Pope Francis has written a letter to “the People of God” in Germany to express his personal closeness to them as they begin their synodal journey, which the German bishops had decided on at their plenary assembly last March.
In his letter, the pope offers the German Catholic church spiritual counsel and advice as a basis for their work and encourages its members—clergy, religious and laity alike—to walk together, not alone. Above all, he emphasizes and reminds them of the central role of the Holy Spirit in the synodal process.
The Vatican published the letter in Spanish (the language in which the pope wrote it) and in German on June 29. It came as a surprise when it was first delivered by the apostolic nuncio to the committee organizing the synod, at its first meeting in Berlin last Monday, June 24.
The synod is set to address the sexual abuse crisis as well as the lack of vocations and the non-acceptance of Catholic teaching on sexuality.
“We are all aware that we are living not only in an age of change but also of epochal change that raises new and old questions which call for a justified and necessary debate,” Pope Francis says as he opens this long letter. He makes clear that he is aware of the dramatic situation of the church in Germany and “wants to walk with them, at their side” as they journey forward and reflect on the crisis.
Bernd Hagen Hagenkord, S.J., a senior German editor at Vatican news, told America that the letter can be seen as “an application of ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ to the German church as it begins its synodal process.” “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) is the programmatic document of this pontificate, which Francis published in November 2014. Significantly, he said, the pope wanted to give his “contribution” at the beginning of the synod, rather than at the end, and it came as a “surprise.”
In an editorial on Vatican News today, Father Hagenkord recalled that the starting point for this synodal journey “was a study commissioned by the bishops themselves on the theme of sexual abuse by the clergy and consecrated persons, but there are also other issues, such as the aging of communities, the lack of vocations, the non-acceptance of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the lifestyle of priests.” The German Church wants to discuss the central themes of the crisis, he said, together with the representatives of the Central Committee of German Lay Catholics, and external experts too.
Pope Francis reminds German Catholics that “every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths...it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”
Pope Francis does not enter into these concrete questions in his letter, rather he seeks to provide “a spiritual foundation for the debate,” Father Hagenkord says. “He does not offer solutions, he does not forbid discussions, but in the style of ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ he recalls the centrality of the Holy Spirit and views the question in the perspective of the church.”
He reminds German Catholics that “every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”
Francis, who lived in Germany some months more than 30 years ago and speaks the language, opens his letter by praising German Catholics and highlighting two great strengths of their church. First, “the Catholic communities in Germany in their diversity and plurality are recognized throughout the world for their sense of co-responsibility and generosity,” he said, referring to their enormous assistance both financially and with human resources to churches in need of both. Secondly, he commends them for the “ecumenical path undertaken,” whose fruits he said were seen at the 500th year anniversary commemoration of the Reformation, which have helped to heal the wounds of the past and proclaim the Gospel with joy.
Pope Francis says “we can never respond at the same time to all the questions and problems.”
At the same time, he points to the ongoing erosion of the faith. He tells them, “Together with you, I painfully notice the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all it entails not only on the spiritual level, but also on the social and cultural level,” a multifaceted decline that is “not easy or quick to resolve.”
To face this crisis situation, Pope Francis recalls that their bishops have suggested “a synodal journey” and goes on to elaborate on what this synodal way of being church means. He explains its dual perspective: first, “bottom up,” meaning from the grassroots daily experiences of the communities and people; and then “top down,” which involves the collegial ministry of the bishops.
“Only in this way can we reach and take decisions on questions that are essential for the faith and the life of the church,” the pope says. He calls on the members of the German church to walk forward together “with patience, unction, humility and the healthy conviction that we can never respond at the same time to all the questions and problems.” He emphasizes the need for a “healthy updating” and the starting of “processes” that can be done together as a people of God but which do not deliver “immediate results” that may play well in the media but do not resolve the real questions. He reminded them that it takes time for mature results to come, for true reform to come about through inner conversion.
Throughout the letter, Francis emphasizes the centrality of faith, the importance of evangelization—first of all within the church community itself, and the vital role of the Holy Spirit in this journey of renewal.
As they proceed on their synodal journey, Pope Francis warns the church in Germany against falling into “temptations.”
As they proceed on their synodal journey, Pope Francis warns the church in Germany against falling into “temptations.” First of all, as he told the German bishops in 2015, the temptation to see solutions in “purely structural reforms...in the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist, is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group.” He told them they should not try to impose order on everything but should learn to live with “imbalances” and “tensions.” He reminded them that “we are not justified by our works alone,” mere organization does not give the freshness of the Gospel.
Pope Francis in his letter emphasizes the need “to regain the primacy of evangelization so as to look to the future with confidence and hope,” and he reminded them that “the evangelizing church begins by evangelizing itself.”
He underlines the vital necessity of “pastoral conversion” and says that in this process evangelization must be the “guiding criterion par excellence.”
Pope Francis in his letter emphasizes the need “to regain the primacy of evangelization.”
Again, underlining the central role of the Spirit in the synodal journey, Francis tells German Catholics, “We must ask what the Spirit is saying to the church today.” He said the whole process of “listening, reflection and discernment” aims to make the church “more faithful, able, agile and transparent to preach the Gospel with joy.” He reminds them however that the synodal way “does not eliminate contradictions or confusion” nor does it subordinate conflicts to false compromises.
He told them, as Father Hagenkord recalls in his editorial, that “evangelization lived in this way, is not a tactic of repositioning the church in today’s world,” it is not a “retouching” that adapts the church to the spirit of the times by making her lose her originality and her prophetic mission. Neither does evangelization mean “an attempt to recover habits and practices that make sense in other cultural contexts”: a double rejection of those who seek salvation through adaptation or traditionalism.
Pope Francis explains that the objectives of a true reform, in today’s German society, should be to set out “to meet the sisters and brothers,” especially those on the margins, the weakest, in the context of a culture of waste and a culture where there are often “xenophobic discourses” as well as “strong tendencies to fragmentation and polarizations.”
In this context, he emphasized the need to keep the “sensus ecclesiae” (“the sense of church”) alive “in each decision that we take and nurture at all levels.” He underlined the need “to keep always alive and effective the communion with the whole body of the church.”
Francis added that “the challenges that await us, the various issues and questions that emerge, cannot be ignored or hidden, but must be faced ensuring they are neither entangled nor lost sight of, narrowing our horizons and reality.”
He urged them to be on their guard throughout their synodal journey against “the temptation of the father of the lie and of division, the master of separation, who, pushing us to seek some apparent good or answer to a specific situation, ends up by fragmenting the body of the holy People of God.”
He concluded by encouraging them: “Let us walk together along the way, as an apostolic body, and listen to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if we do not think the same way” and, he reminded them that “the Lord shows us the way of the Beatitudes.”