and Risch, canton Zug, while completing his doctoral thesis.
1996 – 1999 – Teaches theology and Church history in Lucerne and Lugano.
1999 – Appointed secretary-general of the secretariat of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference.

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