Pope Francis received in audience the prelates of the Episcopal Conference of Germany at the end of their 'ad Limina' visit on Friday.
At the end of the audience the Holy Father handed them a written discourse in which he thanks the German Church for the support given in the form of many works of charity which benefit thousands of people throughout the world.
He also mentions that in this exceptional time, in which large numbers of migrants are arriving in Europe, fleeing from war and persecution, the Christian Churches and many other citizens in Germany have welcomed them warmly, offering them assistance and friendship.
Finally, he refers to the erosion of Catholic faith in Germany and the greatly reduced participation in the sacraments and in Sunday Mass in recent decades.
The Holy Father writes that there are great differences not only between the Catholic communities in east and west Germany, but also between north and south, although everywhere the Church is committed with professionalism in social and charitable fields and is very active also in education.
On the other hand, in traditionally Catholic regions there has been a major decline in participation in Sunday Mass, as well as in sacramental life. While during the 1960s almost all the faithful attended Mass every Sunday, now there is attendance of often less than ten per cent, and fewer partake in the sacraments, especially Reconciliation, which has all but disappeared.
In this situation, the Pope emphasises that first it is necessary to overcome this "paralysing resignation". Although "certainly it is not possible to rebuild from the relics of the good times past ... we can be inspired by the life of the first Christians", such as Priscilla and Aquila, St Paul's faithful collaborators, who bore witness "with convincing words, but above all with their life, that the truth based on Christ's love for His Church, is truly worthy of faith. They opened up their house for the proclamation of the Gospel". The example of these "volunteers", he writes, "can make us reflect, considering the tendency towards a growing institutionalisation. New structures are always being inaugurated, for which in the end there is a lack of faithful. It is a sort of new pelagianism, which leads us to place our trust in administrative structures, in perfect organisations. An excessive centralisation, instead of helping, can complicate the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic. The Church is not a closed system that always revolves around the same questions. The Church is living, and she presents herself to men in their own situations; she knows how to unsettle and to inspire."
"The current imperative is pastoral conversion, that is, ' a renewal of structures ... as part of an effort to make them 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'. ... We must stay among the people with the ardour of those who were the first to welcome 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 ... words with new meaning for today's world."
"In this context of new evangelisation, it is indispensable for bishop to diligently perform his function as a teacher of the faith - of the faith transmitted and experienced in the living communion of the universal Church - in the many fields of his pastoral ministry", he continues. "Fidelity to the Church and to the Magisterium does not contradict academic freedom, but requires a humble attitude of service to the gifts of God. The 'sentire cum Ecclesia' must characterise in particular those who educate and form the new generations."
Parish communities are places where faith is experienced and lived most fully, he adds. "Sacramental life must be one of the bishop's fundamental concerns". In this regard the Pope highlights two points: Confession and Eucharist. "Confession is the place where the gift of God's forgiveness and mercy is given. In Confession, there begins the transformation of each Christian and the reform of the Church. I trust that greater attention will be given to this Sacrament, which is so important for spiritual renewal, in diocesan and parochial pastoral planning during the Holy Year, and also afterwards. It is also necessary always to emphasise the close relationship between the Eucharist and the priesthood. Pastoral plans that do not accord sufficient importance to priests in their ministry of governing, teaching and sanctifying with regard to the structure and the sacramental life of the Church, experience teaches us, are destined to fail."
Finally, "a task of the Bishops that is never sufficiently appreciated is commitment to life. The Church must never tire of being an advocate for life and must not take steps back in her announcement that human life is to be protected unconditionally from the moment of conception until natural death. Here we must never make compromises, as otherwise we too become accomplices to the unfortunately widespread throwaway culture".