Editor’s note: As nearly 20,000 young Catholics — mostly students — gather at SEEK, a massive conference sponsored by campus ministry apostolate FOCUS, The Pillar will feature reporting from Catholic student journalist Jack Figge, who is working as a ground-level correspondent at the event.
A tear fell from Bishop Stefan Oster’s eye. A standing-room-only crowd was silent as the bishop of Passau, Germany, spoke to young people about his personal devotion to Jesus. and the tense situation of the Church in his country.
Oster was addressing international students at the FOCUS SEEK Conference taking place this week in St. Louis, Missouri.
More than 100 college students and young adults flew over 4,000 miles from Europe to join the 20,000 young people gathered at the conference.
And while most college students say they’ll leave SEEK with a desire to encounter Jesus and bring his love to their campuses, the German students — from universities in Passau and Cologne — carry with them a plan to bring back missionary zeal to their nation.
In recent years, the Church in Germany has experienced immense division and tension amid the controversial German “synodal way.”
Oster told college students Jan. 4 that across the world, Germany is seen as a dying Church.
The bishop recounted a conversation with an African bishop during October’s synod on synodality at the Vatican.
“The African bishop told me, ‘You in Europe are a dying Church and you have some topics that you want to bring in here that we are not interested in. The Church in Africa, where I live, is around 100 years old, and it's vibrant, young, and flourishing. We are right now happy to implement Catholic moral theology because we have the problem of polygamy, and your topics are not interesting to us’,” Oster recounted.
After the bishop talked with students about his experiences, The Pillar spoke with young Catholics and Church leaders from Germany, who unpacked their views on the problems facing Catholics in their country — and their sense of their own calls moving forward.
‘A full Christian life’
Peter Naumann is a student at the University of Passau, a city on Germany’s border with Austria. He told The Pillar that to understand the Church in Germany, Catholics must realize that the story is complex — and that there are many young people in the country who are looking for answers to life’s big questions.
“I see in the conversations with my friends who are not Catholic, or not as involved as I am, that they have certain opinions about topics, and they first have an opinion in their heads. They know, ‘Okay, this is the Church. This is the Catholic Church's teaching. I like this, [but] I don't like that’,” Naumann said.
“What I see, though, is that people are actually searching for more, for the truth.”
Naumann said he thinks those young people are often beginning in the wrong place — focused on a media narrative about what the Church is.
If they focused on a relationship with Jesus, he said, they would eventually come to better understand the teaching of the Church.
“They're all discussing the messiness of the Church in Germany but never discussing the Gospel, or what it's actually about,” Naumann said.
“That's what I also see in my Bible study. It's that people rarely have these discussions on those deep topics because they are always discussing Church politics or the situation of the Church in Germany.”
In his work with university students, Father Martin Mayerhofer, FSO, chaplain for FOCUS Europe, has seen firsthand the struggles that university students face daily in Germany and across Europe.
He told The Pillar that, as Naumann mentioned, it ultimately comes down to a lack of discussion about the person of Christ.
“There are many topics that are taking place in the Church of Germany that have very little to do with young people because …few people are talking about having a very personal relationship with Jesus,” the priest said.
For five years, Jimmy Harrison has been a a FOCUS missionary in Germany. He now works as the Director of European Operations for FOCUS and as a missionary in Passau.
Harrison told The Pillar that if the Church in Germany is going to be reformed, Catholics need to focus on evangelization.
“It's easy to spend a lot of time talking … and to become distracted from what it's all really about, which is Jesus Christ and our sanctification,” Harrison said.
“I try to limit my exposure to the politics of the Church in Germany, although that can be difficult. At the end of the day, the problem comes down to the question of evangelization,” he added.
“Evangelization will cover all of the necessary topics that we have to discuss in the Church in Germany. It's going to be about catechesis; it's going to be about witnesses of life—Christians who are living the full Christian life.”
‘What it means to be a witness’
Harrison and Mayerhofer both told The Pillar that among the problems in Germany, one seems especially challenging — that many of the Catholics occupying professional positions in the Church’s organizational structure don’t practice the Catholic faith.
That’s a problem, they say.
“This is one specific challenge for the church in Germany. The institutional church in Germany does have a deep structure, and has over 800,000 employees working — not only in the parishes but in hospitals, kindergartens, and in the army. And these people are not believers,” Fr. Mayerhofer explained.
“I worry that many who live and even work in the church in Germany don't have a daily prayer routine; they don’t have a relationship with Jesus. They don't live a sacramental life, and they don't have an understanding of what the Church teaches,” Harrison added.
