Priest training: "power imbalances lead to abuse"

Fewer and fewer men in Germany want to become priests. In their training they also talk about the abuse scandals in their church and realize that the church’s image of power has to change.

Christian Jager has set up postcards in his room in the seminary. One reads: "Stand by the things you believe in. Even if you stand there alone." On another: "Shut up. I’m really nice!" These are not just postcard quotes, but also answers. The 22-year-old wants to become a priest and is often asked outside the walls of the seminary: "What do you want in this association?"

If you want to know something about the state of the Catholic Church, two numbers will help. Nine dioceses together are currently sending just 25 young men to the seminary on the outskirts of Frankfurt am Main. Mainly young men from the north of the republic gather here. In the south, where there are more Catholics, the numbers for the Catholic Church are looking better. But that doesn’t change the trend either.

Only 470 priest candidates left in Germany

25 years ago, according to the German Bishops’ Conference, there were still 2,138 priest candidates in Germany. Currently there are only around 470. Half of them will not finish their eight-year training – experience shows that. The Catholic Church has an existential problem with the next generation.

To be there for people

And yet: "It’s hard to believe, they still exist …", write the priest candidates on the homepage of the St. Georgen seminary. Anyone who asks them why they are here receives stories from their internships. Felix Lamberti was last on a children’s ward in the hospital. "It’s not just children who come here, but parents too. I get a lot of gratitude from them – for example, only when I play a game of Uno with them. Something jumps over. That drives me." Or there is Matthias Kremer. He was with the homeless in Trier. "Looking people in the eye and standing by them is one of the most beautiful moments."

If they become priests, they are there for people at the "interfaces of life", says Christian Jager. With baptism, marriage and death, with the greatest happiness and greatest suffering. Of course, that doesn’t make the headlines and yet it is so important. That’s why he’s "in this club".

Numerous conversations alongside my studies

The priestly candidates are in St. for five years. Everyday life in the seminary looks like this: In addition to studying theology, there are conversations and discussions about work and calling, God and the world – about power and abuse.

Everyone here needed letters of recommendation from congregations or sports clubs in order to begin training as priests. Some dioceses also require discussions with psychologists – a consequence of the thousands of abuse of children and young people in the Catholic Church.

Father Herbert Rieger is the head of the seminary. He says the goal is to find out early on whether people are emotionally mature, whether they know their own needs and know how to deal with them. "As a leader, I have responsibility for individuals, but also for communities."

"Abuse results from power imbalances"

A poster hangs in the seminar’s dining room. The prospective priests wrote on it what they wanted to talk about with their formators. It’s about the image of a priest. Many here no longer want to be the pastors. "I think the image of power in the church is changing. Abuse results from power imbalances. We as a church must work on this to reduce this power imbalance," says Matthias Kremer. He means it up and down.

He no longer wants to appear to believers as the pastor with his forefinger always raised. On the other hand, he also has a problem swearing obedience to his bishop.

Consecration for women, homosexuality and celibacy

A big issue right now among Catholics. Well-known theologians speak in an open letter to the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, of a premodern order of the church. The signatories also call for the exaggeration of the ordination office to be abolished and for women to be opened, to no longer ostracize homosexuality and not to prescribe celibacy. The head of the St. Georgen Theological College, where the priest candidates study, is also one of the signatories.

In the seminary, however, most men say they would want to live alone if the Church did not ask them to. Christian Jager says he wants to be there for those who are entrusted to him.

And yet, behind the doors of the seminary there are doubts. As with Christian Jager: "Can I make sure that nobody takes me in their arms? No tenderness? That is a question that sometimes burdens me." Anyone who asks Matthias Kremer whether he is sure of always being able to live alone gets the answer: "No!" And Felix Lamberti also says that at first he only went one way and was not sure how far he would take it.

Half of all aspirants to the priesthood will not make it through to ordination. Most of them because they fall in love.

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