Pope Francis encourages us to continue on ‘Synodal Way,’ says German bishops’ leader after audience

Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 24, 2021 Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 24, 2021./ Vatican Media.

Pope Francis encouraged the German Catholic Church to continue on its controversial “Synodal Way,” Bishop Georg Bätzing said Thursday after a private audience at the Vatican.

Bätzing, the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said June 24 that he assured the pope that “rumors” that the German Church was seeking to diverge from the worldwide Church were untrue, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

“I informed the pope in detail about the status of the Synodal Way and made it clear that the rumors that the Church in Germany wants to go its own way are not true,” he said in a statement on the German bishops’ conference website.

“Pope Francis encouraged us to continue on the Synodal Way, to discuss the questions at hand openly and honestly, and to come up with recommendations for a change in the way the Church acts.”

“At the same time, he called for the Church in Germany to help shape the path of synodality he proclaimed toward the Synod of Bishops in 2023.”

According to the Holy See press office, Bätzing saw the pope after Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which recently intervened in Germany over a proposal for intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants.

The German bishops’ conference posted a photograph of Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg, walking up a flight of stairs to his audience with the pope.

A photograph of the audience showed Bätzing greeting the pope with his head bowed and his zucchetto, or skullcap, in his hand.

The meeting came at a time of considerable upheaval in the German Church, after the influential Cardinal Reinhard Marx tendered his resignation to the pope, saying that the Church had reached a “dead end.”

The pope declined the offer, but acknowledged that the abuse scandal had plunged the Church into crisis.

In his statement on Thursday, Bätzing recalled his first private audience with the pope after his election as chairman of the German bishops’ conference, which took place in June 2020.

He said: “After my inaugural visit to Pope Francis as president of the German bishops’ conference a year ago, I was able to meet the Holy Father again today -- after the long pandemic.”

“Our conversation focused first on the situation of the Church in Germany in view of the processing of the sexual abuse cases and the difficult situation in several dioceses. Pope Francis is well aware of the situation of the Church in Germany. He hopes that tensions can be overcome.”

/ Vatican Media.
/ Vatican Media.

German Church leaders and Vatican officials have clashed repeatedly over the Synodal Way, a process bringing together German bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The German bishops initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline.

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The Vatican sent a letter to the German bishops declaring that the plans were “not ecclesiologically valid.”

After a back and forth between the bishops’ conference and Vatican officials, the Synodal Way began on Dec. 1, 2019. It is expected to end in February 2022.

A number of senior Church figures outside Germany have voiced fears that the Synodal Way will lead to a breach between German Catholics in Rome.

Three Catholics from the German Diocese of Essen have submitted a “dubium” to the Vatican asking if the Church in Germany is in schism.

Bätzing has insisted that the country’s Catholics are not “schismatics.”

CNA Deutsch reported that the theologian Katharina Westerhorstmann, a Synodal Way participant, recently suggested that the process should be suspended in light of plans to involve the worldwide Church in preparations for the 2023 synod on synodality in Rome.

In his statement, Bätzing said that he had informed the pope about the recent Ecumenical Church Congress in Frankfurt.

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The Vatican had expressed concern in the run-up to the event that it would promote intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants despite significant theological obstacles.

The event culminated with the Catholic and Protestant leaders of the initiative publicly receiving communion in each others’ churches.

/ Vatican Media.
/ Vatican Media.

Concluding his statement, Bätzing said: “As I did a year ago, I feel strengthened by Pope Francis in my office as bishop of Limburg and in my task as chairman of the German bishops’ conference.”

“I am impressed by the balanced knowledge with which he perceives the situation of the Church in Germany and puts the problems into words. Pope Francis will accompany the Church in our country on the way out of the crisis.”