The Vatican has been accused of a “petty and embarrassing” intervention in parish mergers in a German diocese.
– Complaints over the merging of the 887 parishes in the diocese of Trier into 35 “parishes of the future”
At the end of last year, Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann announced that he would be moving forward in 2020 with a project to create “parishes of the future”.
As part of that plan, Trier’s 887 parishes were to be merged into just 35, a reduction in their number of 96%.
15 of the new super-parishes were to be founded this year with another 20 to follow in 2021, and each were to be led by majority lay-led teams, with priests relegated to a secondary role.
But despite the fact that the Trier diocese had agreed on the restructuring of the local Church in a 2013-16 synod on new structures and priorities in Catholic life – in which laypeople also participated – Ackermann’s plan to merge parishes was quickly met with opposition.
An October 2019 survey revealed that two out of every three Catholics in Trier thought that parishes should not be merged “against their will”, with four out of ten accusing Ackermann of not “living up to his pastoral office” with the plan.
As a result of the the bishop’s proposals, groups of priests and faithful sent two separate complaints to the Vatican, which stopped the reforms dead in their tracks in November 2019.
– Vatican officials “stabbing Pope Francis in the back”
After six months of examining the complaints against the Trier parish restructuring, the diocese confirmed May 8 that Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, would summon Ackermann to Rome for talks as soon as the coronavirus situation permits it.
A week later, Stella also announced that the Vatican had rejected the priests’ complaint against the mergers on formal grounds, given that it was addressed to Stella’s clergy congregation and not the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the competent Vatican body for judging Ackermann’s parish mergers decree.
But the news from the Vatican on its reading of the situation in Trier has reopened debate about the “parishes of the future” plan, with German Bishops’ news website katholisch.de running an editorial last week accusing Rome of “petty and embarrassing” heavy-handedness in its handling of the parish mergers.
Blasting Rome for its “disproportionate” response to Ackermann’s plans, katholisch.de recalled that the bishop “does not doubt central aspects of Church doctrine” and is not acting with “arbitrariness”, but instead is only seeking to undertake reform made “necessary” due to declining numbers of both priests and faithful.
“Even more incomprehensible is the way Rome intervened”, katholisch.de complained, recalling that instead of intervening during the diocesan synod in which the mergers were discussed, the Vatican only decided to act after Ackermann had put the first steps of the reform into effect.
Whether that lag in acting was due to “bureaucratic failure” or “deliberate” procrastination, “either way, the Vatican is embarrassing itself”, the German Bishops’ website said, observing that such a dramatic intervention as stopping the mergers cold hardly revealed an appreciative and cordial synodal relationship.
“With their intervention in Trier, the Vatican authorities also stab in the back their boss Francis, who repeatedly demands that individual dioceses should have more freedom of decision”, katholisch.de further complained.
The editorial lamented that if the Vatican was not able to delegate in matters of diocesan reform, then any hope that local Churches could decide for themselves on bigger issues such as the ordination of married men or women also “vanishes”.