Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Germany - History


The Reformation in the sixteenth century caused the loss of almost all of Northern Europe to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1582 the stray Catholics of Denmark, Finland, Northern Germany, Norway, and Sweden were placed under the jurisdiction of a papal nuncio in Cologne. The Congregation de propaganda fide, on its establishment in 1622, took charge of the vast missionary field, which at its third session it divided among the nuncio of Brussels (for the Catholics in Denmark and Norway), the nuncio at Cologne (much of Northern Germany) and the nuncio of Poland (Finland, Mecklenburg, and Sweden).

Following the organisational structure of the Church the apostolic vicariate included the diocesan areas of bishoprics, where Roman Catholic jurisdiction had effectively been abolished (see the list in section Dioceses comprised in the vicariate). This was partially due to (1) secular rulers or governments repressing Catholic faith and clergy in their territories, which comprised the diocesan areas, (2) due to the fact that incumbent bishops had converted to Lutheranism, or (3) because the cathedral capitular canons, responsible for electing new bishops, had adopted Lutheranism and thus chose fellow faithful candidates, who thus de facto ascended the sees (typical for prince-bishoprics in Northern Germany).

So while the area under the jurisdiction of the vicar apostolic followed originally the diocesan boundaries of the de facto defunct bishoprics, the boundaries of new jurisdictions followed mostly the political borders relevant at the time of their establishment (See the list in the section States and territories covered by the vicariate below).

The scattered Catholics in Northern Europe were placed under the pastoral care of the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans. Catholics in many places had at their disposal only the chapels established in the houses of the diplomatic representatives of the Holy Roman (becoming – as of 1806 – the Austrian) Emperor and of other Catholic Powers, France and Spain. Sometimes admission even to these chapels was rendered difficult, or entirely prohibited to native Catholics.

In some districts the conversion of the monarchs, e.g. Duke John Frederick of Brunswick and Lunenburg, Prince of Calenberg (1651) and Duke Christian I Louis of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1663), brought Catholics some measure of freedom. The number of Catholics having increased in 1667, chiefly through the above-mentioned Prince of Calenberg, a vicariate Apostolic was established for Northern Germany.

The first vicar was Valerio Maccioni, titular Bishop of Morocco, who resided at Hanover. He died in 1676, and was succeeded by the celebrated Danish convert Nicolaus Steno, who in 1680 was obliged to leave Hanover, was made Auxiliary Bishop of Münster, and in 1683 returned to the Nordic Missions. He died at Schwerin in 1686, and was followed in the vicariate successively by Friedrich von Hörde, Auxiliary Bishop of Hildesheim and titular Bishop of Joppe (1686–96), Jobst Edmund von Brabeck, Bishop of Hildesheim (1697–1702) and Otto von Bronckhorst, Auxiliary Bishop of Osnabrück.

The Northern Missions, viewed in a wider sense, included also the Apostolic Prefectures of Schleswig-Holstein, coinciding with the Prussian province of that name, of Denmark and of Norway, which were placed under separate prelates in 1868. The vicariate and prefectures were under the permanent jurisdiction of the Bishop of Osnabrück as administrator Apostolic.

In the vicariate Catholics numbered about 79,400 (with 1,925,000 members of other confessional denominations), under 47 secular priests having care of 17 parishes and 17 mission stations. The following religious congregations had houses in the vicariate: Sisters of Mercy of St. Charles Borromeo, 1; Sisters of St. Elizabeth (Grey Nuns), 5; Franciscan Sisters, 2; Ursulines, 2.

The Prefecture Apostolic of Schleswig-Holstein had in 1909: 11 parishes, 31 mission stations, 34 secular priests, 35,900 Catholics, and 550,000 of other beliefs; 4 communities of Sisters of St. Elizabeth and 3 of Franciscan nuns.

In summer the Catholic population in the vicariate of Northern Germany and prefecture of Schleswig-Holstein was increased by 17,000 to 20,000 labourers (chiefly Poles) from other parts of Germany, who returned to their homes at the beginning of the winter. The spiritual interests of the faithful were inadequately attended to owing to the extent of the parishes, the lack of priests, the poverty of the majority of the Catholics and in many places the hostility of the Protestant state or municipal governments. A more encouraging picture was presented by the numerous Catholic societies and by the maintenance of private Catholic schools, despite the fact that the Catholics were often obliged to contribute also to the support of the state and Protestant parish schools. A very fruitful activity has been developed in these missions by the Boniface Association.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic regime brought great relief to Catholics in many cities and states; but the equality granted them by law in some countries was often merely theoretical.

At the reorganisation of Catholic affairs in Germany after the Napoleonic era (see Rheinbund), the greater part of the Northern Missions was added to adjacent bishoprics. The only districts remaining mission territory were the Kingdom of Saxony, the Principality of Anhalt, constituted separate vicariates Apostolic in 1816 and 1825 respectively, and the North, which in 1826 was placed temporarily under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Paderborn.

In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI wished to entrust the vicariate to a bishop with his see at Hamburg. Johann Theodor Laurent was appointed vicar and consecrated bishop. Lutheran opposition prevented the realisation of the plan and Laurent was denied to enter Hamburg. The pope thereupon gave the administration of the vicariate to the Auxiliary Bishop of Osnabrück, Karl Anton Lüppe (d. 1855). The Bishop of Osnabrück was since then the regular Vicar Apostolic of the Northern Missions, and administrator of the Prefecture Apostolic of Schleswig-Holstein, since that was separated from the vicariate in 1868. In 1869 Denmark and Norway were erected into apostolic prefectures of their own, and in 1892 into apostolic vicariates.

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