Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has finalized plans to cut the number of churches in the Archdiocese of Berlin by over 70 percent in seven years.

The archdiocese's 105 churches will be reduced to 30 parishes by 2020, he told Katholische Nachrichten Agentur in a Jan. 16 interview.

This decision, originally unveiled in a pastoral letter on Dec. 2, will affect 400,000 Catholics in northeast Germany.

This means an average reduction of 11 churches a year in an area that includes Berlin, Brandenburg and Mecklenberg-Vorpommern. 

"This isn't just an administrative reform, it's also a spiritual one," said archdiocesan spokesman Stefan Forner.

In September, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn also decided to slash 510 churches in his Vienna archdiocese, reducing its number of parishes from 660 to 150.

The cuts in the Berlin archdiocese are not the first the Church has gone through. Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, the predecessor of Cardinal Woelki, halved the number of parishes six years ago because of the archdiocese's $140 million debt, following the reunification of East and West Germany. 

With the number of current churches, each one should be offering Sunday Mass to an average of 3,810 parishioners, if all the archdiocese's Catholics are practicing their faith.

But after the reduction to 30 parishes, each church will need to serve an average of 13,333 faithful.

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Cardinal Woelki said the aim is to give the archdiocese a "sustainable structure."

He wrote to local communities telling them the decision was taken based on the "future development process and population decline."  

According to the cardinal, church members will decrease by 30 percent in some regions over the next 17 years.

But Cardinal Woelki also said the decision was not made because of a money or personnel shortage, according to KNA.

The restructuring plan also includes the unusual provision that each new parish priest will be exempt from administrative tasks.

The archdiocese wants to have "larger pastoral areas" which will mean the remaining parishes will need to cooperate more closely in the coming years in Catholic education and carrying out charitable work.

Cardinal Woelki said in his pastoral letter that the archdiocese's finances had improved thanks to "courageous and responsible decisions" by Church institutions.

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But he added that Catholic schools, hospitals, elderly homes and nurseries would also be reduced to reflect a "diaspora experience."

Eighty percent of the area's Catholics live in Berlin, a city which received a $39 million aid package from other Catholic dioceses in 1999.