A German bishop has said the need for Catholic renewal is not about saving the Church but instead about rediscovering the gospel.

– A plea for the Church to think outside the box

“People are leaving the Church, we are losing social influence, many things are changing and are even in the process of being broken up”, Bishop of Mainz Peter Kohlgraf alerted in an August 12 reflection on crises in the Church and inspired by Jesus’ words in Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In the Church today, people are unsettled and even bishops can’t see clearly the new thing that God is working in his people, Kohlgraf admitted.

But still, the bishop took heart in the fact that Jesus’ question about whether he would find faith on his return “is now 2000 years old and people still believe in the Good News”.

The fact that people still believe even though they might feel insecure in the Church must remind Church leaders that “for us today, the first concern must not be the salvation of the Church and its often familiar forms, but the discovery of the beauty of the gospel”, Kohlgraf went on.

For that – to rediscover the gospel – “we must find forms that preserve the origin but translate it into the present”, the bishop wrote.

– “The kingdom of God is also outside the Church, just as there is unbelief and mindless routine within the Church”

In his reflection on crises in the Church, Bishop Kohlgraf said that in the light of the existence still of a remnant of believers “we should not answer Jesus’ question about faith with resignation and mourning the past, but instead courageously set out on the search for traces of the Kingdom of God in believing, searching and questioning people today”.

“We do not have the answers to many questions, but we may offer Christ as food and source of life”, the prelate stressed.

But where is the Kingdom of God to be found today? To answer that question, Kohlgraf found inspiration first in the Gospels, in which while “Jesus’ immediate circle struggles with his claims, he meets deeply believing people in seemingly pagan territory”.

Jesus’ relatives “think he is ‘out of his mind’ (Mk 3:21)” and “his friends from his homeland ‘take offence at him’ (Mk 6:3), so that he can do only a few works there”, while on the other hand “in a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30) he meets a person who gives her whole existence into his hands” and “there the reign of God can become a reality”, Kohlgraf explained.

For the bishop those experiences of Christ’s in the Gospels are evidence that “the kingdom of God is also outside the Church, just as there is unbelief and mindless routine within the Church”.

Kohlgraf also observed that we in the Church “do not ‘own’ faith. There is much faith in people whom we do not even have in mind”.

“This encourages new ways of preaching”, the bishop insisted.

Kohlgraf’s plea for new skins for the wine of the gospel today took on even greater resonance in the context of his discovery in a biography he recently read on Pope Pius IX (who reigned from 1846-78) of almost 200-year-old “texts, accusations [and] fears… which fit exactly into the present”.

“The fear of a modern, apparently anti-believing world can be paralysing”, the bishop observed with regard to the pontificate of the pope responsible for the anti-modernist Syllabus of Errors (1864).

– Diocesan parish restructuring “not in question” after Vatican instruction: “We will find ways of sharing responsibility” between priests and laypeople

Bishop Kohlgraf was recently in the headlines for coming out strongly against the July 20 instruction of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy on parish life that reinforced the authority of the priest in the local church at the expense of the co-responsibility of laypeople.

The Mainz bishop returned to those criticisms also on August 12 in a letter to the people of the diocese, in which missive he acknowledged local laypeople’s “incomprehension and also annoyance” with the Vatican document and also the “great uncertainty” that has now emerged with respect to the diocese’s plans to reorganise its present 134 parishes into 50 by 2030.

That process of parish restructuring – the so-called Mainz ‘pastoral path’ – “is not in question”, Kohlgraf assured believers.

“Without prejudice to this legal status of the pastor” as the head of the local Catholic community, “which is not in question, we will find suitable ways of sharing responsibility” in parishes, the bishop promised.

More on Novena from the German Church:

Bishop Kohlgraf alerts: “We can no longer build our Church life on traditions alone”

German bishops protest en masse over “absurd”, “theologically deficient” Vatican instruction on parish reform

Mainz, other German dioceses press ahead with massive cuts to number of parishes despite Vatican objections

Bishop Kohlgraf “shakes head” at “terrifyingly excessive” criticism of German Church ‘synodal path’


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.