German dioceses are pressing ahead with massive cuts to the number of their parishes despite Vatican objections.

– Archdiocese of Freiburg: 1,000 parishes to 40 by 2025

Stephan Burger, the Archbishop of the Freiburg diocese in Germany’s south-west, became the latest German Church leader to confirm plans to move ahead with parish restructurings when he announced July 14 he wants to move ahead with the project known as “Church Development 2030”.

At the heart of that project is the plan to turn Freiburg’s current 1,000 parishes into 40 super-sized parishes by 2025.

Though critics have objected that the new planned parishes are too big and thus endanger Church presence on the ground, Burger said Tuesday there is no way around the new model for Germany’s third-largest diocese, with its 1.8 million Catholics and almost 1,000 priests.

Archbishop Burger described the “Church Development 2030” project as a “adequate response to the challenges facing our archdiocese”, which he said included falls in the number of faithful, priests and in the amount of archdiocesan income but also the future shape of pastoral care, the practice of religious life and the transmission of the faith.

Accordingly – and as a response to the challenges of evangelisation and mission in the future – a key part of the Freiburg restructuring plan is a de-emphasis on parishes in themselves in favour of new centres of Catholic life more strongly oriented to target groups: for example, centres especially designed for families or senior citizens.

The “Church Development 2030” project is currently in a consultation phase, with feedback from congregations and other Church groups as well as priests and other local Catholic leaders due to be brought together in a pastoral conference in the diocese which was originally scheduled for 2021 but has been pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

– Trier diocese still rethinking parish mergers plan after Vatican intervention

Another German diocese which has been moving along a similar path to that of Freiburg has been that of Trier, Germany’s oldest, where bishop Stephan Ackermann, acting on the mandate of a 2013-2016 lay-clerical diocesan synod, attempted to reduce the number of parishes in the diocese from 887 smaller ones to 35 larger ones.

Ackermann’s original plan – which is now being rethought – was hit last month with a veto from the Vatican, which protested against “the role of the pastor in the leadership team of the parish, the service of other priests, the conception of the parish bodies, the size of the future parishes and the speed of implementation”, as the diocese admitted.

A key point of the criticism of the Trier restructuring plan that came from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy nor the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts was that the project there envisioned priests and laypeople on equal footing as parish leaders, something which Rome argued Church law did not provide for.

Archbishop Burger of Freiburg says his plan will avoid those Vatican objections to the Trier plan by leaving a pastor at the helm of the new parishes there.

However, the Freiburg archbishop is expressly encouraging new leadership concepts and the increased cooperation of lay volunteers, both elements that could result in greater freedom for the Church, he said.

– Other German dioceses going down the same path… will the Vatican step in?

Other German dioceses currently contemplating shake-ups to the number and organisation of their parishes include those of Würzburg – where 600 parishes are set to become around 40 larger “pastoral areas” – and of Mainz, where the existing 134 parishes are looking to soon turn into just 50.

Will the Vatican continue to object to this wave of planned parish mergers? At least the organisers of the “Church Development 2030” project in Freiburg are resisting that possibility, arguing from the Church’s canon law on their website that “it is ‘the diocesan bishop alone’ who can establish, abolish or change parishes; provided due process is adhered to”.

“Despite the present suspension of the implementation of the decisions of the Trier synodal assembly, we believe that neither the Congregation for the Clergy nor the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts will restrict this fundamental right of the bishop to exercise his pastoral ministry”, the organisers of the Freiburg restructuring claimed.

More stories on Novena from the German dioceses:

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

“A bit depressed”, German bishop rethinks parish mergers after “massive Roman intervention”

German diocese experiments with non-priest-centred parish models

Vatican accused of “cementing clericalism” with ‘no’ to German diocese’s parish merger plan

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