On 18 March, Cardinal Reinhard Marx — Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising and President of the German Bishops’ Conference — spoke at a diocesan meeting and revealed a stunning fact. In the year of 2016, only one new seminarian entered the diocesan seminary of Munich. According to the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net, moreover, Cardinal Marx rejected the idea of forming larger parish communities in order to meet the varied needs of the dispersed faithful. The Austrian report continues, by summing up Marx’s own words:
It is about a “visibility in place.” However, this has to be organized according to the current given conditions — the discussion about the conditions for admittance to the priesthood, for example concerning the viri probati [proven married men who could become ordained priests] will continue. Marx said that, in the last year , only one new candidate entered the Priestly Seminary of the Archdiocese.
Cardinal Marx here reveals the fact of a serious pastoral situation: the growing lack of priests in Munich. But importantly he himself relates this fact in connection with a discussion about the viri probati, something he had somewhat shyly refused to do at the end of the recent 6-9 March spring General Assembly of the German Bishops in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.
As OnePeterFive then reported, Cardinal Marx insisted at the final 9 March press conference of that collective episcopal meeting that Pope Francis’ own recent proposal to discuss further the viri probati solution was meant especially for “far distant places” and for “extreme situations,” not really for Germany. Marx had then even explicitly said the following, in the context of the comparative need for the viri probati:
I mean, I do not speak here about Germany, I speak here about extreme situations which are of course also in the pope’s mind and thoughts, and not necessarily our own situation in Germany where we are still pretty well equipped with clergy and collaborators, in comparison with the Universal Church. [my emphasis]
As we then also summed up his understated words:
Marx came back to mentioning [at the 9 March press conference] that it is, indeed, about “a pastoral situation which is very extreme,” and he repeated several times that “one has to think about it.” Marx does not think, however, “that this is going to be a theme for tomorrow, or for us,” adding that “there is no taboo so that one may not speak about it. That cannot be.” The cardinal added that there is “no ban on speaking” and he stated again: “He [the pope] only said: ‘We have to think about it.’ […] He did not give an answer.” [my emphasis]
As we then said: “Methinks thou dost protest too much!” This expression of doubt has now found, it seems, some stronger foundation.
Due to the proposed questions of a dear friend and colleague of mine in Rome some weeks ago, I had made some initial investigations into this matter of the current number of actual seminarians in the Munich Archdiocese, and I thus first called up the Priesterseminar München, Georgenstrasse, which is the only seminary for the Archdiocese of Munich. I was told that there are still 19 seminarians currently studying for the priesthood in the seminary, with 36 seminarians altogether, because some of the current seminarians are already variously working in the pastoral field as a final preparation for their own priestly ordination. One other seminarian is also studying for the priesthood, but not there in the Priesterseminar München. That is to say, there are altogether 37 seminarians for the whole Archdiocese of Munich — for around 1.7 million Catholics. (As a comparison, the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, has currently 49 seminarians for some 96,000 Catholics.)
When looking at the website of the Munich seminary, we note that the current seminarians are first mentioned and presented. For the first and preparatory year — called Propaedeutikum — there is the link to only one student.
In the face of such a desolating state of affairs with regard to priestly vocations, there should be two consequential aspects to be considered further.
First, that Cardinal Marx expressly mentioned in his 9 March Press Conference that Pope Francis, back in 2015, had recommended to some of the German bishops several books authored by Fritz Lobinger, the former bishop of Aliwal, South Africa. Lobinger is one of those who advocate the idea of ordaining to the sacramental priesthood certain respected elders of a community who are married and who are, in many areas of the world, also female. Thus, he has opened up the idea of a second group of ordained married priests — both male and female — who would be spiritually counselled by some regular priests who had already undergone their own regular priestly education and formation. This revolutionary alternative and purportedly practical approach now seems to be favored by Pope Francis himself, since he himself recommended Lobinger also in a 2014 conversation with the promoter of the idea of married priests, Bishop emeritus Erwin Kräutler.
The second aspect will also lead us again to a consideration of the pastoral thought of Pope Francis himself. Why does Pope Francis ask Cardinal Marx to become a select member of the Council of Nine Cardinals — established in order to counsel the pope in his pontificate — when Cardinal Marx himself is conspicuously deficient in creating in his own diocese an atmosphere and culture of the Faith and Catholic devotion which would also sufficiently foster new vocations to the priesthood? Pope Francis might better have asked, for example, someone from the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska to consult him about how to help increase the number of vocations with the help of open and sustained fidelity to the entirety of Church teaching. Moreover, this diocese has generally kept many traditional practices; it has no altar girls, has no permanent deacons, and offers Holy Mass ad orientem. It also has invited the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter to establish its seminary there. Lincoln has some of the highest vocation numbers of the U.S. It is worth studying this question by reading, for example, a 2016 interview given by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, as published by the Catholic World Report.
Perhaps it would be helpful, both to Pope Francis and to Cardinal Marx himself, to go for an extended visit to the Diocese of Lincoln, instead of first fully discussing the progressive and novel idea of ordaining — male and female — married elders.