The Cologne archdiocese in Germany is planning to slash the number of its parishes from 500 currently to 50 or 60 in ten years.
– “Ecclesial communities” the way in a future of fewer faithful and priests and dwindling funds
After a meeting with the 70-odd representatives of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the local Church headed by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki announced its parish amalgamation plans at the end of August, which it said have been made necessary by falling numbers of faithful and priests and by dwindling funds.
The archdiocesan restructuring has been in train since 2015, said Cologne vicar general Markus Hofmann, as the fruit of a “pastoral path to the future” (Zukunftsweg) with the feedback of some 20,000 laypeople and designed to ensure the local Church’s continuing viability.
As a result of the “pastoral path to the future”, Cologne’s five-hundred-odd parishes have already been merged into around 180 larger church clusters.
The next stage of the reform is now to consolidate those clusters into 50 or 60 large parishes with attached “ecclesial communities”.
Each of those projected new “ecclesial communities” to be grouped together in parishes is defined in archdiocesan plans as a group of “people who come together as a community in the spirit of Jesus Christ”.
According to vicar general Hofmann, that means that just as a town with its own church could be an “ecclesial community”, so too could a group of Catholics in a school or at a hospital.
– Tension with the Vatican over enhanced role for laypeople?
Though the parishes of the future in the Archdiocese of Cologne will still be led by priests, they will be supported by a “multidisciplinary pastoral team” and the ecclesial communities that parishes will consist of will be managed by lay volunteers.
That projected lay involvement in the local Church would seem to place the Cologne archdiocesan plans in certain tension with the Vatican, which in July issued a controversial instruction on parishes from the Congregation for the Clergy which affirmed, among other things, that only an ordained man can lead the local Catholic community.
But both Hofmann and Cardinal Woelki – one of the very few German bishops to approve of the Vatican parish instruction – played down the possibility of conflict with Rome.
“Our deliberations had already gone in exactly this direction before” the Vatican instruction, Hofmann explained.
The Cologne vicar general emphasised that the archdiocese does not expect to fall foul of Rome with its parish mergers because the Church there wants to continue to take into account local needs before drawing new parish boundaries and, additionally, because representatives have already spoken of the parish mergers with the competent Roman authorities.
So far the Cologne plan “fits” with Vatican requirements, Hofmann stressed, adding that “it is important that the bishop be responsible for [Church] life in his diocese”.
For his part, Cologne archbishop Cardinal Woelki expressed his gratitude for the spiritual focus of the archdiocesan pastoral council members who are supporting the parish amalgamation plans.
“As a Church in Cologne we have to find an honest answer to the questions and changes that are pending. This also includes saying goodbye to some things. That takes courage. After this meeting, I am sure we will be able to do this together”, Woelki said after the latest “pastoral path into the future” archdiocesan gathering.