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Germany: laity at the helm of parishes. Team-work with priests, in full respect of the charisms

Shortage of priests and ageing clergy. There emerges once again question of shared responsibility of the laity at the helm of parish communities. The German Church is reckoning with changing times, as confirmed in a study published on the website The experiences of Aachen, Essen, Limburg, Magdeburg and Trier (where parishes dropped from 900 to 35). Different models that are still at an experimental phase

What is the situation of parishes and of ecclesial and pastoral institutions of the Church in Germany? The question underlies an important survey conducted by the German Catholic Church, which highlights the fact that an increasing number of parishes ought to be handled in full or partly by “specialized” laity. The shortage of priests and the ageing clergy, coupled by declining numbers of faithful, are not the only reasons for an effective participation of the laity in the management of local churches: the answers collected by media officers of 27 German archdiocese and diocese, submitted to highlight a varied landscape, with articulated experiences also lasting several years. And while some dioceses rule out the possibility of defining the laity as “parish priests” (the archdiocese of Freiburg reiterated the priests’ exclusive responsibility of parishes), it’s also true that only 61 priestly ordinations will take place in the Country in 2018, less than a third compared to 1995, when 186 were ordained. It is also necessary to reckon with an ageing clergy.

The “Federal model.” As many as 185 parishes are coordinated by lay faithful and deacons. Their contributions vary, and this pastoral variety can be ascribed to the same German Federal cultural matrix which constitutes a pillar of national life – where every Lander has a large degree of self-determination –also characterising the ecclesial environment: the German Bishops’ Conference (Dbk) leaves a large margin of autonomy to each diocese. In some cases the diocese belongs to more than one Lander.

Aachen, three models. The diocese of Aachen, for example, proposes three models of intervention. In the first, ongoing since 1993, a lay faithful or a “community of persons exercising pastoral ministry in a parish”, appointed by the bishop, is assisted by a “moderation” priest who contributes to sacramental service, according to his ordination; the second project, “community leadership in communities”, dates back to 1998. It is practised in six parishes, where a priest performs his canonical duties but shares all management tasks with a group of elected volunteers. In the third model, called, “managing directors”, volunteers working in various areas at local level, are tasked with managing responsibilities and cooperate with a priest who sees for liturgical service and pastoral care.

The “vision” of Essen. The proposal put in place by the diocese in the industrial region of Essen is called “future Vision”, with three communities guided by groups of lay faithful. Further groups are being created for Essen, Duisburg and Oberhausen. The communities are part of a geographically larger parish, encompassing various forms of pastoral activity. Although nominally the parishes are still run by a priest, in reality they are led by the Gemeindereferenten (parish officials) on a full-time basis.

Shifts in Limburg. In the diocese of Limburg, the parish of St. Ursula in Oberursel, that has been without a priest for many years, is coordinated by three volunteers since 2017. An evaluation of the pastoral achievements, carried out at diocesan level, is planned to take place in three years. The parish of St. Birgid in Wiesbaden has adopted a “working meeting” system with four-week shifts of lay officers with responsibilities in the area of pastoral care, to ensure the shared management of the parish, following the guidelines of the pastoral Council.

Magdeburg: the role of the teams. The diocese of Magdeburg, in the eastern region, has activated two pastoral ministry projects coordinated by the laity. “The place of a thriving church” is a project involving groups of volunteers leaders who take on the local leadership of parishes, interacting and inter-replacing each other for a service of shared pastoral care. The bishop is directly involved also in another project: in the absence of the priest he performs all liturgical services and of guidance, with the support of a management team in pastoral care activities. In the parish the team has the responsibility of religious functions, preaching, deaconry, liturgy, along with technical and financial administration tasks, a non-resident priest is in charge of coordination and relations with the bishop.

Trier: from 900 to 35 parishes. The different models show that administrative cooperation between lay faithful and presbyters works well and it makes German parishes lively and active. The findings of the survey could be interpreted on two levels, whereby some archdioceses and dioceses avail themselves of the cooperation of the laity in parishes, while in others parishes coordinated management was preferred. Such is the case of Trier, where the 900 parishes registered in 2016 are expected to drop to 35 in 2020.

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