With Catholic Church in crisis, one priest forges his own spiritual path | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.04.2019
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With Catholic Church in crisis, one priest forges his own spiritual path

The Catholic Church is in crisis, marred by scandals and calls for reform. One of its clergyman, Thomas Frings, has chosen to remain a priest nonetheless, and is now calling for new ways of fostering spirituality.

The Catholic Church has been rocked by repeated abuse scandals. Meanwhile many Catholics in Germany are closely following reform debates about celibacy and the increased involvement of laypeople. The Church is in a phase of upheaval. It's no wonder, then, that many priests are doubting their work. 

Father Thomas Frings, 49, is one of those priests who felt doubt. He even left his diocese. "I was always the last or second-to-last person in my parish," he told DW. "I was always the one to turn off the lights. The Church kept on existing, but the parish did not."

At some point he no longer wanted to be the last person in the Church, with no priest to follow him. "And, of course, as a priest, as a pastor, I always invest a lot of commitment in this form of church," Frings says. "At some point I no longer wanted that. I don't want to be the last or second to last remaining person all my life."

Frings still wanted to remain a priest, but he was tired of working in a system where the Church employs priests as lone fighters trying to maintain parishes in the style of times gone by.

Read more: Sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church

Over and out, amen?

For Catholics in Germany, Frings is a big name. He is the great-nephew of Cologne Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Frings, who was one of the most important German bishops of the 20th century. Starting in 2009, Thomas Frings headed the Holy Cross congregation in Münster. In spring 2016 he retired from the job. He was granted a leave of absence by the bishop of Münster without financial compensation and went to a small monastery in the Netherlands for a year.

His decision caused trouble in the congregation and made for big news throughout Germany. He wrote a book about his 32 years as a priest: "Over and out, amen? I can no longer be a pastor like that".

Joseph Frings and Konrad Adenauer (picture-alliance/K. Rohwedder)

Cologne Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Frings was one of the most important German bishops of the 20th century

Frings is representative of an important aspect of the crisis the Catholic Church is now facing ― those people who are still pious and continue to enjoy being priests, but have doubts about the way the Church functions as an institution. It's these people who matter right now. For years, bishops have been eagerly talking about structural reforms, founding large congregations or so-called pastoral care associations. But many clergy find themselves under too much pressure.

Traditionally Catholic bishops all over the world celebrate Holy Thursday morning Mass together with the priests of their diocese. But there are fewer and fewer of them these days. At the end of 2017, there were 13,560 Catholic priests in Germany, many of them old and retired. The numbers have never been lower.

Read more: After Cardinal Pell verdict, Catholic Church must reform

Thinking about church differently

That trend does not appear to be changing. On the contrary. In 2017 the number of men who were ordained priests was 74 ― in all German dioceses, in more than 10,000 parishes. Last year the number of ordained priests fell to about 60. For comparison: In 1995, 1,986 men were ordained.

"The Church, as it presents itself to us, depends too much on the priestly function," says Frings. And when the Church aligns the number of congregations with the number of priests, "we bridle the horse from behind. In the meantime, we have many baptized people and few priests. We must learn to think about church differently, from the [perspective of the] baptized and not from the clergy."

Exhaustion and dispensation

A glance at the Münster diocese church newspaper shows that Frings' exit is not an isolated case. One article bears the heading: "Anger, frustration and exhaustion among pastors in the diocese of Münster." An article immediately below that is about a long-time pastor who is asking the bishop for dispensation and, at the age of 53, is longing for a break. These things are not unusual today in Germany's Catholic Church.

German Catholic Bishops' Conference (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert)

The Catholic Church in Germany has seen a sharp decline in new priests

Frings himself has left the diocese of Münster. He speaks more openly than most Catholic clergymen about his religion and his doubts, and says he is interested in a faith that transcends confessional boundaries. His latest book is titled: "God does not work. That's why I believe in him".

Read more: Catholic Church 'cover-ups must stop!'

Mission and search

Frings has been working for several weeks now in Cologne for an association of 38,000 Catholics and 26 churches that provides social services and a new approach to spirituality.

He believes the traditional method of the Catholic Church having jurisdiction over its various territories and clergy is outdated, and he is working with his colleagues to come up with a new approach. He wants to preach the Gospel with the other religious workers, including priests, laypeople and members of religious orders, in Cologne. And he wants to live with the people, "not only with the Catholics, but also with other seeking people. We do not yet know whether this will succeed. We seek."

The journey will be "very difficult," Frings says. Difficult, much like the crisis the Catholic Church now finds itself in.

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