“It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of Sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds.”
That was the message of Pope Benedict XVI to an ecumenical gathering on September 23. The Pontiff went on to say that the “great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground.”
Ecumenism was the main theme for the 2nd day of the Pope’s visit to Germany, which he spent in Erfurt, the city where Martin Luther was ordained as an Augustinian monk and began his ecclesiastical work.
Pope Benedict began his day in Erfurt by visiting the city’s cathedral, where he venerated the relics of St. Boniface, the “apostle to the Germans.” Next he traveled to the nearby monastery of St. Augustine, where he met with leaders of the German Evangelical Church Council, a group representing about 24 million Lutheran faithful.
The Pope told the group that the ecumenical project—the drive to provide a common witness to the Gospel of Christ—faces two major problems today. The first is the collapse of traditional mainline Protestant denominations, which offer only “a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.” The second is the secularization of the modern world. “God is increasingly being driven out of our society,” the Pope remarked; “and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past.”
Later in the day the Pope joined about 300 people, including leaders of several Protestant groups, in an ecumenical service held in the church of the monastery that had been Luther’s home. There he again underlined the urgency of the ecumenical task:
Ever anew he must endure the rejection of unity, yet ever anew unity takes place with him and thus with the triune God. We need to see both things: the sin of human beings, who reject God and withdraw within themselves, but also the triumphs of God, who upholds the Church despite her weakness, constantly drawing men and women closer to himself and thus to one another. For this reason, in an ecumenical gathering, we ought not only to regret our divisions and separations, but we should also give thanks to God for all the elements of unity which he has preserved for us and bestows on us ever anew. And this gratitude must be at the same time a resolve not to lose, at a time of temptations and perils, the unity thus bestowed.
The Pope commented that in the days leading up to his visit, some newspaper analysts had suggested that he would bring an “ecumenical gift” to Erfurt, in the form of some new offer to promote Christian unity. That sort of analysis, he said, indicates “a political misreading of faith and ecumenism.” Union among Christians cannot be achieved by bargaining, he said; “Faith is not something we work out intellectually or negotiate between us.” Success in ecumenical work, he said, comes only through “entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives.”