Figures released July 15 by the German bishops’ conference draw a bleak picture of the ongoing decline of Catholicism in Germany.

However, the head of the conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, described the Church July 15 as a continuing “strong force, whose message is heard and accepted.”

With more than 23.7 million members in Germany, Catholicism is the largest single religious group in the country, comprising 29 percent of the population. Yet people are leaving the Church in droves: in 2015, a total of 181,925 people departed.

By comparison, 2,685 people became Catholic, and 6,474 reverted to Catholicism.

While the German bishops’ conference emphasized that baptisms and marriages showed a slight increase as compared to the year before, the actual long-term figures describe a steep downward trend.

When compared to the official statistics of twenty years ago, the number of baptisms has declined by more than a third, from almost 260,000 babies baptized in 1995 to just over 167,000 in 2015.

The situation is even worse for marriages. Twenty-one years ago, 86,456 couples tied the knot in Church. Last year, the number was down by almost half: In a nation of 80 million people, only 44,298 couples were married in the Church last year.

Further official numbers confirm this precipitous decline: average church attendance is down from 18.6 percent in 1995 to 10.4 percent in 2015.

The number of people departing the Church has increased within the same timeframe, having peaked in recent years at more than 200,000 annually.

No numbers are provided by the German episcopate about how many Catholics went to confession last year. However, a recent academic study of the priesthood in Germany showed that even among the clergy, more than half – 54 percent – go to confession only “once a year or less.”

Among pastoral assistants, a staggering 91 percent responded that they receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a year or less.

Despite these alarming numbers, the head of the bishops’ conference issued an upbeat appraisal of the situation.

“The statistics show that the Church in Germany continues to be a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted,” Marx said in a statement. “There obviously not only is an interest in, but also an active desire for the sacraments of the Church, as the slight increase of baptisms and marriages proves,” he said.

Acknowledging  the high numbers of people leaving the Church, the head of the German bishops’ conference said: “We need a ‘sophisticated pastoral practice’ that does justice to the diverse life-worlds of people and convincingly passes on the hope of the faith. The conclusion of last year’s synod of bishops and the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis are important signposts.”

“Pope Francis gives us courage,” the Archbishop of Munich and Freising continued, “when he tells us that the way of the future Church is the way of a ‘synodal church.’  That means: All faithful are called upon, laypeople and priests! Together we will continue to give convincingly witness to our Faith and the Gospel.”

Pope Francis issued a scathing analysis of the decline of the Catholic faith in Germany since the 1960s on the occasion of the German bishops’ ad limina visit in 2015, calling on the bishops to re-introduce people to the Eucharist and Confession during the Year of Mercy, to take on the new evangelization, to strengthen the role of priests, and to protect unborn life.