Catholics, Orthodox already are close, must work together, pope says
By Cindy Wooden
FREIBURG, Germany (CNS) — Meeting a dozen Orthodox bishops in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI continued his appeal for people of faith to work together to bring God and moral values back to German society.
In a climate in which some people would like “to ‘liberate’ public life from God,” the Christian churches promote understanding and solidarity “on the basis of their faith in the one God and father of all,” the pope said Sept. 24.
The meeting in the Freiburg seminary was attended by Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox bishops. The red-sashed cardinals in the pope’s entourage sat across from the black-robed Orthodox bishops wearing a variety of flat, rounded or pointed black hats.
Germany’s Orthodox population, estimated at 1.6 million, is made up of Russians who arrived after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Greeks and Serbs who arrived during the economic boom of the 1960s and Romanians and other East Europeans who came after the fall of communism.
In 2009, their bishops formed an episcopal conference to coordinate their work and their relations with other Christians, particularly with the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict congratulated them on their commitment to working together and prayed that their experience would help strengthen the bonds between Orthodox churches elsewhere, hastening “the progress of efforts to establish a pan-Orthodox council.” Efforts to hold a pan-Orthodox council have been stalled for decades by internal tensions, including disputes over leadership.
Of all Christians, he said, Catholic and Orthodox are theologically the closest and their churches have the same basic structure, “so we may hope that the day is not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together.”
However, he said, some theologically thorny issues — including the question of the primacy of the pope — have to be resolved before that can happen.
In the meantime, he said, Catholics and Orthodox must give witness together to their faith in Jesus Christ and to the dignity of the human person.
Catholics and Orthodox should speak out together “for the protection of human life from conception to natural death” and for “the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman,” he said.
Working together, Catholics and Orthodox will contribute “to building up a society equipped for the future, in which the human person is given the respect which is his due,” the pope said.
Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Augoustinos of Germany, president of the Orthodox bishops’ conference, thanked the pope for taking time to meet with them during a busy trip and he assured the pope that, with the new Orthodox bishops’ council, relations with the Catholic Church will grow even more solid.
The metropolitan noted that the pope’s earlier meetings with German Protestants, Jews and Muslims had included women, but their encounter with the pope was all men.
The fact, however, that the Catholic and Orthodox bishops have such a strong devotion to Mary — and the Orthodox bishops wear an “encolpion,” or medallion, of Mary close to their hearts — is proof that “it is not misogyny that our meeting today, in contrast to the ecumenical encounters of the last days, is a meeting of men only,” the metropolitan said.
Pope says ‘we are church,’ but only when united, faithful to tradition
By Cindy Wooden
FREIBURG, Germany (CNS) — Meeting seminarians in Freiburg, Pope Benedict XVI made a rare, direct comment about a group seeking major changes in church practice and discipline.
“Some people say, ‘we are church’ and they are right, we are church,” the pope said Sept. 24 in a conversation with the seminarians.
The We Are Church movement began in Austria in 1995 and spread internationally; its supporters have called for greater lay participation in church decision-making, the ordination of women and of married men, and for church acceptance of homosexuality.
The pope said the “we” that is the church “is much larger than that small group. It’s the worldwide church — the whole community of believers today and in all places and times.”
Pope Benedict, who was staying at the seminary, spoke to the candidates for priesthood without a prepared text. Vatican Radio’s German program posted a transcript of the pope’s remarks on its website.
The pope told the seminarians that while the opinions and convictions of members of the Catholic community are important, “there can never be a majority against the Apostles — that would be a false majority.”
Developments in Catholic life and practice must be in line with church tradition and undertaken in unity with the pope and bishops, the successors of the Apostles, he said.
“We are church, yes, but in the broader sense,” the pope told the seminarians. “Let’s be church by opening ourselves and reaching out to others.”
Catholics, Lutherans unite in prayer, but differences don’t disappear
By Cindy Wooden
FREIBURG, Germany (CNS) — Divided Christians can celebrate their common faith in Christ with beautiful prayer services, but that does not mean they leave aside all their differences.
After joining Pope Benedict XVI for a long meeting and then for a prayer service Sept. 23 in Erfurt — a German town closely tied to Martin Luther — the head of the Lutheran Church council in Germany and the pope’s chief ecumenical officer publicly demonstrated how much is left to discuss.
