In ‘Atheist Capital’ Berlin, Catholicism Grows Wild
The lack of preexisting Catholic structures allow for apostolates that match the edginess and innovation of the eclectic city they’re trying to reach.
The challenge facing the Catholic Church in much of Germany, especially traditionally Catholic regions like Bavaria, is akin to revitalizing a tree with deep roots but dead branches, now struggling to stay alive.
That’s not the case in Berlin. Here, where Catholicism has never been a dominant force after the Reformation, and rising irreligiosity has earned the city a reputation as “the atheist capital of Europe,” there’s not much of a tree to save. Instead, evangelization looks more like planting seeds in untamed soil. And the resulting Catholic dynamic is often creative, edgy — and a little wild.
That’s probably why people like Jan Philipp Göetz thrive in Berlin’s Catholic sub-culture. A former director of international and government relations for the German airline Lufthansa, Göetz is a natural-born fighter. Except instead of duking it out in high stakes negotiations over air space or ash crises, he’s now a self-described “knight for Christ.”
His steed? An old brown BMV convertible, roof usually down (even in the winter), a vestige of the lucrative but ultimately unsatisfying career he left behind. His mission? Being nourished by the eclectic Catholic scene in Berlin and contributing his talents and energy to any number of new apostolates he helps lead, from a philosophy academy to a society that provides formation to Catholic entrepreneurs.
A native of the Catholic Rhineland, Goëtz says he could never do what he does in Berlin back home, where a thick array of paternalistic customs, structures, and relationships can inhibit new growth from sprouting up.
That’s not an issue in Berlin, a city that didn’t even allow Masses outside of foreign diplomatic quarters until 1720. St. Hedwig’s, the archdiocesan cathedral today and the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation, wasn’t opened until 1773, after Catholic citizens from recently conquered Silesia petitioned Frederick the Great for a church of their own in Berlin. Legend has it that he took a teacup, put it on a city map, and told his officials to build the church there, an explanation for St. Hedwig’s unique circular shape.
The trend continues today. While as many as 80% of the population is Catholic in a place like Passau, in Berlin, Catholics don’t even account for 1 out of every 10 among the urban area’s 3.6 million residents today.
But there’s also a sense in Berlin that things are somewhat up for grabs. Flattened at the end of World War II, then freed from the influence of Communism nearly 50 years later, Germany’s capital city has the feeling of a tabula rasa in the 21st century. It’s a scene that’s teeming with new energy and all sorts of potentiality. And while over 60% of Berliners have no registered religious affiliation, there’s also an eclectic offering of world religions and new age spiritualities burgeoning in the city’s streets.
Göetz says he loves the dynamic of “competition” in Berlin, where Catholics contend with Muslims and neo-pagans for the hearts and minds of religious seekers. Nothing is given, and nothing is taken for granted. Plus, he says, it’s more exciting than dealing with the apathy of nominal Catholics in cities like Cologne or Munich.
But it’s not just the city’s overall religious landscape that’s eclectic and diverse, but the Catholic population living here. Catholic residents from nearby countries, especially Croatia and bordering Poland, are a significant presence in Berlin churches, but so are Indians, Africans, Asians, and Latinos.
And you can find just about everyone represented at St. Clemens Church. Just 2 kilometers from the German Bundestag, the urban parish is widely acknowledged as the spiritual heart of Berlin’s Catholic sub-culture.
The church itself was actually acquired by a group of parishioners back in 2006, when the Archdiocese of Berlin sold it off amidst a financial crisis. Vincentian Fathers from India were called in to provide pastoral care, bringing with them a distinctive spirituality rooted in Divine Mercy, Eucharistic devotion, and a bit of Indian Catholic kitsch.
Since the Vincentian Fathers arrived, St. Clemens has hosted 24/7 Eucharistic adoration, likely the only church in Berlin to do so. Adorers can be found in the pews at all hours of the day, some staying for several hours after Mass, often accompanied by maraca-infused charismatic worship.
“It’s Asbury since 2006,” said Göetz, referencing the recent prayer revival that took place at a Christian college in Kentucky for several weeks.
The spiritual potency of St. Clemens was on display at a recent Lenten Friday. Following the 6 pm Mass, many worshipers stayed for a two-hour long, Divine Mercy-inspired litany of spiritual reparations before the Blessed Sacrament, alternating between songs of worship and praise, and praying for mercy on behalf of the whole world.
“For the ignorance and unbelief of the world, we are here to praise You,” prayed Father Joseph, the presiding priest.
St. Clemens isn’t the only hotspot of holiness in Berlin. Many will suggest that the other spiritual lung of the city’s Catholic sub-culture is St. Afra, a parish church run by the Institute of St. Phillip Neri, who offer the Traditional Latin Mass. And, of course, you can find solid but more typical Sunday liturgies at diocesan parish church’s like St. Matthias.
These spiritual oases in turn, give rise to dynamic apostolates whose edginess and innovation match the city with which they’re trying to engage. That certainly describes Ethos+Maria, a group that combines Marian piety with cutting-edge methods in digital art making, emphasizing connection with the real amidst contemporary technological revolutions.
The ethos of Ethos+Maria is perhaps best embodied in Michael Schiessel, a Yale educated psychologist-turned-CEO of an implicit market research firm, who helped start the apostolate in 2017 after he experienced a profound deepening in his prayer life. Schiessel is just as comfortable leading spontaneous prayer as he is giving a tour of the eclectic, avant-garde religious art that adorns his company’s workspace.
The space itself, a refurbished industrial site on the banks of the river that once divided East and West Berlin, hosted a workshop on “AI and Creation” for Ethos+Maria members and friends on a recent Saturday afternoon. Attendees were treated to a presentation on the direction artificial intelligence is taking by a “foresight industry” expert, and then created collages while a philologist lectured on the etymology of the Greek Biblical word “techne.”
Of course, no Ethos+Maria affair would be complete without significant time spent in prayer and devotion. Following the workshop, members went to a nearby church, where Schiessel led them in meditations before a priest arrived to celebrate Mass. After that, the group ventured out for something truly exceptional in the streets of Berlin: a rosary walk through Kreuzberg, regarded as one of the more hedonistic districts of the city.
It was the first time Ethos+Maria had done an urban rosary walk, and one member said the experience, which included derisive laughs from bystanders and the occasional “Allahu Akbar!”, was “too much.” But others, especially Göetz the fighter, found it exhilarating, and made plans to do it again the following month.
Adventurous, innovative, and almost entirely lay-led, the Ethos+Maria event was a compelling instance of the exciting possibilities that Catholic mission can take in Berlin, a city so post-Christian that the Gospel can once again be experienced as something new and radical.
Proponents of the German Church’s Synodal Way demand that impossible changes to the Catholic faith—such as ordaining women and giving lay people the ability to veto the governance and teachings of their bishop—are necessary to give the laity a just share in the Church’s power and mission. But perhaps they just need to feel the empowerment of going on an evening rosary walk through Kreuzberg, with the wild Catholics of Berlin.