Something memorable, almost revolutionary happened last week. And no, with it is not meant the 36-page instruction of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy with the unwieldy title “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Missionary Mission of the Church”, which just outrages many lay people in Germany. But the letter formally approved by Pope Francis has it in itself, as it tries to give an answer to a central question of modern faith mediation: How does the church go in times of secularization, lack of priests, leaving the church and merging parishes?
Whereby the writing – and this is not self-evident when Rome becomes fundamental – acknowledges that there is a problem at all. The parish, it says in the most beautiful Congregational German, “has to deal with a particular characteristic of the present world, in which the increase of mobility and digital culture have widened the limits of existence”. This means in plain language: the Church must adapt to the times, not the other way round.
But the Congregation of the Clergy under the leadership of the Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella understands something completely different by “conversion” than the Catholic Church in Germany. Like other particular Churches it relies on the participation of the laity in the leadership of tomorrow\’s parish community. The Congregation for the Clergy now rejects exactly this practice. “The office of parish priest,” it says in the Instruction, “cannot be entrusted to a group composed of clerics and laity.” Therefore, “designations such as \’leadership team\’, \’leadership team\’ or similar terms which could express a collegial leadership of the parish are to be avoided. This is how a gossip reads in Vatican English.
The German bishops, in any case, were caught cold by the letter. Most of them are on holiday. But it didn\’t come from nowhere. Already in November 2019 the Congregation of the Clergy ended the parish reform of the diocese of Trier. This provided for exactly such an establishment of “leadership teams”.
How much Pope Francis himself stands behind his Congregation then and now is questionable. Admittedly he always stressed the importance of lay people “with a vision of the future” for the “saving mission of the church”, but at the same time he warned against their “clericalization”. By it a scope of interpretation was created that the Congregation for the Clergy uses to strengthen the traditional role of the priest – despite all hostilities caused by reality. “The Cologne Cardinal Woelki recently summarized this role: “Priests do not possess their ability to lead a parish out of themselves, but because they have become \’conformed\’ to the \’Priest Christ\’ by their ordination and are authorized to act in the \’person of the Head of Christ\’. This applies to both secular and spiritual tasks.[“The memorable, almost revolutionary thing is that many of Woelki’s confreres no longer make a secret of what they think of such an understanding of priests: nothing. In an unprecedented act of clerical disobedience, many German bishops announced at the weekend that they would not implement the instruction in their dioceses. That is courageous and wise. For this is how they play the ball back to Rome, trusting that Francis will decide things as he has often decided them in the past – not at all.”]
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