At a press conference after the papal events, the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider, chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, reiterated the position of his church that when a Catholic and Lutheran are married they should be able to receive Communion at each other’s church services.
The question affects tens of thousands of couples in a country where the Catholic and Lutheran churches each count about 30 percent of the population.
Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated the Catholic position that shared Communion as a regular practice is appropriate only once the Catholic and Lutheran churches come to a fuller agreement on serious theological questions, including the meaning of the Eucharist.
Rev. Schneider responded by saying that the concrete faith lives of married couples, and not just “theological theories,” should be given greater consideration by the Catholic Church. Lutherans have been raising the issue with the Vatican for a long time, even to the point of perhaps causing “irritation,” he said.
The Lutheran leader also was asked about the hopes some Lutherans expressed that Pope Benedict would “rehabilitate” Martin Luther or symbolically withdraw his excommunication during the trip, or at least by 2017 when they mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
He said the pope’s speeches that morning were, in effect, a re-evaluation of the person of Martin Luther and his praiseworthy goal of exploring how sinful human beings can receive God’s grace. Rev. Schneider said he hoped the official Catholic position on Luther would continue to develop and would move toward a re-evaluation of Luther’s theology, not just his personal faith.
Cardinal Koch, however, responded that reconciliation is “a two-way street.” Both Catholics and Lutherans have work to do in evaluating what happened during the Reformation and what has happened since, he said.
The cardinal said Lutherans themselves must ask whether the church life and practice they embrace today is faithful to what Luther envisioned.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, was asked to respond Sept. 24 to questions about German newspapers headlines describing the pope’s ecumenical meetings as “disappointing.”
In a trip designed to help people see the enduring importance of faith in God, “it was important to focus on Luther’s deep faith. It wasn’t a secondary aspect” of his life, Father Lombardi told reporters in Freiburg.
“The pope knew people might expect too much,” he said, but focusing on Luther as a model of faith “was more important to the Holy Father than just the solution of one or another practical problem.”
In land of Martin Luther, pope prays for Christian unity
By John Thavis
ERFURT, Germany (CNS) — Visiting the land of Martin Luther, Pope Benedict XVI prayed for Christian unity and told Lutheran leaders that both secularization and Christian fundamentalism pose challenges to ecumenism today.
“God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization and become modern by watering down the faith?” the pope said in a meeting Sept. 23 with 15 representatives of the German Evangelical Church Council.
The encounter in the central German city of Erfurt, followed by a joint prayer service, marked the ecumenical highlight of the pope’s four-day visit to his homeland. The pope stopped to pray in the Erfurt Cathedral, where Luther was ordained a Catholic priest in 1507, and then met with the Lutheran leaders in a wing of the former Augustinian monastery where Luther lived until 1511.
The pope listened as a mixed Catholic-Lutheran choir sang hymns in the vaulted chapter house of the former monastery, which has become a memorial to Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation.
The pope’s visit was much-anticipated in Germany, and before his arrival there had been speculation that he would make an important ecumenical announcement or concession. But during the prayer service in the church of the ancient monastery, the pope said this conjecture about an “ecumenical gift” demonstrated a “political misreading of faith and of ecumenism.”
Progress in Christian unity is not like negotiating a treaty, he said. Ecumenism will advance when Christians enter more deeply into their shared faith and profess it more openly in society, he said.
The pope’s two talks did not examine major ecumenical issues that have been taken up by Catholics and Lutherans in recent years. Instead, he focused on the common need to witness the Christian faith in a broken world.
The key issue today is the issue of God, just as in Luther’s time, he said. But while Luther struggled with how to receive God’s grace, that question appears less crucial to modern society, he said.
“For who is actually concerned about this today — even among Christians?” he said.
Most Christians today presume that God will mercifully overlook their small failings, the pope said.
“But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage?” he said. In the face of the drug trade, poverty, hunger and the willingness to use violence in the name of religion, Christians should conclude that “evil is no small matter,” he said.
“Were we truly to place God at the center of our lives, it could not be so powerful,” he added.
This witness of the faith should take concrete form in defense of the human being “from conception to death — from issues of prenatal diagnosis to the question of euthanasia,” he said. That is especially important at a time of ethical erosion, he said.
