At first glance, everything on Stuttgart’s Schlossplatz was the same as it is always at a Catholic Day: Sisters ran up to each other beaming and hugged each other. People with orange scarves populated the meadow around the fountain. And in a big procession, the clergy went to the stage for the Ascension service. At second glance, however, the meeting of the Catholic lay people, the committed people from communities and associations, develops into a moderately serious debacle.

Because only 25,000 people had registered for the opening of the Catholic Day. The organizers, the Central Committee of German Catholics, reported that there were 19,000 permanent participants. And among them were another 7,000 participants: podium guests, musicians or stand supervisors. For comparison: At the last Catholic Day before the pandemic, in 2018 in Münster, the organizers ended up with 90,000 participants, 50,000 of whom were permanent participants.

And of course: The corona pandemic plays a role in this. Not everyone wants a mass event with thousands of participants immediately after the Omicron wave dies down. And there was often simply not enough time to organize the traditional group trips to the Catholic meeting. ZdK President Irme Stetter-Karp is right when she says that the pandemic is not over yet and that Corona is still shaping everyday life. But: The virus alone cannot explain the 25,000 visitors.

The Catholic Day crisis is homegrown. It is an example of the crisis in the Catholic Church. For a long time now it has not only been so-called dead people who leave the churches, for example because of the church tax. Especially in the Catholic Church, under the persistent impression of the abuse scandal and the sometimes unwilling, sometimes clumsy attempts at coming to terms with the institutions, the committed church members also say goodbye: the many people from the parish councils, the many people from the middle of the community. And also those many people for whom it is no longer enough to discuss possible reforms at Catholic days, which are then not implemented in the end.

Because if everyone is honest, it is also clear to everyone that questions about the continued existence of compulsory celibacy, female priesthood or communion with the Protestants have been debated again and again for decades. In practice, however, hardly anything has changed over the long period of time.

Although the Stuttgart local bishop Gebhard Fürst announced that no Protestant would be sent away from the Eucharist at the Catholic Day – but that was nothing more than rhetoric. After all, being evangelical is not written on anyone’s forehead. And again and again the rumor was heard in Stuttgart that well-known speakers had canceled their participation in the Catholic Day, unlike in previous years: They didn’t want to be seen with the Catholic Church anymore.

Conversely, of course, one must also say: If you like the Catholic Church the way it is, you won’t meet them at a Catholic Day. Conservative groups have long since created their own events, in the Augsburg prayer house of theologian Johannes Hartl or at the Eucharistic congresses. And if you leaf through the program of the Stuttgart Catholic Day, you will find that many conservative representatives of the Catholic Church in Stuttgart are simply missing.

The Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, for example, is on a pilgrimage in Neviges on Ascension Day, and his Regensburg colleague Rudolf Voderholzer is also missing in Stuttgart. You can welcome that, you can condemn that, but one thing is clear: the Katholikentag and the ZdK no longer stand for “the” Catholic Church in Germany. In Stuttgart, a bubble of functionaries and committed people meets that has long since lost its representativeness.

And that’s what’s actually annoying: Because if there weren’t the Church and Catholic Days, you would actually have to invent them. Where else do thousands of people think about the problems of the world? Where else is there a debate at more than 1,500 events about war and peace in Ukraine, the abuse scandal or the situation in developing countries? Where else does so much religious and political educational work take place in such a concentrated way?

It would be fatal if the Catholic Church, with its constant crises, were to destroy itself in such a way that such formats would simply disappear. It is therefore right and proper that the first man in the state, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, encouraged the Catholics gathered in Stuttgart on Wednesday evening and pointed out that the “Synodal Path” reform process organized by the ZdK and the German Bishops’ Conference was being approached with curiosity and expectations will be considered. “Of course, what is thought, said and decided there is primarily the concern of the Catholic Church itself,” said Steinmeier. “And yet it will also depend on the results there, what role the church and Christians will play in our society in the future – whether it is worth listening to them again.”