ERFURT, Germany – 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.