A German bishop has blamed the mass Church desertions in his country on what he described as the tired parish-centred pastoral model.

– Exodus “worries me a lot”, but there is more behind it than the abuse, the hierarchy and the Church tax

Bishop Heiner Wilmer of the Hildesheim diocese commented Sunday on the official figures the German Bishops’ Conference released last week that revealed an across-the-board plunge last year in the number of people identifying as Catholics in Germany.

In the Hildesheim diocese alone, 8,048 people left the Church in 2019, an increase of 1,030 on the year before. Those numbers leave the diocese with a total number of Catholics of 581,460, down from 593,360 in 2018.

While Wilmer said the mass exodus of Catholics didn’t make him totally depressed, he did admit “it worries me a lot”, and acknowledged the numbers could get even worse as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

But as a sign of that worry for the future, Wilmer is already reflecting on possible causes for the slump in Catholic membership, beyond what he characterised as the anecdotal reasons of clerical sex abuse cases, the structure of the Church, or the German Church tax, by which Catholics must pay between 8-9% of their income tax to support the Church and hence obtain the right to receive the sacraments or a Catholic funeral.

– “I do not want to demean the classical parish. But we need alternatives”

Putting his finger on what he says is the main reason for the exodus of the faithful, Wilmer acknowledged that “we, as the Catholic Church, are losing relevance in interpreting people’s lives”, especially in a socio-cultural context in which the Church is only one provider among many of meaningful life experiences.

According to Wilmer, at least part of the problem in terms of the Church’s increasing irrelevance is its inflexible and outdated model by which local churches have a monopoly on the organisation of Catholic life and the dispensing of the sacraments.

“I do not want to demean the classical parish. But we need alternatives in preaching”, Wilmer stressed, issuing a challenge to the vision of the parish as the be-all and end-all of Catholic life.

Instead of traditional parishes, the Hildesheim bishop suggested the Church needs more “centres of strength” in universities, social groups, house communities and the like that have their own pull and could even be led by committed laypeople instead of priests.

The reason: that Christians need to proclaim the gospel out in the real world, and also must cultivate a sense of real community and togetherness that doesn’t always materialise in a parish setting.

Living and testifying to the Good News “is about being together, walking shoulder to shoulder through life, sitting opposite one another at the kitchen table, at the workplace where people are getting older, where they are sick and fragile, eye to eye, laughing and crying with one another and being truly physically present”, Wilmer insisted.

– “Our faith apparently no longer reaches many people”: German Bishops turn to soul-searching

According to the numbers released Friday by the German Bishops’ Conference, the all-time record number of 272,771 people left the Church last year, sending the overall Catholic population plunging to 22,600,371 people (27.2% of the population as a whole), down from 23,002,128 in 2018 (27.7% of the population).

Different bishops are offering differing explanations for the exodus of Christians which has also affected the German Protestant Church as well, with that institution losing 440,000 faithful last year.

Bishop Wilmer himself, in an immediate reaction to the publication of the numbers, had earlier admitted the figures showed “how much baptised people have become alienated from our Church”, and acknowledged that “our Church has deeply disappointed the trust of many people through the numerous cases of sexualised violence and abuse of power”.

Other sentiments bishops and Church officials are repeating in the face of the slump in Church membership include talk of a crisis of confidence, pain “that our faith apparently no longer reaches many people”, discomfort at the ongoing process of secularisation and calls for “creative ways to bring faith closer to people in a contemporary way”.

The examination of conscience and soul-searching now underway in the German Church was perhaps best summed by Bishop of Augsburg Bertram Meier, who called for a thoroughgoing process of self-criticism on the part of the institution.

“We must ask ourselves: What do we offer people? What do we feed them? What about our credibility? Are we relevant to life?”, Meier urged.

Novena’s full coverage of the German Church:

Pope encourages German Church to make “good progress” in synodal path reform process

Theologians blast “naive and clueless” German bishops over proposed changes to seminarians’ training

German Bishops pledge “courageous changes” to stem hemorrhage of faithful

Role of bishops at stake in Vatican intervention in German parish mergers, canon lawyer warns

Former Benedictine Abbot Primate questions Church hierarchies: “I find none of it in the Gospels”

German diocese experiments with non-priest-centred parish models

German bishop urges “spiritual revolution”: “We have to break out of the prison of a perfect Church


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.