German ecumenical meeting ends with calls for unity near old dividing wall

 — June 3, 20033 juin 2003

[ENI] The biggest-ever official gathering in Germany uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics ended June 1, in Berlin, with an ecumenical service attended by tens of thousands of people. But the sharing of the Eucharist or Holy Communion did not carry the approval of Pope John Paul II.

“The Ecumenical Kirchentag [church congress] was a great step forward on the path of Christian ecumenism,” Hans Joachim Meyer, one of the event’s co-presidents, told worshippers. “No one can tear apart what now unites us.”

The June 1 service took place in front of the Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s parliament, just meters from where Berlin was once divided by a concrete wall guarded by watchtowers. The Berlin Wall has long since vanished, but Catholics and Protestants remain divided over whether they can share together in the Eucharist, the sacrament that commemorates Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed.

Senior politicians, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, joined church leaders, writers, musicians, artists and journalists, as well as religious leaders from outside Germany, at the congress, which included more than 3000 events. At one event, the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, addressed a crowd of 20,000 people. At another, the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, and Israeli politician, Rabbi Michael Melchior, outlined challenges facing Christians and Jews in the Middle East.

Organizers said when they launched the plans for the Kirchentag in 1996 that they hoped it would culminate in a shared Eucharist. But the most recent encyclical of the Pope restated the traditional Catholic teaching that prevents Protestants and Catholics from sharing in the Eucharist and is seen as putting an end to hopes for such a ceremony. Still, the gathering heard calls, often greeted by standing ovations, for rapid progress on the issue of Eucharistic sharing. Elisabeth Raiser, the Kirchentag’s Protestant co-president, said she hoped church leaders would quickly seek common ground on outstanding doctrinal issues that would produce results. “What use are discussions, if nothing changes in practice?” she said.

The Vatican’s top official for inter-church relations reminded the gathering that “there is no alternative to ecumenism,” but defended a recent papal document restating Roman Catholic doctrine preventing Protestants and Catholics from sharing the Eucharist. “Ecumenism is not an added-extra for Christians, not a hobby for a few people,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “Ecumenism is at the centre of what it means to be a Christian.”

“Our hope is that the 21st century will be the century of ecumenical unity,” said Kasper in a speech on Friday that ended with a standing ovation. Kasper reaffirmed that for the Catholic church the aim of ecumenism was “visible unity in faith, the sacraments and ministry.” But he acknowledged that the Catholic vision focused on the papacy was “not acceptable–at least in its present form–to non-Catholic Christians” and noted that Pope John Paul II had himself proposed a “fraternal discussion” on the way in which the papal office was exercised.

On the subject of the Eucharist, the cardinal said progress in overcoming divisions could not be made through “public pressure, public polemics, demonstrations and controversy.” He dismissed suggestions that the recent papal encyclical restating Catholic teaching on the Eucharist signified a “set-back” for ecumenism. “You cannot criticize the Pope just because in his latter years in this encyclical he has not become a Protestant,” said Kasper.

The encyclical did not prevent “pastoral solutions” in special cases, Kasper insisted. “I have never experienced, still less have myself practiced, that someone who comes with serious intent to the Eucharist is turned away.”

The previous evening, hundreds of people packed into a Berlin church for an ecumenical service at which Gotthold Hasenhuttl, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of systematic theology, inviting non-Catholics to take the bread and wine at the Catholic Eucharist over which he presided. The service took place at a Protestant church in eastern Berlin overflowing with an estimated 2500 worshippers. Speaking to journalists after the service, Hasenhuttl said he stood by his actions and claimed he had broken no church rule. “I hope what we have done tonight will take place more and more often,” he told ENI.

However, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, had earlier condemned the event, saying it was a “political action,” the German news agency dpa reported. The service was not part of the Kirchentag’s official program. It was organized by groups campaigning for church reform.

Still, noted Christian Weisner, from Wir sind Kirche (We Are Church), one of the organizers of the service, Protestants and Catholics receiving the Eucharist from one another has been “the practice for years, for decades in Germany and elsewhere. It would be an anti-ecumenical signal if this was happening everywhere but [did] not [happen] at this first Ecumenical Kirchentag,” he said in an interview.

Catholic Cardinal Karl Lehmann acknowledged people had a “deep longing” for a common Eucharist, and said the Berlin event would give it a “new impetus.” “It’s now time to go full steam ahead,” said Lehmann, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. On May 30, 16 German denominations, including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, signed the Charta Oecumenica (ecumenical charter), a set of guidelines for promoting cooperation, towards the “visible unity” of the church.

Organizers said that altogether, about 200,000 people from Germany and beyond came to the German capital for the five-day event.

Posted: June 3, 2003 • Permanent link:
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