The pope said this common witness of the Gospel has been made more difficult by the rise of fundamentalist Christian groups that are spreading with “overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways,” leaving mainstream Christian denominations at a loss.
“This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: What is this new form of Christianity saying to us — for better and for worse?” he said.
Germany’s Lutheran leaders had requested the encounter with the pope, and Vatican officials said the pope was more than happy to make it the main event of his second day in Germany. Pope Benedict has long appreciated Luther’s writings and occasionally has cited him in his talks.
The ecumenical service featured a reading of Psalm 146 from Luther’s translation of the Bible, in what Vatican officials said was a papal sign of respect for the Protestant founder. It began: “Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to my God while I live.”
Luther entered the Erfurt monastery in 1505 against the wishes of his father, who foresaw a career in law for his son. By the time he left Erfurt nearly seven years later, Luther was already questioning Catholic teaching about how sin is forgiven and grace is received — a divergence that would lead to his break with Rome and the start of the Reformation in 1517.
The pope said that despite the split, Christian churches still have much that unites them. He said the error of the Reformation period was that “for the most part we could only see what divided us.”
Rev. Nikolaus Schneider, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, welcomed the pontiff in a talk that also emphasized areas of agreement. At the same time, he said, many Germans — especially those in interdenominational marriages — would like to “partake more freely in eucharistic fellowship.”
His words touched on a sensitive issue in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist generally is to be shared only by those who fully profess the same faith and share Catholic beliefs about the sacraments.
Seated in the front row were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Lutheran, and German President Christian Wulff, a Catholic married to a Lutheran.
Rev. Schneider said that in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, Catholics and Lutherans should consider whether Luther could be a bridge figure for both churches. He said Luther’s theological approach of seeking God despite uncertainty has never been more relevant.
“It is time to heal the memories of the mutual injuries in the Reformation period and the subsequent history of our churches; it is time to take real steps for reconciliation. I would like to invite you to do so,” he told the pope.
Catholic and Lutheran experts are working on a joint document that will assess ecumenical progress 500 years after the Reformation.
Pope celebrates Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium
By John Thavis
BERLIN (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and appealed for a better understanding of the church, one that goes beyond current controversies and the failings of its members.
The evening liturgy Sept. 22 was the religious high point of the pope’s busy first day in the German capital, where he also met with government leaders, Jewish representatives and addressed the parliament.
About 70,000 Catholics gave the 84-year-old pontiff a rousing welcome when he rode in a popemobile through the stadium, which was built by the Nazi regime to host the 1936 Olympic Games. The pope paused to kiss several babies as young people waved scarves imprinted with the theme of the papal visit, “Where there is God, there is a future.”
In recent years, the church in Germany has experienced a consistent drop in religious practice, including Mass attendance. Internal debates have simmered over such issues as priestly celibacy, and recent revelations of clerical sex abuse have drawn widespread criticism from other sectors of society.
In his homily, the pope said part of the problem was that people mistakenly see only the outward form of the church and consider it merely as another organization in a democratic society. He asked for a broader understanding of the church as a communion of life with Christ.
He said people need to realize that although the church contains some bad members, “if only these negative aspects are taken into account, then the great and deep mystery of the church is no longer seen.”
When that happens, he said, the church is no longer a source of joy.
“Dissatisfaction and discontent begin to spread, when people’s superficial and mistaken notions of ‘church,’ their ‘dream church,’ fail to materialize,” he said.
The pope said that when the church goes through troubled times, its members should take comfort and strength from their closeness to Christ. This sense of “abiding in Christ” is especially needed in “our era of restlessness and lack of commitment, when so many people lose their way … (and) when loving fidelity in marriage and friendship has become so fragile,” he said.
The pope did not discuss in detail any of the particular issues that divide German Catholics. Instead, he encouraged them to support one another and “stand firm together against the storm.”
Altar girls were prominent in the procession at the start of the papal Mass, carrying the cross and candles as the procession wound up a staircase to an altar platform high above the stadium ground level.
After making the rounds in the popemobile, the pope was greeted by Berlin’s mayor, who gave him a model of the Brandenburg Gate, an emblem of the once-divided city.
While the pope was vesting for Mass, rain began to fall on the bishops, priests and dignitaries seated on the stadium’s field. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prelates and politicians around her scrambled to open disposable plastic raincoats.
