Here is a translation of the address Pope Francis gave today to the German bishops, in Rome for their five-yearly ad limina visits.
* * *
Dear Fellow Brothers,
I am happy to be able to greet you here in the Vatican, on the occasion of your Visit ad Limina. The pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles is an important moment in the life of every Bishop. It means a renewal of the bond with the universal Church, which proceeds through space and time as pilgrimaging People of God, bringing faithfully, in the course of the centuries, the patrimony of the faith to all peoples. My heartfelt thanks to the President of the German Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for his courteous words of greeting. I express my gratitude to you all, because you help me to carry forward the Ministry of Peter through your prayer and your work in the particular Churches. I thank you especially for the great support that the Church in Germany offers to men in the whole world through many charitable works.
At present, we are living in an exceptional time. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have come to Europe or have begun to walk in search of refuge from war and persecution. The Christian Churches and many individual citizens of your country give enormous help to receive these persons, giving them assistance and human closeness. In the spirit of Christ, we wish to continue to address the challenge of the great number of needy. At the same time, we support all the humanitarian initiatives, so that the conditions of life in the countries of origin become more bearable.
The Catholic communities in Germany are very different between the East and West, but also between the North and South. Everywhere the Church is committed with professionalism in the social and charitable realms, and is also very active in the scholastic field. It is necessary to ensure that in these institutions the Catholic profile is looked after; in this way they are a positive factor, not to be undervalued, for the building of a liveable society. On the other hand, noted particularly in the regions of Catholic tradition is a very strong drop in participation at Sunday Mass, as well as in the sacramental life. Whereas in the 60s everywhere almost every member of the faithful still participated every Sunday in the Holy Mass, today it is often less than 10%. The Sacraments are increasingly less frequented. The Sacrament of Penance has often disappeared. Ever fewer Catholics receive Confirmation or contract a Catholic marriage. The number of vocations to the priestly ministry and to consecrated life is clearly diminished. Considering these facts, one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.
What can we do? First of all it is necessary to overcome the resignation that paralyzes. Certainly it is not possible to reconstruct from the wreckage the “good old days” that were yesterday. However, we can let ourselves be inspired by the life of the first Christians. Suffice it to think of Priscilla and Aquila, those faithful collaborators of Saint Paul. As a married couple they witnessed, with convincing words (cf. Acts 18:26), but especially with their life, that the truth, founded on the love of Christ for His Church, is truly worthy of faith. They opened their home for the proclamation of the Gospel and drew strength from the Word of God for their mission. The example of these “volunteers” can make us reflect, given the tendency to growing institutionalization. Ever new structures are inaugurated, for which in the end faithful are lacking. It is a sort of new Pelagianism, which leads us to put faith in administrative structures, in perfect organizations. Excessive centralization, rather than helping, complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 32). The Church is not a closed system that revolves around the same questions and interrogatives. The Church is alive, she presents herself to men in their reality, she is able to disquiet, she is able to encourage. She does not have a rigid face; she has a body that moves, grows and has feelings: she is the Body of Jesus Christ.
The present imperative is pastoral conversion, that is, to make all the structures of the Church become “more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27). The conditions in society today are certainly not altogether favorable. A certain worldliness prevails. This worldliness deforms souls, suffocates the consciousness of the reality: a worldly person lives in an artificial world, which he himself builds. He is surrounded as though by dark glass so as not to see outside. This certainly leads us, first of all, to prayer. Let us pray for the men and women of our cities, of our dioceses, and let us pray also for ourselves, that God will send us a ray of divine charity through our dark glass, touching hearts, so that they understand His message. We must be among people with the ardor of those who first received the Gospel. And “whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11). Thus new ways and forms of catechesis can open to help young people and families to a genuine and joyous rediscovery of the common faith of the Church.
In the context of the New Evangelization it is indispensable that the Bishop carry out diligently his task as teacher of the faith – of the faith transmitted and lived in the living communion of the universal Church – in the multiple fields of his pastoral ministry. As a solicitous father, the Prelate will support the Theological Faculties helping the docents to rediscover the great ecclesial importance of their mission. Fidelity to the Church and to the Magisterium does not contradict academic freedom, but exacts a humble attitude of service to God’s gifts. Sentire cum Ecclesia should distinguish, in a particular way, those that educate and form the new generations. Moreover, the presence of the Theological Faculties in State institutes of education is a great opportunity to have the dialogue with society advance. Also use well the Catholic University of Eichstatt with its Theological Faculty and its various scientific departments. Being the only Catholic University of your country, this Institute is of great value for the whole of Germany; therefore, an appropriate commitment of the whole Episcopal Conference would be desirable to reinforce its super-regional importance and to promote inter-disciplinary exchange on current and future questions according to the spirit of the Gospel.
Turning one’s look then on the parish communities, in which in the main the faith is experienced and lived, the sacramental life should be at the Bishop’s heart in a particular way. I would like to stress only two points: Confession and the Eucharist. The imminent Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy offers the opportunity to have the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation rediscovered. Confession is the place where one receives the gift of God’s forgiveness and mercy. In Confession the transformation begins of every single faithful and the reform of the Church. I trust that greater attention will be given to this Sacrament, so important for a spiritual renewal in the diocesan and parish pastoral plans during the Holy Year and also after. It is necessary, moreover, to evidence the profound nexus between the Eucharist and the Priesthood. Pastoral plans that do not attribute proper importance to priests in their ministry of governing, teaching and sanctifying with regard to the structure and the sacramental life of the Church, on the basis of experience, are destined to failure. The precious collaboration of the lay faithful, especially where vocations are lacking, cannot become a surrogate of the priestly ministry or make it seem, in fact, a simple “optional.” There is no Eucharist without a priest. And vocational pastoral ministry begins with the ardent desire in the hearts of the faithful to have priests. Finally, a task of the Bishop, which is never sufficiently appreciated, is the commitment to life. The Church must never tire of being the advocate of life and she must not take steps backwards in the proclamation that human life be protected unconditionally from the moment of conception to natural death. We can make no compromises here, without ourselves becoming guilty of the throwaway culture, unfortunately widespread. How great are the wounds that our society must suffer because of the discarding of the weakest and the most vulnerable. – unborn life as well as the elderly and the sick! In the end all of us will suffer the painful consequences.
Dear fellow brothers, I hope that the meetings with the Roman Curia in these days will illumine the way of your particular Churches in the coming years, helping you to rediscover ever better your great spiritual and pastoral patrimony. Thus you will be able to carry forward with trust your appreciated work in the mission of the universal Church. I ask you to continue to pray for me, so that with God’s help I can carry out my Petrine ministry. Likewise, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as of all the Blesseds and Saints of your land. I impart my heartfelt Apostolic Blessing to you and to the faithful of your dioceses.
[Original text: Italian]
[Translation by ZENIT]