“We're going to have to address what it means to be a witness to a Christian life and teach our leaders how to do that.”
During a panel discussion Thursday, Bishop Oster addressed similar concerns.
The bishop said that in a country of almost 24 million Catholics, fewer than one million attend Sunday Mass — and most of those Massgoers are more than 70 years old. But because of the country’s taxation system, the Catholic Church is one of the largest private employers in Germany, paying the salary of around 800,000 people, most under the age of 70.
Oster said the statistics indicate that most Church employees are not regular Massgoers.
“These people are separated from the sacramental life of the church,” Oster explained.
“At some point, that will lead to a breakdown or collapse of the system.”
The bishop said that during his nine years leading the Passau diocese, he has tried to implement approaches he said are part of a “new evangelization” — including holding pub catechesis sessions, and inviting FOCUS missionaries to the local university.
But Oster said that Church employees are sometimes the biggest opponents to those approaches.
“Whenever I try to do something with the new evangelization, for example, invite FOCUS missionaries or another community, the opposition comes from inside, not from the outside,” said Oster.
“For many people in Germany, the Church is just an institutional, nonprofit organization. It needs a logical deepening of the understanding of the church. The Church is the mystical body; it is not only an institution where you have to pay employees, but it is the mystical body of Christ in which Jesus is always present,” the priest said.
“And we have to help people understand what the church really is and then help them fall in love with it again.”
Starting from Jesus
To bring about change in Germany, Harrison believes Germans have to understand that Catholics can be faithful to Church doctrine while still emphasizing a spirituality of welcome.
“It's a difficult balance to strike in Germany right now. I think we have to find a way in the Church in Germany to show two things at the same time: that we can be absolutely 100% faithful to the Church, and we can be radically welcoming and open to anybody who walks in the door,” the missionary said.
“Often, those are seen as mutually exclusive. You can't do both. Either you are going to be faithful to the Church, or you are going to hate other people. Or you are going to disobey the Church, and you are going to welcome and love everybody.”
The place to begin, he said, is to emphasize relationships with Jesus.
“But the most important thing in all these discussions is: does a person have a relationship with Jesus or not?” said Naumann.
“When you start from that, then you can talk about the other topics. Okay, why is homosexuality good or bad? What does it mean that men are priests and women are not? This firm foundation rooted in Christ needs to be there before somebody starts having these discussions.”
For inspiration, some Germans seeking to reform their Church look to America.
They see grass-roots movements like FOCUS and the National Eucharistic Revival as sources of hope for the German Church.
“The Church in America was in a similar crisis to what the church in Europe is facing,” said Fr. Mayerhofer.
“But in America, big changes happened: New bishops showed up, seminaries were reopened, etc. So it shows that change is possible. And that is very encouraging.”
Dr. Edward Sri, senior vice president for apostolic outreach at FOCUS, told The Pillar that he believes the FOCUS approach to evangelization can be fruitful in Germany.
“When young people are presented with the Gospel and the fullness of the teachings of the Church, they respond to it,” said Sri. “There was one student here from Germany that caught me and just was so thankful for this conference, thankful that FOCUS was here, sharing the Gospel and opening up the faith for her life."
Sri told The Pillar he believes that the model of evangelization used by FOCUS — building relationships and sharing the Gospel — can lead to a renewal, not just in Germany but everywhere.
“If we really live out a mission to build relationships, if we live out what the Church is calling us to do, which is go and evangelize, I believe it will always spark a tremendous renewal,” said Sri.
“Because those principles are rooted in the way Jesus himself promoted, which is that he invested in a small group of disciples and trained them to go out and reach others.”
Harrison said he agrees — and the missionary emphasized a focus on Germany’s young people.
“The necessary element is that we need to raise up the future leaders of the Church. We need to get out there and evangelize,”Harrison said.
“There are Catholics right now who are just waiting for formation, waiting for someone to teach them the faith and to raise them up. There's also people out there who have never been to church in their lives, who might be future priests in the Church, who might be future leaders of lay organizations, and we need to get out there and meet them.”
Attending SEEK has helped Naumann realize that all is not lost for the German Church; hope still exists. That change can begin today, but it will require that the next generation of leaders think outside the box if they want to see revival.
“Here at SEEK, I have seen that if we as a German Church can dream big, we can really hope for a new regeneration and for revival within Europe, starting now,” said Naumann.
“But we can reach that now. And it's super easy. It's not that difficult. We don't need the institutional Church for the revival; we need Jesus Christ.”
Editor’s note: This report initially misattributed comments from Fr. Martin Mayerhofer. The text has been corrected.