ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Friday, during the German bishops' ad limina visit with the Holy Father in Rome, the Pope highlighted the "erosion of the Catholic faith" in their country, adding that necessary reform starts in the confessional.
Every five years, bishops from each country meet with the Pope to receive his directives pertinent to them.
After acknowledging Germany's outreach to refugees, the Roman Pontiff stated,
On the other hand, it is particularly noticeable in the regions of Catholic tradition, a sharp drop of participation at Sunday Mass and sacramental life. Whereas in the 1960s the faithful almost everywhere attended Mass every Sunday, today it is often less than 10 percent.
The Sacrament of Penance is often missing. Fewer and fewer Catholics receive the Sacrament of Confirmation or contract a Catholic marriage. The number of vocations to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life has significantly diminished. Given these facts, one can truly speak of an erosion of the Catholic faith in Germany.
The Holy Father pointed out that "sacramental life should be of great concern to the bishop," emphasizing confession and the Eucharist. Pope Francis invited them during the upcoming Year of Mercy "to rediscover the sacrament of penance and reconciliation."
As widely reported, German bishops, led by Cdl. Reinhard Marx of Munich, are pushing to relax restrictions requiring conversion and confession for those living in adulterous relationships before being allowed reception of Holy Communion. This approach, called the Kasper proposal after the German cardinal Walter Kasper, has been vigorously promoted by him for a number of years.
Pope Francis continued,
In confession begins the transformation of each individual Christian and the reform of the Church. I trust that you will give more attention to this sacrament, so important for a spiritual renewal in the diocesan pastoral and parish during the Holy Year and beyond.
In his audience with the German bishops, Pope Francis spoke three times of the relationship the particular Church in Germany should have with the Universal Church.
Earlier this year, Cdl. Marx shocked many when he boldly proclaimed that the church in Germany "was not just a subsidiary of Rome." This statement was in part due to the Kasper proposal, which departs from approved Church discipline. This proclamation garnered sharp rebuke from some outspoken prelates.
Regarding the relationship to the Universal Church, the Holy Father spoke of the ad limina visit as "a renewal of the bond with the universal Church, which proceeds through space and time as the people of God on the way, bringing faithfully the heritage of faith over the centuries and all peoples."
The Pope went on to say,
I hope that the meetings with the Roman Curia in these days can illuminate the path of your particular churches in the coming years, helping us to rediscover always better your great spiritual and pastoral heritage, so you can carry on in confidence with your appreciated work in the mission of the universal Church.
He further added, "[It] is essential that the bishop keeps diligently his position as teacher of the Faith — the Faith transmitted and lived in the living communion of the universal Church."
He continued this thought as he spoke of the need for faithful Catholic education:
Fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium does not contradict academic freedom, but requires a humble attitude of service to God's gifts. The thinking with the Church must distinguish especially those who educate and train new generations.
The Holy Father discounted the pastoral value of greater institutionalization, new facilities or excessive centralization. The Church in Germany happens to be one of the wealthiest in the world.
Pope Francis warned against the excessive use of laity as a substitute for priests, declaring,
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. If there is no priest, there is no Eucharist.
Two years ago the German Church, contrary to Catholic teaching, approved the use of the abortifacient morning-after-pill. This may be related to the closing remarks of Pope Francis, who implored them to defend the life of the unborn, the elderly, and the sick: "The Church must not get tired of being the advocate of life and should not take a step back in the announcement that it is to protect human life unconditionally from conception to natural death."
To learn more about the sacrament of confession, watch our program The One True Faith: Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned.