Pope Francis' address to the German Bishops on the occasion of their ad Limina visit caused quite a stir, especially the quote: "Given these facts, one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.”
What the Holy Father describes in Germany applies quite generally to most countries in Western Europe. What 25 years ago was 25% Mass attendance and infrequent Confession, Pope Francis generously pegs now at 10%, when in actuality few would give it 8%. What Pope Benedict XVI predicted about a much smaller Catholic presence is there and with no seeming vibrancy whatever. The sober optimism of the Pope emeritus about regrouping for mission from a smaller basis still eludes us as we continue to create and fund structures with money from the church tax or its equivalent, far from the Gospel freshness and dynamism, which could mark something worthy of the name New Evangelization. “We always inaugurate new facilities, from which, in the end, the faithful are missing,” Pope Francis said.
Vatican Radio translates most of the German text into English, highlighting certain parts. As is his custom, in his words to the bishops the Pope is death on an institutional approach to solving these problems, recommending rather episcopal and priestly zeal to win people back to the Sacraments during the Year of Mercy, first of all through the Sacrament of Penance and a return to the worthy celebration of the Holy Eucharist. He attacks head-on the tendency to deprive priests of their dignity and their principal ministry in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, supplanting them with lay ministries:
“The precious collaboration of the laity, especially in those places where vocations are missing, cannot become a surrogate for the ministerial priesthood, or give it the semblance of being simply optional,” he said. “If there is no priest, there is no Eucharist.”
Sadly, much of the press commentary and even ecclesial commentary on the Holy Father's words fails to recognize his efforts to discuss such problems "thinking outside the box". People tend to point to what Pope Francis seems to criticize or exclude, in terms of institutional or structural (money-based) solutions to the lack of vibrancy in the faith, but they never seem to discover the real bottom line, if you will. There seems to be a reluctance to get beyond the rebel Gioachino da Fiore to the saint Francis of Assisi. Few are ready, especially here in Europe, to look again at a radical young woman named Elizabeth of Hungary, or if you live in Germany St. Elizabeth of Thuringia, and see that person and substance was what made her tick and what transformed the hearts of those around her.
What Pope Francis proposes to the German bishops by allusions to the zeal of a couple from Apostolic times, Priscilla and Aquila, I would like to propose in more radical fashion through reference to two small children from the Gospels: Mary, actually as we know her from the Tradition, and Jesus, as we know the baby and the boy, especially from the Synoptic Gospels. Today's Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, just like the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels concerning Baby Jesus, speak directly to what others address through a form of discourse which is readily labelled as anti-institutional. The point being that our recovery of the Church's vibrancy will require institutional reform and restoration, rooted in the personal embrace of the Divine Will which we see already in Mary the toddler and some years later in her beloved Son, the Savior of the World.
Empowering lay people for ministry has nothing to do with being Catholic and living in the Church centered on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The wholesale abandonment of the Tradition in the years following the Council was a break with living the Gospel in and through the worthy celebration of the Eucharist, which requires a life lived and the wholehearted embrace of auricular Confession, as the apex of post-baptismal penitential practice. The Holy Father rightly urges the bishops of Germany to their primary mission in defense of human life. There is a culture of nurturing and treasuring, best characterized by Joachim and Ann on behalf of their daughter Mary and by Mary and Joseph on behalf of Jesus, which has been jettisoned on behalf of self-realization schemes which smack of degradation or at best of something far short of that dignity with which we were endowed by our Creator.
Not just Germany, Switzerland or Austria, but our world needs prayers and the discovery of family time as oriented toward Sunday Mass and thereby to all that is possible at the feet of our Creator, Redeemer and Friend. Let Pope Benedict's little and vibrant Church come, such that the work of Evangelization for the sake of the life of the world truly might begin.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI