Switzerland's new nuncio, U.S. Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, 66, called himself the Swiss church's advocate in matters beyond the competence of local bishops in a long interview in the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger. One of the most influential Swiss dailies, Tages Anzeiger is based in Zürich and has a circulation of 457,000.
During the October Synod of Bishops, Gullickson linked to sites which were critical of Communion for divorced and remarried couples and greater openness to homosexuals on his blog.
"They were topics under discussion and the media made life difficult for the synod fathers," Gullickson said. "Especially the Italian press thought that it could sway the outcome in one or the other direction by means of press campaigns. Now everyone is waiting for the pope's post-synodal report. We are somewhat at a loss as we don't know what the Holy Father has in mind. There are, however, those who think they know."
When his interviewer wanted to know his stance on Communion, Gullickson replied by first posing a question.
"What does Communion mean?" he asked. "No one who is not a member of the Orthodox church would assume the right to ask for Communion in the Orthodox liturgy. I'm also thinking of the Lutheran lady who asked Pope Francis when he visited the Lutheran church in Rome whether she could receive the Eucharist with her Catholic husband. If she is so eager to do so, why hasn't she become a Catholic? My father became a Catholic before he married my mother. He treasured her so greatly that he wanted to share her faith. We do a great deal out of love."
New to NCR: In his Pencil Preaching column, cartoonist Pat Marrin offers a sketch and reflection for the day's scripture readings. Learn more>
Asked whether these illustrations were also the reason why divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive the Eucharist, Gullickson replied with a simple, "Yes, precisely."
And how about same-sex marriage, his interviewer asked, adding that the bishops were "only making themselves unpopular," by saying no to the topic.
The church would never be able to agree to same-sex marriage, Gullickson said, but added, "That doesn't mean that one hates those who are of a different opinion."
It is imperative for the church to "polish up" the image of marriage as people nowadays are not open to children and a family, Gullickson said.
"Up to the age of 40, many just want to go on holiday with their cars and their dogs but then they want two beautiful and intelligent children. Suddenly, however, tragedy sets in in the form of sickness and loneliness. When my brother became a paraplegic, his wife left him. My mother, however, said, 'I always wanted to do voluntary work. Now I've been given a voluntary job at home.'"
The interviewer also asked why Gullickson posted articles on Twitter sharply criticizing the German bishops' conference for its liberal views.
During the eight years he spent in Germany, Gullickson said he witnessed the controversies within the German bishops' conference over counseling pregnant women who sought an abortion in the late 1990s. The real underlying problem in both Germany and Switzerland was that so few people went to church.
"Pope Francis was very generous when he said church attendance in Germany was only 10 percent," he said. "It is actually less than 8 percent. The question must be asked why this is so. Obviously people no longer have a living faith."
Questioned on the suggestions he made in his tweets to close parishes when a priest was no longer available, Gullickson said there was no point in keeping churches open once the Eucharist could no longer be celebrated there.
"Pardon my reminding you, but the Catholic church defines itself through the Sacraments. In my home diocese of Sioux Falls, the parishes have been reduced from 150 to 80. Some people weep and beg you to leave their church open, but we just haven't got the money," he said. "In Switzerland, of course, there is always church tax money. But why wait if there's no hope of ever getting a priest?"
Does he want to go back to the "Pope Benedict's small, vibrant church" as he said on Twitter?
"It was Cardinal Ratzinger who first spoke of a small church years ago now. At the time, the image of a small church was a frightening thought for me but now I understand," he said. "We are less than 8 percent (in Switzerland). The Protestant church has long since closed many churches. You cannot form a genuine community with only four or six people. That's why I am wont to say that out in the country it's better to invest in a station wagon and take the four grandmothers from a village to the nearest larger parish instead of leaving them alone in a pew to weep because there is no one else left. I am a practical American."
In Switzerland, lay Catholics often took over a parish if no priest was available but the Swiss bishops have recently "unfortunately" forbade lay Catholics to preach, his interviewer said.
"Yes, the bishops' conference published a letter in November prohibiting lay sermons, but two bishops immediately distanced themselves from the letter," Gullickson said. "That just isn't on. The faithful cannot accept this sort of thing. The bishops should work on a text together collegially and adopt it but then each bishop should publish it separately and not the bishops' conference."
Has he been sent to keep the Swiss church under surveillance for the Holy See?
"I am the Swiss church's advocate as there are matters that are beyond the competence of local bishops, such as the desire to sell an empty monastery," Gullickson said. "In such cases, I support the local bishops. But I am also Rome's advocate as far as the local church is concerned. And I am the pope's contact person for local people here in Switzerland."
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]