Young people taking part in the Katholikentag festivities Young people taking part in the Katholikentag festivities 

Katholikentag: the long history of the German festival of faith

The 102nd edition of Catholic Days (Katholikentag) opens Wednesday in the German city of Stuttgart, kicking off a five-day celebration marking a unique tradition in Germany and beyond, and offering a positive cultural and ecclesial impact on society.

By Stefan von Kempis

Catholic Days are usually held every other year in alternate cities. It is among the largest and most important social events in Germany and Europe. The Catholic Days can be compared to World Youth Days in terms of the festive atmosphere they create.

Katholikentag has a history going back more than 170 years. They offer an expression of the secular strength and responsibility of the lay people of the Catholic Church in Germany.

The founding moment of the current Katholikentag dates back to the "General Assembly of Catholic Associations of Germany," which took place in Mainz in 1848. In that same year, the German parliament met for the first time in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt. In a sense, the birth of Catholic Days is thus linked to the beginnings of democracy in Germany.

This festival of faith was initially organized by the “Pious Society for Religious Freedom”, which over the course of history became the “Central Committee of German Catholics”. During the "Kulturkampf" under Bismarck at the end of the 19th century, the secular body opposed the government, ensured the survival of the Catholic Church in the German Reich and defended Catholics' ties with Rome against fierce opposition from the regime.

Festival of German faith

Many of the Catholic Days became important reference points for self-assertion for Catholics in 20th century society as well. It is therefore not surprising that the Katholikentag could not be organized during World War I and during the Third Reich.

The Katholikentag model also set a precedent, as even now the Protestant Church in Germany regularly organizes a "Kirchentag" - and recently there have also been "ecumenical Kirchentags." The third and most recent one took place last year in Frankfurt, but mostly online due to the pandemic.

Today, the Katholikentags are many things in one: a festival of faith, a place for the exchange of ideas and contacts, and a forum for debates that have an impact on German society. Political and religious leaders from Germany and abroad regularly attend the five-day event, and the Pope usually sends a message of greeting for the opening of the events. The Days conclude on Sunday with a solemn Mass.

In Stuttgart, the motto of Katholikentag 2022 is "sharing life." Organizers expect about 20,000 participants. The last major event had been attended by 80,000 people in Münster in 2018. As usual, Vatican News - Vatican Radio will be present with its own booth on the "Church Mile."

Interview with Marc Frings, General Secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics, on the Katholikentage by Vatican News' Gudrun Sailer

Q: Katholikentage - literally: Catholic Days - have existed in Germany for almost 175 years. How do you briefly explain what it is to someone who has never been there?

Yes, indeed, we go back to a very long tradition. We started in 1848. But in a nutshell, I would say that a Katholikentag today is an event that lasts for five days, and that brings together several thousand participants who discuss, together with experts, political, church and social issues, and to celebrate faith and culture and take together, come and stand on trends and visions vis a vis current developments that we are facing in the world, not only within the Church, but also outside.

Q: The Katholikentag is predominantly organised and supported by lay people. To what extent does that shape the character of this event?

If we go back to history, I have to add that in the early beginnings, the bishops were even excluded, so it was a 100% laypeople only event. But today we partner every time together with the host diocese. So it's a close cooperation between the Central Committee of German Catholics and the German Bishops here in Germany. It's very important to say that it's a bottom up process. 

It means that the whole program and we are talking about 1,500 events, panel discussions, workshops, cultural activities, is prepared and conducted by volunteers, mainly deriving from Catholic civil society. And it means that no one can complain about the program because it 100% represents the current priorities of representatives of the civil society coming both from the Catholic Church, but also from our ecumenical friends, from experts, from thinktanks, political parties, etc.

Marc Frings, General Secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics
Marc Frings, General Secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics

Q: Katholikentage show themselves open to ecumenism. What significance do these topics have at the Katholikentag?

I think it's an obvious trend that both German Catholic conventions, but also the Protestant conventions are moving closer together. We are now are more ecumenically driven today. I can say that we are hosting almost 150 workshops, panels, worships that are focused primarily on the ecumenical situation in Germany. 

And I think this has also very practical dimension, given that most of the marriages in Germany today bring together partners from different confessions. So I think it's important that we do not only take a theological, very academic point of view, but also a practical one, because ecumenical life is something that goes very deep into private life of Christians in Germany.

Q: For what reason does the Katholikentag always, and even more this time, offer events on current socially relevant and political topics?

Historically speaking, this is where we are coming from. The lay people in Germany always wanted to penetrate the public arena with all their political convictions, ideas, concepts. This is where the Katholikentag movement comes from.

Our self proclaimed understanding until today is that we do not limit ourselves to church related debates, but that we want to change the world and our surroundings accordingly, and hence we translate our faith into action. And the Katholikentag may be the most visible tool that we use for this. We, as the Central Committee of German Catholics, also do political lobby work in Berlin, which is also where our office is spaced.

But it's important that we do not only discuss church related issues, but that we discuss, for example, climate change, post-colonialism, the war in Ukraine, the post-war situation of Afghanistan. So global topics as well as social dimensions, debates that take place only in Germany. This is something where we want to give in our opinions. And I think this is the very added value of the work of the Central Committee of German Catholics here in Germany.

Q: What significance does the Katholikentag have in the faith life of Germans today?

It's still very important, definitely, especially for those who are organized in associations and in unions and who play a significant role in the everyday life of Catholic Church. But we also have to face changing patterns.

The majority of Germans, of the majority of people living in Germany to be more correct, do not belong any longer to one of the two big churches in Germany. This means that we also have to adapt to a new reality, that we have to defend and explain better what we are doing, why we are doing it.

Q: In what sense the Katholikentag can be considered a faith event, a celebration of the Catholic religion?

This is definitely a very important pillar of every Katholikentag. Every Catholic convention consists of many worships, big celebrations that will take place publicly. We want to show our faith and our belief. And all of this takes place out of the usual boundaries in which we every day celebrate our Catholic, our Christian belief. And I think it's important also to discuss these issues not only within the worship, but also in special workshops that take place.

As you know, we are currently on the Synodal Path that also discussed the idea of a future Catholic Church. And this is why it's important also to have every two years such a Katholikentag where faith live also needs to be taken under review in order to see where the spiritual dimension of German Catholics also is heading for.

Q: How many guests do you expect and what makes the Katholikentag special this time?

It is the first post COVID Katholikentag. Not many public events so far took place in Germany. But we are still expecting more than 20,000 participants joining us from Wednesday to Sunday in Stuttgart.

When you ask me for specific topics, I would definitely say that from a Church perspective, we will intensively discuss the German Synodal path. We still have one year ahead of us. The Synodal path was designed in order to face the concrete consequences of the many sexual abuse cases that took place in the frame of the German Catholic Church. But we are also discussing the situation in Ukraine. We are offering a variety of workshops and panels that shed light on trends and consequences of the corona pandemic, especially when it comes to domestic violence, to the situation of single households.

But the added value, I think, of the program is the broad variety that also includes events for toddlers, for kids, for young people, for students, for the LGBTQ community, for couples, for singles. We have a very broad also social arena where people will definitely find support.

And I think which is also very important: It's a very interactive event. We have also digital formats for those who cannot join us directly in Stuttgart. They can follow us on Livestream, they can interact with us. And I think this makes it very unique and special and I hope that many of you will make it to the south of Germany.

Listen to the interview with Marc Frings by Gudrun Sailer
25 May 2022, 14:27