In his message to Germany’s bishops on Friday, Pope Francis noted a grave lack of participation in the sacraments among Catholics there, and encouraged the bishops to overcome resignation, and to focus on Confession during the Jubilee of Mercy.
After thanking the bishops, who are in Rome for their five-yearly ad limina visit, for the Church in Germany’s commitment to social and charitable works, the Pope noted that there is “a sharp drop in participation at Sunday Mass, as well as in the sacramental life.”
“Whereas in the 1960s the faithful almost everywhere attended Mass every Sunday, today it is often less than 10 percent,” he observed Nov. 20 at the Vatican. “The Sacraments are always approached less often. The Sacrament of Penance is often missing. Fewer and fewer Catholics receive the Sacrament of Confirmation or contract a Catholic marriage. The number of vocations to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life has significantly diminished.”
“Given these facts, one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.”
Faced with this situation, Pope Francis advised that “first you must overcome paralysing resignation. Certainly it is not possible to rebuild from the relics of the ‘good old days’ in the past. We can, however, be inspired the by life of the first Christians.”
He pointed to Priscilla and Aquila, companions of St. Paul, whom he said “witnessed with convincing words, but above all with their life, that the truth based on Christ’s love for His Church, is truly worthy of faith.” Their example “can make us reflect, considering the tendency towards a growing institutionalisation. New structures are always being inaugurated, for which in the end there is a lack of faithful. It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which leads us to place our trust in administrative structures, in perfect organisations.”
“Excessive centralisation, instead of helping, can complicate the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic,” he observed. “The Church is not a closed system that always revolves around the same questions and inquiries. The Church is living, and she presents herself to men in their own situations; she is able to unsettle, is able to enliven. She has a face that is supple, a body that moves, grows, and experiences feeling: she is the body of Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis said that the imperative now is “pastoral conversion”, or making sure that Church structures are missionary. He noted that as we try to do this, “conditions in society are not entirely favorable. There prevails a certain worldliness. This worldliness deforms the soul, suffocates the consciousness of reality: a worldly person lives in an artificial world, which he himself made.”
Such people are “difficult to reach,” he observed.
Thus the first response must be prayer, the Pope said, and then “we must remain among the people with the ardour of those who were the first to welcome the Gospel.
“In this context of the new evangelisation, it is indispensable for the bishop to diligently perform his function as a teacher of the faith – of the faith transmitted and experienced in the living communion of the universal Church – in the many fields of his pastoral ministry,” Pope Francis reminded the bishops.
He said that as “loving fathers”, bishops are to accompany theology faculties to help professors “rediscover the great ecclesial importance of their mission.”
“Fidelity to the Church and to the Magisterium does not contradict academic freedom, but requires a humble attitude of service to the gifts of God,” he reminded them. “The sentire cum Ecclesia must characterise in particular those who educate and form the new generations.”
He added that the presence of theological faculties at state universities can promote dialogue with society, noting in particular the Catholic University of Eichstätt, which is run by an ecclesial trust but is largely state-funded.
Pope Francis then turned to the parish community, “in which we experience and largely live the faith,” saying “the sacramental life must be one of the bishop’s fundamental concerns.”
“I would like to emphasize only two points: Confession and the Eucharist. The imminent Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy offers the opportunity to rediscover the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Confession is the place where the gift of God’s forgiveness and mercy is given. In Confession, there begins the transformation of each Christian and the reform of the Church,” he stated.
“I trust that you will give greater attention to this sacrament, which is so important for spiritual renewal, in diocesan and parochial pastoral planning during the Holy Year, as well as afterwards.”
The Pope added, “it is also necessary always to emphasise the close relationship between the Eucharist and the priesthood. Pastoral plans that do not attribute adequate importance to priests in their ministry of governing, teaching and sanctifying with regard to the structure and the sacramental life of the Church, experience teaches us, are destined to fail.”
“The precious collaboration of the lay faithful, especially in those places where vocations are missing, cannot become a surrogate for the ministerial priesthood, or give it the semblance of being simply ‘optional’. If there is no priest, there is no Eucharist. And the pastoral vocation begins with the ardent desire in the hearts of the faithful to have priests.”
Francis then said that “a task of the bishops that is never sufficiently appreciated is commitment to life. The Church must never tire of being an advocate for life and must not take steps back in her announcement that human life is to be protected unconditionally from the moment of conception until natural death.”
“Here we must never make compromises, as otherwise we too become accomplices to the unfortunately widespread throwaway culture. How great are the wounds which our society suffers through the rejection and the ‘throwing away’ of the weakest and most defenceless – unborn life, as well as the elderly and the infirm! All of us in the end will suffer the painful consequences.”
Pope Francis also referred to Europe’s refugee crisis, saying that “In the spirit of Christ, we must continue to meet the challenge of the great number of people in need,” but “at the same time, we support all humanitarian initiatives to ensure that the living conditions in the countries of origin become more bearable.”
He concluded by telling Germany’s bishops that “I hope your meetings with the Roman Curia in these days can illuminate the path of your particular Churches in the coming years, helping you to rediscover ever more our great spiritual and pastoral patrimony.”
“Please continue to pray for me, that with the help of God I can carry out my Petrine ministry. Equally, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as all the Blessed and Saints of your nation.”