A German diocese is to slash the number of its parishes from just under 900 to just 35 as a result of priest shortages and a massive dropoff in faithful.

Driving the news

The diocese of Trier, in the southwest of Germany, is preparing for the massive restructuring in its churches from January 1, 2020.

Until now, some 1.2 million Catholics in the diocese have been divided into 887 parishes, themselves already merged into 172 parish clusters.

That works out to about 1,300 believers per parish, with an average attendance rate at Sunday Mass of about 7-8%, as the Pray Tell blog worked it out.

But that ratio is about to change, from the beginning of next year.

The number of parishes in Trier is to be slashed by some 96% in the 35 new parishes, meaning local churches will be home to an average of just over 34,000 Catholics each.

The parish of Saarbrücken in Trier is set to become Germany’s largest from January 1 next year, with 99,000 faithful attached to it.

That’s a number Pray Tell said was more than the number of Catholics in the dioceses of Magdeburg and Görlitz combined.

Go deeper

Pray Tell was optimistic about the parish restructuring in Trier, which is one of the results of a diocesan synod from 2013 to 2016.

The blog said the 35 new mega-parishes will be governed by boards of up to five people: the parish priest as chairman, another priest or layperson in full-time pastoral care, a full-time financial manager and two unpaid parish representatives.

This sharing of responsibility among priests and laypeople in the new structures “might prove that is it possible to distribute power in the Catholic Church among more people with different skills and tasks than just one parish priest, to professionalize financial administration, and to set priests and laypersons in pastoral care free to focus more on spiritual aspects of their work”, Pray Tell said.

But many laypeople in Trier aren’t so sure about what the diocese is calling the new “parishes of the future”, and have expressed their concerns about the churches being too big, as well as remote from grassroots Catholics and difficult to commute to.

Why it matters

An August study found just 32% of faithful in the Trier diocese were positive about the planned parish restructuring.

Another survey of 500 Catholics in October suggested 63% of Catholics thought the changes”would destroy” the local Church.

Two out of every three believers said congregations should not be merged “against their will”, and six out of ten said the diocese should continue to be divided into the 172 parish clusters as an interim compromise solution.

42% of Trier Catholics said they thought their bishop, Stephan Ackermann, was not “living up to his pastoral office” with his management of the mergers.

Even a local mayor called the planned changes “absurd” and said they will destroy “the Church on the ground”.

What’s next

60,000 volunteers also said last month that they were reconsidering their work with the Church.

32% of Trier Catholics revealed they were even thinking of taking the drastic step of leaving the Church altogether over the mergers.

But the diocese rejected the results of the October survey, both for its “tendentious approach” and for its small sample size.

Vicar General Ulrich Graf von Plettenberg cited the diocese’s own survey that suggested that two-thirds of parish councils were on board with the changes, and insisted that the parish restructuring was necessary to ensure a more “missionary and diaconal Church”.

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