The Vatican has nixed the controversial plan of a German diocese to slash the number of its parishes by 96%.

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The Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, made public Friday a letter he had received from the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, making known Vatican objections to Ackermann’s parish restructuring plans.

Those plans would have seen the 887 parishes – or 172 parish clusters – in the Trier diocese reduced to just 35 “parishes of the future” from the beginning of 2020, with an average of 34,000 Catholics attached to each one.

But a group of priests and laypeople complained about the plans to the Vatican, which has now decided to suspend the restructuring.

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Canon lawyer Heribert Hallermann told that the Vatican’s intervention came out of its desire to safeguard the rights of the faithful and priests.

Although a bishop has a high degree of freedom in the organisation of the parishes of his diocese, he cannot just close and open churches at will, the Würzburg jurist said.

Hallermann added that, according to canon law, the guiding principle for parish mergers must always be the fostering of “pastoral care through common action”, rather than just economic concerns or a need to cover the shortage of priests.

“The salvation of souls is the highest goal of ecclesiastical law”, the canon lawyer explained, adding that “all organisational measures in a diocese are decisively concerned with the realisation of pastoral care”.

It was that fear that they would be “lost in the anonymity” of parishes with up to 100,000 members that motivated the priests’ and laypeople’s complaint to the Vatican, Hallermann said.

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The Würzburg canon lawyer said the demands of the faithful and the effect of “disavowing” Bishop Ackermann would both have weighed heavily on the minds of Vatican authorities when making the decision to paralyse the parish restructuring in Trier.

That’s why the Vatican has now invited Ackermann to explain himself in terms of his plan, which Hallermann recalled came out of a 2013-2016 diocesan synod.

“It is therefore necessary to examine whether this diocesan law for the implementation of the synod complies with universal Church law”, the canon lawyer explained.

Hallermann addeed that Ackermann will now have to explain how the concerns of the faithful will be taken into account in the proposed parish mergers.

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