Pope Francis has encouraged the German Church to make “good progress” in its ‘synodal path’ reform process.
– Pontiff “with us in Germany with his heart”: Bishops’ President
Georg Bätzing, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, reported on the Pope’s endorsement of the synodal path after meeting with the pontiff in an audience June 27 along with German Bishops’ Secretary, Fr. Hans Langendörfer, SJ.
Bätzing, the 59-year-old Bishop of Limburg who has been Bishops’ chair since March, said he mantained an “intensive, collegial discussion” with the Pope, and added that the pontiff told him that he was “with us in Germany with his heart” and following the synodal path reform discussions closely.
In a statement released after the audience today, the German Bishops’ chair explained with regard to the synodal path: “I feel strengthened by the intensive exchange with the Holy Father to continue on the path we have taken. The pope appreciates this project, which he associates closely with the concept of ‘synodality’ which he coined”.
“It was a matter of concern to me to make it clear that the Church in Germany is following this path and always knows that she is bound to the universal Church”, Bätzing further explained.
The Limburg bishop revealed that he also spoken with the pontiff on the subject of resurgent nationalisms in Europe, and of the rise in Germany specifically of the far-right, xenophobic, neo-Nazi AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) political party.
Over nationalisms Pope Francis “fears a split in society”, Bätzing said, adding that “as a pro-European” the pontiff was looking for strong signals against nationalism and for EU solidarity from the new German EU Council Presidency, which begins July 1.
In other matters, Bätzing said, Pope Francis praised Germany as a “country of great solidarity”, a quality most recently on display during the height of the COVID-19 breakout.
– “The Pope will continue to accompany us attentively”
In March 2019, the German Bishops announced a synodal path reform process to discuss possible changes to Church discipline and dogma in response to an independent 2014-2018 study by university researchers that found that 3,677 children and juveniles were abused by 1,670 clerics between 1946 and 2014.
The chair of the German Bishops at the time, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, identified on that occasion a series of possible contributing factors to the sex abuse – the abuse of power in the Church, compulsory priestly celibacy and traditional Catholic sexual morality – which in time became, with the addition of the role of women in the Church, the four thematic areas of the synodal path discussions that have been going over ever since with the laypeople of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).
Pope Francis’ opinion on the synodal path has been something of a mystery, however.
Though the pontiff wrote a 19-page letter to the German Church on the process in June 2019, that letter has been received differently by laypeople, priests, and bishops, with some claiming the missive advises against reforms, and some arguing it provides support for them.
Vatican authorities also threatened the synodal path last September when they warned that plans for the process were not “ecclesiologically valid”.
“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome”, was one of the Pope’s reflections to German Catholics in his June 2019 letter that many read as a warning against pushing too hard in the synodal path.
On the other hand, the Pope also wrote that “we are all aware that we are living not only in an epoch of change but also of epochal change that raises new and old questions which call for a justified and necessary debate”, among other issues on “the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all it entails not only on the spiritual level but also on the social and cultural level”.
Papal sentiments like that acknowledgment of the urgency of a “justified and necessary debate” on the future of the Church put wind in the sails of the synodal path defenders.
And indeed, Bätzing referred to that letter of the Pope’s in his comments after today’s audience, and said that “with his letter to the pilgrim people of God of the Church in Germany in June 2019, [the Pope] encouraged and gave indications. He will continue to accompany us attentively”.
– Bishops double-down on reform process in response to news of mass Church exodus
The majority of the German Bishops are doubling-down on the synodal path as the answer to the “erosion” of the faith in Germany, which was evidenced again this June 26 when the Bishops’ Conference published statistics that showed that a record 272,771 people left the Catholic Church in 2019.
Bishops’ President Bätzing, for example, urged the Church to continue to commit to “courageous changes” such as those augured by the synodal path, while Archbishop of Hamburg Stefan Hesse, for his part, reaffirmed his “high hopes” in the ability of the synodal path process to stem the tide of Church departures.
Other bishops continued to blame for the wave of Church exits factors such as the crises of sex abuse and abuse of power, the irrelevance of the Church to modern life, and the inability of the Church to connect with people where and as they are: all problems the synodal path discussions are designed to solve.