Pope Francis sent a 28-page letter to Catholics in Germany Saturday calling for a focus on evangelization in the face of the “erosion” and “decline of the faith” in the country.
"Evangelization must be our guiding criterion par excellence, by which we can recognize all the steps we are called to take as an ecclesial community," Pope Francis wrote in a letter published June 29.
“The current challenges, as well as the answers we give, demand a long maturation process and the cooperation of an entire people over years,” he said, noting that "seeking immediate results" can have consequences that are "fleeting because they do not correspond to the vocation we are given."
In his letter, Pope Francis issued a warning about the “synodal path,” a process announced by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The pope said, “What this entails in concrete terms and how it unfolds will certainly require further consideration."
The German bishops’ conference decided in March that the issues of priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power would be subject to a process “synodal progression” that could lead to a binding, but as yet undetermined, outcome.
“Synodality presupposes and requires the action of the Holy Spirit,” Francis said in the letter.
The pope warned, “despite all serious and inevitable reflection, it is easy to fall into subtle temptations … therefore caution should be exercised, since they, anything but helpful to a common path, hold us in preconceived schemes and mechanisms that end in alienation or limitation of our mission.”
“What is more, if we are not aware of these temptations, we easily end up with a complicated series of arguments, analyses and solutions with no other effect than to stay away from the real and daily encounter with the faithful people and the Lord,” he said.
The pope also reiterated concerns he raised with the German bishops during their ad limina visit in Rome in November 2015 in which he had already noted a grave lack of participation in the sacraments among Catholics in Germany. He challenged bishops to "pastoral conversion" and warned of "excessive centralization.”
“To accept and endure the present situation … is an invitation to face what has died in us and in our congregations, which requires evangelization and visitation by the Lord,” Francis said. “But this requires courage, because what we need is much more than structural, organizational or functional change.”
The church in Germany has been embroiled in a number of controversies in recent months, several of which have also led to tensions with the Vatican, in particular pertaining to the practice of giving communion to protestants who are married to Catholics — a practice now officially established in several German dioceses — along with the practice of giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.
According to research recently published by the University of Freiburg, the number of officially registered Catholics in Germany will halve by 2060.
“The forthcoming process of change cannot respond exclusively to external facts and needs, such as the sharp decline in the birth rate and the aging of communities, which do not allow a normal generational change to be considered,” Pope Francis said. “A true process of change … makes demands that arise from our Christianity and from the very dynamics of the evangelization of the Church; such a process requires pastoral conversion.”
"Evangelization is the real and essential mission of the Church,” he said.
Anian Christoph Wimmer contributed to this report.