At the beginning of the Mass, Berlin Archbishop Rainer Woelki formally welcomed the pope to the “city where only one in three people is a member of a Christian church. You are coming to a city where God has been forgotten and atheism has taken hold.”
But the city’s Christians are working to give new life to the faith and to remind people of the great sacrifices Berlin’s Christians made to defend faith and their fellow human beings during the Nazi years, he said.
“This is not a godless city. It is even a city of martyrs,” the archbishop said.
– – –
Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden in Berlin
Arriving in Germany, pope warns against religious indifference
By John Thavis
BERLIN (CNS) — Arriving in Germany for a four-day visit, Pope Benedict XVI warned that growing indifference to religious values was threatening true freedom and replacing it with a purely individualistic culture.
In his first speech in Berlin Sept. 22, the pope said he had come to remind the German people of their “responsibility before God and before one another.” He said this perspective was essential in a world that is losing the sense of social solidarity.
The world, he said, needs “a profound cultural renewal and the rediscovery of fundamental values upon which to build a better future.”
The pope made the remarks at a welcoming ceremony hosted by President Christian Wulff at the Bellevue Palace, the presidential residence, shortly after he landed in the German capital.
Speaking to reporters on his flight from Rome, he said he recognized that increasing numbers of Catholics in Germany were leaving the church. Some, he said, were motivated by recent revelations of “terrible” scandals, a reference to priestly sex abuse cases that have come to light over the last two years.
The pope said he could understand their feelings. But he said that if they accept the church as the “people of God,” and not as a typical social organization, Catholics should “withstand and work against these scandals, precisely because they are on the inside.”
He was greeted as he stepped off his plane by Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The pope smiled as a boy and a girl presented him with a bouquet of flowers.
A small group of Catholics cheered on the edge of the tarmac, and small cannons boomed out a 21-gun salute. It was the German pontiff’s third trip as pope to his homeland and his first official state visit.
At the ceremony in the manicured gardens of Bellevue Palace, the pope was applauded by nearly 1,000 civil dignitaries and ecclesiastical leaders. He looked happy and relaxed as he walked through a receiving line with the president and watched a 350-soldier honor guard march past.
In his speech, the pope said he had not come to propose political or economic strategies, but simply “to meet people and to speak about God.”
“We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations,” he said. Yet history — including Germany’s own “dark pages” — shows that religion is one of the foundations for successful social life, he said.
“Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom,” he said.
In his speech to the pope, Wulff, 52, said that although the church’s message is not always an easy one, it is needed in modern society. The recent economic crisis has left many Germans searching for meaning in their lives, he said, and the church is in a position to offer answers.
Wulff added that the church itself is challenged by important questions today: “How compassionately will it treat points of rupture in the lives of individuals? How will it approach points of rupture in its own history or the wrongdoing of members of its clergy?”
Wulff, a Catholic, is divorced and civilly remarried. He told newspapers Sept. 21 that he would ask the pope to be more understanding toward people in that situation.
During his on-board press conference with reporters on the flight from Rome, the pope answered four pre-submitted questions. He spoke candidly about the challenges facing the church in Germany and said the church’s problems need to be seen in the context of widespread secularization.
When people leave the church, he said, it’s usually the last step in a long process that has multiple causes.
German church officials have acknowledged a steep drop in religious practice in recent years, with record low numbers of Catholics attending Mass regularly, baptizing their children and marrying in the church. Over the last 35 years, the number of German Catholics has dropped from more than 30 million to fewer than 25 million, and during the last year — which saw new revelations of priestly sex abuse in German dioceses — approximately 180,000 Catholics formally left the church.
Asked if he still considered himself a German, the pope answered yes, saying “one’s roots cannot be cut.” The question reflected a theme running through pre-trip coverage in the German media. The weekly Der Spiegel, for example, ran a cover story on the pope under the headline, “The Stranger.”
Pope Benedict told reporters that despite opposition to the church’s message and its teachings, he was convinced there was still “great expectation and great love for the pope” among Germans, along with a growing sense that society needs morality.
The pope’s first day in Berlin was a particularly demanding one. Later in the day he was scheduled to address the German parliament, meet with representatives of the country’s Jewish community and celebrate Mass in the city’s Olympic Stadium.
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.