The Catholic Church in Germany has strong institutions that contribute much to society and are extremely generous internationally, but Christianity must be more about proclaiming faith and less about maintaining impressive institutions, Pope Francis told the country’s bishops.
“One can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany,” the pope said in a written speech handed to the bishops on 20 November. The bishops were ending their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican to report on what is happening in their dioceses.
“Where in the ‘60s almost every faithful everywhere attended Mass every Sunday, today it frequently is less than 10 percent,” the pope said. “People approach the sacraments less often. The sacrament of penance has almost disappeared. Fewer and fewer Catholics are confirmed or contract a Catholic marriage. The number of vocations to the ministerial priesthood and consecrated life has diminished significantly.”
To respond to the situation, the pope said, the bishops and other Catholics must “overcome the resignation that paralyses” and must undertake a “pastoral conversion”.
A vibrant Catholic community cannot be built on “the relics of the bygone ‘good old days’,” but must be modelled on Gospel-based evangelisation. Using the example of Priscilla and Aquila, whose missionary work is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Pope Francis said the church needs people of faith who witness to the truth of Christ’s love with their lives as well as their words.
It would be a mistake, the pope said, to continue to inaugurate new structures when there are no Catholics to fill them and support them.
“It is a kind of neo-Pelagianism that leads us to put faith in administrative structures, in perfect organisation,” rather than in the power of Jesus’ word lived and shared, he said. “An excessive centralisation complicates the life of the church and its missionary dynamism rather than helping it.”
“The church is alive,” the pope said. “It presents itself to men and women in their realities,” raising questions and pushing them to act. The church “has a face that is not rigid, a body that moves, grows and feels: It is the body of Jesus Christ”.
Pope Francis praised the German churches and individual German citizens who are doing so much to help the hundreds of thousands of people “seeking refuge from war and from persecution”, particularly in Syria and Iraq.
“In the spirit of Christ, we want to continue to face the challenge of such a large number of people in need,” the pope said. “At the same time, we support all humanitarian initiatives that aim at ensuring conditions in their countries of origin are more tolerable.”
Modern secularism obviously challenges the church in its mission and often makes it difficult for people to realise just how superficial their lives are, the pope said. “They surrounded themselves with tinted glass to avoid seeing out. They are difficult to reach.”
But Christians are confident that God is at work and is reaching out to those people as well, the pope said. “This confidence leads us first to prayer. We pray for the men and women in our cities, in our dioceses, and we pray also for ourselves that God would send a ray of divine love through our tinted windows, touching our hearts so that we understand his message.”
Pope Francis asked the German bishops to be strong teachers of faith and, particularly during the Year of Mercy, to emphasise the importance of the sacraments of Communion and reconciliation.
“Confession is the place where one receives God’s forgiveness and mercy as a gift,” he said. It is the place where “the transformation of every single faithful and the reform of the church itself begin”.
While encouraging the involvement of laypeople in the life of the church, Pope Francis also insisted the bishops make clear the importance of priests in the structure and sacramental life of the church. “Without a priest, there is no Eucharist,” he said.
The pope also insisted the Catholic Church in Germany “must not step back” in proclaiming the sacredness of human life and working to protect it from conception to natural death.
“Here we cannot compromise without becoming part of the throwaway culture, which unfortunately is so widespread,” the pope said.