The native land of Pope Benedict XVI. The site of Altötting, the “Lourdes of Germany.” And home to the single greatest proportion of Catholics of any German diocese.
According to these and similar indicators, the Diocese of Passau could lay claim to being one of the most Catholic dioceses in Germany, if not the world. But according to perhaps the only criteria that matters — a lived Catholicism among the baptized that is vibrant and faithful — the Bavarian diocese, tucked into Germany’s southeast corner, is currently far from contention.
While up to 80% of the people living in the diocese are officially registered as Catholics, religious belief and practice in Passau has cratered in recent decades, as it has across the rest of Germany. The rate of Sunday Mass attendance in Passau, for instance, while as high as 12% in 2018, has fallen to just a percentage point above the national average of 4.3% in the wake of COVID-19, with no sign of an impending recovery.
But while the problems facing Passau are typical among the 27 Catholic dioceses of Germany, especially in the traditionally Catholic south and west, the response the diocese is taking to address the crisis is anything but. Instead of attempting to stem the tide of Church disaffiliation and non-practice by pushing to alter Church doctrine and practice in conformity with the prevailing views of an increasingly secularized culture — an approach perhaps best embodied in the German Catholic Church’s problematic Synodal Way — Passau is committed to something else: the New Evangelization.
A vision of renewal first articulated by John Paul II in 1979, emphasized explicitly throughout his pontificate, and carried on by his successors, the New Evangelization underscores the need to proclaim the Gospel especially to peoples who have already heard its message but have grown indifferent. The New Evangelization doesn’t call for changes to the essence of the Christian message, but for new and creative ways of presenting it to a post-Christian society — and it has been a priority for Bishop Stefan Oster ever since he took the reins of Passau in 2014.
In one of his first moves, the Salesian-formed bishop established a commission of 25 leaders from across the diocese to think and discern about how evangelization could be done in a place like Passau. The commission gave rise to the diocesan Department for the New Evangelization, which has a mandate from the bishop to promote evangelistic efforts in diocesan parishes, but also through diocesan-wide initiatives.
Similar departments exist in a few other German Catholic dioceses, especially those led by bishops who have demonstrated fidelity to the teachings of the universal Church amidst the trials of the Synodal Way, such as Augsburg, Eichstatt and Fulda. But by and large, they are an exception on the German ecclesial scene.
Bishop Oster said that a takeaway from this is that “in a liberal society like ours,” which is characterized by individualism and materialism, knowledge and practice of the faith was plummeting “even though the structures and institutions keep going.” And he doesn’t think accommodating the faith to those same liberal values will do anything to help the Church recover.
“I hardly know any place where liberalized Catholicism provokes growth,” said Bishop Oster, who has opposed the most controversial resolutions of the Synodal Way, such as blessings for same-sex couples and requesting the Pope to revisit women’s ordination. “Where? Show me a place.”
Instead, in sharing his vision of the New Evangelization with the Register, Bishop Oster emphasized the need to lead Catholics, especially young people, “into a deeper, existential way of believing” — one that allows the faith to be lived out as a source of ultimate meaning amidst the challenges of 21st-century Western life.
“That’s what I’m trying to offer here.”
Catholic Germany’s need for a New Evangelization is in part the product of a multigeneration crisis of catechesis, during which pastoral formation of the people was offloaded to a German theological establishment that was indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the authoritative teaching of the universal Church’s magisterium and the popes of Rome. As a result, stories of people who self-identify as Catholic, even as good Catholics, but don’t accept basic teachings of the Catholic faith nor take part in the Church’s sacramental life abound.
This challenge is compounded in a place like Passau, where Catholicism has been reduced primarily to a cultural identity that is more or less synonymous with being Bavarian but doesn’t necessarily entail any commitments of belief or practice.
As a result, there is a built-in resistance to efforts to improve or enhance local Catholics’ understanding and practice of the faith. After all, the diocese used to be the largest in the Holy Roman Empire, and many of its public places are still adorned with Marian murals, crosses and other religious symbols — “isn’t it Catholic enough?” goes this reasoning. In fact, implying that Passau Catholics are in need of a “new evangelization” is even taken as an insult by some.
“It’s tough work,” said Bishop Oster, referring to a German phrase to imply that promoting the New Evangelization in Passau is like trying to cut through thick wood.
Katharina Hauser, an adviser for the New Evangelization in the diocesan office, concurs. Among the projects in her portfolio, she heads the “4x4 Project,” an effort to help parishes become hubs for evangelization by first deepening the faith of those already in the pews before equipping them to invite others. The program is currently working with four pilot parishes — something Hauser acknowledged isn’t always easy, as there can be a resistance to change, even with demographic collapse on the horizon.
“They have to make a decision to want this,” she told the Register, “to be a part of the New Evangelization.”
But the diocese also hosts many of its own initiatives to promote the New Evangelization in Passau. The fourth-annual “Adoratio Eucharistic Congress” will be held June 9-11 in Altötting, providing an opportunity for Catholics from Passau but also from across Germany to gather together for prayer, formation and community.
More regularly, Bishop Oster personally leads “Believe and Pray” evenings every other Sunday, which gather 20-40 young adults for prayer, catechesis and, of course, Bavarian beer, shared with the bishop and each other. And undergirding it all, the bishop also opened up the Barbarakappelle, or chapel of St. Barbara, as a place of perpetual adoration, accessible off of Passau’s Domplatz, or cathedral square, that Hauser described as the “source of power” of all good work being done in the diocese.
