Church must move closer to Gospel, not to worldly values, pope says

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • September 26, 2011

FREIBURG, Germany - The church must change to respond to the Gospel call and the needs of real people, but that change must be dictated by Christian values and not by greater adaptation to the values of the modern world, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Meeting Sept. 25 with about 1,500 Catholics involved in church ministries, lay movements and civic, political or social activities, the pope said he knows Germany is experiencing a decline in religious practice and is seeing many of its members drift away from church life.

The audience, which included German President Christian Wulff, gave the pope a standing ovation when he finished his speech.

According to the bishops' conference, the number of Catholics in Germany was 28.2 million in 1990, and has dropped to about 24.6 million today.

Formal church membership in Germany automatically subjects workers to a church tax taken from their salary and given to their declared church. In 2010, the bishops' conference said, it received about $6.4 billion from the church tax. The money is used to pay priests' salaries and run parishes, as well as fund schools, hospitals, old-age homes, social services and huge overseas relief and development projects.

Pope Benedict said he knows the numbers of Catholics leaving "prompts the question: Should the church not change? Must she not adapt her offices and structure to the present day in order to reach the searching and doubting people of today?"

Blessed Teresa of Kolkata once said the first thing the church needed to change was "you and I," the pope said.

"The church is not just other people, not just the hierarchy, the pope and the bishops: we are all the church, we the baptized," the pope said in his last speech before the airport farewell ceremony ending his four-day visit to Germany.

Change is needed constantly, but as Blessed Teresa said, that change must begin with the individuals who make up the church, he said.

The changes must be dictated by the Gospel, not the world, the pope said. In fact, to carry out her mission, the church "will constantly set herself apart from her surroundings; she needs in a certain sense to become unworldly or 'desecularized,'" he said.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, president of the German bishops' conference, told reporters Sept. 25, "The pope did not come to offer solutions, but to offer support."

"We are supposed to continue on the way of renewal," he said, always keeping in mind that "we are part of the universal church and in everything we do we must remain within the universal church."

The pope's speech to the Catholic leaders took place in the Freiburg concert hall and the meeting included musical interludes performed by a dozen members of the Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

In his speech to the Catholic leaders, Pope Benedict did not look at specific questions being raised by many German Catholics -- questions about dealing with people who are divorced, or with the role of women in the church or church attitudes toward homosexuality.

Instead, he spoke of the danger posed when the church "becomes settled in this world, she becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world. She gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness."

There were times in history when governments confiscated church property or stripped the church of social privileges it had enjoyed, he said. The process actually helped the church let go of worldliness and embrace her poverty.

"History has shown that when the church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly," he said. "Once liberated from her material and political burdens, the church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world."

The pope said Catholics don't need some sort of strategy for relaunching the church, they need honesty, transparency and conversion.

Pope Benedict said he knows the clerical sex abuse scandals have made it harder to attract people to the Gospel by focusing attention on the unworthiness of those who proclaim it.

The church must bring "the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers" and their caregivers, especially through its charitable work, he said.

The church must bear witness to God's love by the deeds of its members, the pope said. "As individuals and as the community of the church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself," he said.

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