Surely it’s not an easy decision to get involved in an experiment that the whole of Germany is watching?
That’s true. But just waiting for retirement at 60? That’s not for me. Besides, the support is ideal. From the bishop, from my fellow parishioners, through supervision, coaching.
There was a congregational meeting before your appointment. Did skepticism arise there?
Resistance to the structural changes, to the prototype itself? No, there was nothing, and that surprised us a bit ourselves. But there were many questions about details. How to proceed with the church services, the pastoral care. In the end, there was a very positive atmosphere of departure. A little melancholy was felt, a little sadness, after all, a century-long continuity is coming to an end here, there was always a priest on site, sometimes even three, that is already a paradigm shift. But it was clear to everyone: we must and want to change.
No objections because you are not a priest?
Not at all. The decisive factor is whether I can appeal to people, whether I can move them, whether I can reach them. Can I lead, can I assert myself? These are, of course, search movements – for a way out. "We can understand this as salutary nonsense," the theologian Johannes Panhofer once said, "as an emergency and transitional solution to a new form of church." There’s something to that sentence.
A few weeks ago, after 100 days in office, there was a first interim assessment, again as a congregational meeting. What were the reactions like?
Very encouraging. 170 people were there. And on a Sunday, at 4 p.m., that shows something! You are doing well, they said, you are very present in the community.
But surely you can’t meet all expectations?
No, there is not always a willingness to compromise between tradition and modernity. But the criticism was not about anything general, just details. For example, that we don’t have a Eucharistic celebration every Sunday in each of our two parishes, but instead have a Liturgy of the Word in one of them, and the Eucharist on the Saturday evening before. But that is our model now, for a year, and we are going through with it.
You are assisted by a "moderating priest" who does not live locally – and who is responsible for the sacraments. How far does his influence go?
Of course, we consult with each other. But I am completely free in my decisions. I have the pastoral leadership competence, I am the leader of the parish with personnel responsibility. Of course, it’s clear that if we weren’t pulling in the same direction, or were pulling in different directions, the model would have failed. But the collaboration is ideal. By the way, "moderating priest" is really a difficult term. It obscures a lot of things. That too: a piece of wholesome nonsense. But sometimes your hike just leads you into sloping terrain.
How many of your 6,500 parishioners do you actually reach?
Ten percent in the services, and that puts us at the diocesan average. When I came to the diocese in the 1990s, we were still at 25 percent, at least. So that’s gone down a lot. And that’s going to continue to drop. Rainer Bucher, a theologian from Graz, once said, "We’re approaching zero in all areas." Harsh words, but there’s truth in them. About 600 parishioners come to our weekend services, Easter and Christmas there are 2,000.
What to do?
As a Christian, I used to be part of a majority; soon I will be part of a fringe group, and the church must find ways to deal with this. It would be wrong if it ran after every trend of the times. But it must renew itself, structurally. One thing is clear: Christianity can still contribute something to the development of society, also spiritually – especially in times when people are looking for meaning, against the coldness of capitalism, against that of materialism.
Every year, a four-digit number of parishioners in the Osnabruck diocese leave the Church; the number of Catholics in the diocese is continually declining. Do vocations like yours help to influence this development?
That’s hard to say, of course. I would like to hope so. But the losses are huge, of course. More than a quarter of a million Catholics leave the Church every year, nationwide. This is a general trend, reinforced by the way the church appears and acts.
Bishop Bode recently described the sexual violence perpetrated thousands of times by Catholic clerics as a "structural sin in the church," as it were.
These horrific acts have, of course, cost us massive credibility. They will also bring us many more resignations. People are extremely disappointed, and rightly so. What is important now is how we deal with this catastrophe. What consequences we draw.
The spring plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference in Lingen was a tragedy. Not much has moved, despite Bode’s reform proposals. Isn’t it rather difficult at the moment to signal as a leader of a parish: People, something is happening?
We have to offer new docking opportunities and leave the beaten track. We also need to further strengthen volunteerism. Volunteers must be given more responsibility in the congregation, more decision-making powers. For example, we train volunteers to organize church services themselves.
If your Melleran model proves successful: Do you expect further parish assignments of non-priests in the diocese?
Absolutely. Possibly even this year. Sooner or later no priest will be found for other of the 72 parishes. I think 20 assignments are realistic in the long run, maybe 25.
What if hardliners are elected to your parish council who do not support the reform process?
That would be a bit unfortunate, of course. But I don’t see that danger.
Why is the shortage of priests so great?
Of course, it is also due to celibacy, but certainly not only. The same problem is also evident in the Protestant Church. It’s clear that the church is losing a great deal of importance in general. Many people apparently no longer believe that it has answers to the central questions of our time, and that demotivates them.
The Catholic reform movement "We are Church" should actually be pleased about your appointment. Has it already contacted you?
Not so far. But I hear that they very much welcome what is happening here in Melle. It is also something special and has made quite a stir. All the way to a newspaper in India.