In the effort to spark new life in Passau, Bishop Oster has been willing to bring in outside help — from both near and far.
For instance, he invited HOME, an initiative of the Austrian-based Loretto Movement, to set up shop right in the heart of the Domplatz. Modeled after a similar initiative in Salzburg and launched in fall 2021, the so-called HOME Base serves as a source of New Evangelization synergy in Passau, complementing and contributing to diocesan-led efforts.
The HOME Base project includes La Cantina, a hip café offering tasty food and a chic locale for Catholics and diocesan employees to meet up, discuss ideas, and even invite non-practicing friends. La Cantina is also one expression of HOME’s commitment to charitable works, one of its defining pillars alongside prayer, community and formation. The café employs persons with disabilities, runs a reintegration program for those getting off the streets, and offers a pay-what-you-can meal for disadvantaged folks, like the elderly and single parents.
HOME Base also has a vibrantly designed gebetshaus, or “prayer house,” a common phenomenon in Germany among charismatic communities, initially inspired by the Catholic Johannes Hartl’s ecumenical initiative in Augsburg. HOME Passau’s initiative has an important Catholic distinction: the presence of the Eucharistic Lord in a tabernacle embedded in the crux of a wooden cross. The prayer house, or room, plays host to praise-and-worship evenings, Eucharistic adoration and also catechetical events, like Bishop Oster’s biweekly “Believe and Pray” gatherings.
Underscoring all of HOME’s offerings is its “J9 Discipleship School” — a nine-month residential program for 18- to 30-year-olds looking for intentional Christian formation. The initiative, which currently has nine full-time formees from across Germany, helps its students deepen their prayer life and understanding of the faith, develop their personalities in the context of communal living, and prepares them for mission in the wider German Catholic context.
“We create a space where they can go deeper,” explained Sebastian Raber, who heads HOME Passau’s academy offerings. “We want them to be a blessing to others.”
But the Diocese of Passau doesn’t just pull from neighboring Austria for its New Evangelization efforts; it also hosts a team of American-based Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries, who serve on the campus of the local University of Passau.
According to Jimmy Harrison, who is now FOCUS’ regional director in Europe after serving as a missionary and team lead in Passau beginning in 2018, FOCUS has the same focus in Passau as it does on any other college campus: walking with young men and women, helping them deepen their relationship with Christ, and then sending them on mission.
But Harrison acknowledges that there are certainly distinct elements of doing campus ministry in Germany, which also includes a presence in the Archdiocese of Cologne. For instance, he shares how FOCUS’ motto, that they “evangelize through friendship,” was somewhat lost in translation, given that the German understanding of friendship is more permanent and substantial than the typical America usage. Now, FOCUS missionaries in Germany say they evangelize through relationship.
Harrison also said there have also been times when locals have questioned why an American missionary apostolate is needed to promote Catholicism in Catholic Bavaria (though, as Harrison points out, the FOCUS teams in Europe are comprised of European as well as American missionaries).
His conclusion? There’s a need for evangelization in Germany, and FOCUS has responded. “We just felt a call from the Lord to go and share what we have received with others, and that’s it. It didn’t need to be us, but it is.”
He also added that FOCUS missionaries bring a complementary ingredient to all of the other good initiatives going on in Passau: a particular emphasis on “spiritual multiplication,” or being intentional about sharing one’s faith with others. Harrison shared some beautiful stories to this effect from his own experience as a missionary, including a young man that he had walked with working with two other students in turn, who are now each forming their own Bible studies on campus.
“There are certainly unique challenges with being on mission in Germany,” said Harrison, who lives in Passau with his wife and two children. “But at the end of the day, people are people, and their hearts are seeking God.”
Deepening the Faith
Initiatives like FOCUS, Home Base and Adoratio are all part of Bishop Oster’s vision to establish “alternative places for living the faith” that complement but aren’t reducible to the traditional parish structures.
The Passau bishop acknowledges that he doesn’t have a fail-proof plan for revitalizing Catholicism in his diocese. There’s a reason, after all, why the New Evangelization is new.
But rather than leave the call untried and untested, Bishop Oster believes that living it out in a personal and intentional way can lead to profound conversion in peoples’ lives — something he said he sees three to four times a year with the young people he walks with.
“It’s not much, it’s not a mass movement, but that’s one way to do it — to help people deepen their faith.”
Hauser also said that it’s important to make a distinction between simply keeping people affiliated with the Church versus helping enkindle within them a desire to know and love Jesus.
“I think the goal has to be to really deepen the faith and to spread the whole Gospel,” she told the Register. “Maybe in a different way than we spread it 40 years ago, but the essence has to be the same. We need more of Jesus, not less.”
It’s an approach that, at the very least, has attracted dedicated Catholics with a zeal for mission to relocate to Passau, precisely to take part in the dynamism of evangelistic energies percolating under Bishop Oster’s leadership.
Hauser and Raber, as well as other HOME Base missionaries like Joseph and Sophia Biedermann, shared how a sense of calling drew them to the quaint, even provincial Bavarian town of 50,000, often away from job opportunities in places like Munich and proximity to family. And each shared reports of how young families and students, not even necessarily working in ministry, have been drawn to Passau by the sense of vibrant orthodoxy bubbling up in the diocese.
According to Hauser, it’s a witness to what German Catholicism could look like, if more people embraced the Gospel and the call to the New Evangelization.
“There are many problems here in Germany, but also many places of hope.”