Vatican cardinal invites German bishops to discuss parish instruction

CNA 5dbbbe3f4bff0 169286 Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, pictured Oct. 24, 2019. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

A Vatican cardinal has invited German bishops to Rome to discuss their criticisms of a new instruction on parishes. 

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, said July 29 that he would be happy to receive the bishops in order to "remove doubts and perplexity," the German Catholic news agency KNA reported.

Stella said that the meeting could take place "in due course" if the bishops wished to present their objections to the instruction, issued by his congregation July 20. He reportedly declined to respond to specific criticisms ahead of the potential meeting.

He made the comments after several German bishops sharply criticized the document, "The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church," which underlined that according to canon law only priests can direct the pastoral care of parishes.

CNA Deutsch, CNA's German language news partner, reported that some commentators saw the instruction as a response to plans to drastically reduce the number of parishes in German dioceses. 

The Vatican recently blocked a plan by the Diocese of Trier to turn 800 parishes into 35. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Freiburg has said that it will press ahead with plans to reduce its 1,000 parishes to 40.

In a July 28 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Stella said that "care must be taken not to reduce the parish to the rank of 'branch' of a 'company' -- in this case, the diocese -- with the consequence that it can be 'directed' by anyone, perhaps even by groups of 'officials' with different skills." He added that the instruction encouraged parishes to see themselves above all as a "missionary community."

The document provoked a mixed reaction in Germany. While Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt expressed their gratitude for the text, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, vice-president of the German bishops' conference, described the instruction as a "strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the services of lay people." 

Bode said he feared that the text indicated a "conversion to clericalization" because it emphasized the priest's role in directing parishes.

The theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper, meanwhile, defended the Vatican intervention, saying: "The German criticism completely misses the actual concern of the instruction: the pastoral conversion to a missionary footing. But precisely this basic concern of Pope Francis would be highly topical in view of the disturbing recently published numbers of departures from the Church."

He was referring to statistics issued last month which showed that a record number of Catholics left the Church in Germany in 2019.

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