Admitting to feeling “a bit depressed”, a German bishop is rethinking parish mergers in his diocese after what he called a “massive Roman intervention”.
– “Are we disillusioned? Yes. Have we failed? No”
Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier admitted last week in a confidential video to diocesan employees to feeling sobered and “disillusioned” after the Vatican suspended the prelate’s plans for local Church reform.
Those reform plans would have seen 887 smaller parishes in the diocese merged into 35 super-sized ones under leadership teams of two laypeople and a pastor, all on an equal footing. Under the plans, priests who are not pastors of parishes were also to have seen their authority cut back.
Ackermann acknowledged to diocesan workers that Rome’s stop to the plan showed that authorities’ problems with the mergers were not “about two or three little things, but about more”.
But still Ackermann was remaining positive, telling employees: “Are we disillusioned? Yes. Have we failed? No”.
The bishop re-committed to delivering the parish mergers plan – recommended by a 2013-2016 diocesan synod with the input of priests and faithful – albeit now “under changed conditions”.
– Rome “reminded” me that church councils do not have decision-making character of secular parliaments
After protests from priests and laypeople last year that led to the postponement of the parish mergers, Ackermann and other Trier diocesan leaders were summoned to Rome for talks June 5, where curial officials outlined a series of Vatican objections to the diocesan restructuring.
Those complaints included concerns that the new merged parishes were too big, that the reform was proceeding too quickly, that the authority of priests was being undermined in the proposed new parish leadership teams and that those lay-driven teams were taking on too much power.
Though in his video message to diocesan employees Ackermann stressed that the talks in the Vatican had taken place in a “good and cooperative atmosphere” – and that he did not have the impression “that Rome is sitting in judgment on the diocese of Trier and the bishop” – he nonetheless highlighted that curial officials had “reminded” him that church councils do not have the decision-making character of secular parliaments.
– Parishes now to be reduced to a maximum of 172
In his video to diocesan workers, Ackermann promised to rethink the parish mergers plan after consulting with some 200 people from the local Church.
The bishop carried through on that promise and delivered a new preliminary plan June 20, changing the number of new merged parishes from 35 to a maximum of 172.
Though Ackermann admitted that the exact number and precise details of the working of the new parishes was still to be clarified in concert with Vatican authorities, he said he was still determined to make the local Church more agile and lay-led in response to the demands of synod delegates, who were worried about the plunges in Mass attendance, Catholic commitment, financial resources and priestly vocations.
The Trier bishop expressed his hope that the revised restructuring could begin next year or in 2022 at the latest.
For his part, Trier vicar general Ulrich Graf von Plettenberg explained that the goal is still to create the lay-driven parish leadership teams, but for now he said the commitment from the bishopric is to “refrain from making any heavy cuts” to the number of parishes to instead focus “on a cautious development” of the mandate for reform.
Further planned changes are moving in the tension between “what Rome has set as the red line” and what the diocese had planned following the diocesan synod. Graf von Plettenberg added.