The Holy See
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31 October 2009



According to the program both organizers of the Conference should make a final speech. I find this extremely difficult since this meeting, while looking backwards, should also serve as a fresh start and a new departure. It was meant to give impetus to the dialogue and cooperation between Lutherans and Catholic. I hope, within the realms of possibility, that this has been achieved. Hence, firstly a word of thanks to all those who organized the Conference and thereby contributed to its success. I would love to name names but there are too many who have earned the right to recognition. I do wish to thank the two local churches representing the City of Augsburg and above all the three main speakers who have borne the brunt of the work.

A new beginning does not mean that we are starting from scratch; we do not need to rediscover ecumenism. The Catholic principles of ecumenism are clearly set down in the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism. Ecumenism builds upon the consensus that, despite the painful divisions between our Churches, has remained: belief in our Lord Jesus Christ as the sole Saviour and Mediator between God and mankind as it is witnessed in the Holy Scripture and our common Apostolic Constitution. Even though many bridges between us have been demolished, this central pillar has stood fast. We have expanded upon it in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification upon which we can build even further. Together we recognise that only in our belief in Jesus Christ, His Cross and His Resurrection God the Father in the Holy Spirit grants us Salvation and Redemption so that we may stand before God and accept one another as brothers and sisters.

This Conference has made clear once again that this is neither old hat nor a theological quibble. It is the Christian answer to the question about meaning, happiness and the where from and where to of life. It is also not a rigid viewpoint but rather the initiation of a journey through life which one describes, together with the Scriptures, as the way to Sanctification, i.e. life before God, from God and for God, life that knows that God is its refuge in all situations.

This belief is a gift that we should give to a world largely disoriented and uncertain about the fundamental questions of existence. Belief is no private matter; it involves a mission of hope for the world by bearing witness not only to the Word but also through social deeds. Justification and commitment to justice — and this worldwide — belong together. When we are deeply united then we can and must promote them together even more than we do so currently. The upcoming Second Ecumenical Church Day (Kirchentag) will, I hope, give us new direction in the mission to the world today.

Allow me a second reflection. This Conference has shown us anew the fundamental importance of Bible study. Exegesis over the last ten years has significantly contributed to a better understanding of today’s — at first glance distant — message of justification. It has demonstrated that it is not a minor question, but that ultimately it is the very message of God as the friend of life; it is the message of the God of mankind, the God that became man through Jesus Christ, a God with a human and humane face. The central question of the message of justification is not the Church, but God Himself, and this is also our central theme today.

We are, therefore, indebted to the experts of the exegesis, yet the Bible does not belong to them alone. It is the Book of God’s People. Hence joint Bible studies should figure more centrally in our ecumenical endeavours. We separated over the Bible and over the Bible must we reunite. It is thus a tragedy that in Germany that which has been possible and attainable elsewhere in the world, namely a common translation of the Bible, has not been possible.

Joint Bible study does not mean that we revert to the Scriptures as a quarry for evidence to sling against each other; instead we understand it as the Book of life, as nourishment and direction for life. In this sense we can all learn from each other and enrich one another. Ecumenical dialogue is not a convergence on the lowest common denominator: it is an exchange not only of ideas but also of gifts with which each Church is enriched in its own way. In this sense we work and pray for unity in diversity. Ecumenism also means that we should be a Church that cannot be made, organised and reformed according to our own taste and need, rather one that is a Church under the Word of God.

This brings me to my third point, the question of the Church. Luther believed that what a Church is could be understood by any seven year-old child. Today he would be hard pressed to say the same. Sadly so! Today Luther’s other words about a blind, and obscure concept of Church are more suitable. The Church is no longer to everyone’s taste. Indeed, in my opinion Churches today are too wrapped up in their own concerns, their structures and their structural reforms. God knows these things are necessary. But they are not what makes the Church engaging or credible. Churches will no longer be clearly perceived as the sign and witness of the free and joyful message of a God of justice and of a justified mankind. The Joint Declaration must serve as a call to the real concern: God’s concern with humanity.

Several voices have blamed the Joint Declaration for failing to draw any consequences from the message of justification for the teaching and the practice of the Church. The Declaration is aware of these desiderata and has communicated them to the Churches. The Churches have made the Joint Declaration their own. Individual theologians and journalists have distanced themselves from the Declaration but no Church has done so, the Catholic Church included. If one looks back over the last ten years at the dialogue between our Churches, it is not true that nothing has happened concerning the question of the Church. The last joint Lutheran-Catholic Document on the Apostolicity of the Church — to give one example — builds upon the Joint Declaration and makes noteworthy progress.

However, there is no getting past the fact that the great breakthrough has at this point unfortunately eluded us. That is why a common invitation to Eucharistic Communion is still not possible. Many have thus become impatient and disappointed. I can understand why. Yet when it is about the Truth, protests and polemics do not help. Ultimately the question concerns what we mean when we say Church and what we mean when we want the unity of the Church, that is a unity in diversity. That is no secondary issue. We should strive to put forward our different ecumenical objectives over the next few years. This cannot happen if we attempt to distinguish ourselves by making ecumenical scapegoats of the others and portraying ourselves as ecumenical world champions. Only the honesty to recognise our own failures and weaknesses and a readiness to correct ourselves creates new trust.

Today, one must unfortunately note that alongside the traditional questions, new issues have arisen. In the 16th century — and even in the following centuries — we had common answers to ethical questions, namely questions concerning the shape to give our lives according to the message of justification. Only 20 years ago in 1989 we could still publish the common orientation “God is a friend of life ”. I fear that today that would no longer be possible. The rapidly changing ecumenical landscape unfortunately also entails the emergence of new differences and tendencies that distance us from one another and lead to new divisions.

The message of justification is no abstract theory: it must have a deep impact on our life. Therefore — today more than ever — it is a pressing task to reflect upon its ethical consequences. This message is in itself awakening and liberating. The Churches would betray their own nature and make ecumenism irrelevant if they no longer had the courage, in loyalty to God’s Word, when necessary to formulate uncomfortable though liberating alternatives to what “ people ” today commonly hold as right. In light of the message of justification, political correctness should not be the yardstick of Church speech and behaviour.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about what I hold most dear in ecumenism: spiritual ecumenism. It is the heart of ecumenism. It is understood as the ecumenism of prayer and conversion. Without prayer and conversion there is no ecumenism. But with prayer and conversion, according to the word of Jesus, a great deal — indeed everything — is possible.

The father of spiritual ecumenism, Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyon, spoke of an invisible monastery. He meant by this Christians scattered across the world yet praying together and for each other. I get the impression that this invisible monastery is currently thriving. It is getting ever more visible in many small and larger groups, communities and movements that, together or individually, pray for one another, read the Bible together, share spiritual experiences and correspond with one another. They are the real ecumenical cornerstone and are growing. What belongs together, grows together.

We ought to be thankful: we have achieved much and it is more than many think. Soberly must we add however that much still remains to be done. For the way forward we need patience and impatience alike. Both qualities belong to the Kingdom of God. This country contains countless people who are eagerly and impatiently waiting for one Church united around the one Table of the Lord, people who are praying for and working towards this goal: that all may be one. I hope that this Conference has not disappointed you and that it has strengthened us with patient impatience but also with joy and cheerful hearts to work and to pray so that the full unity, willed by Jesus Christ, becomes a reality. I thank you all for your participation.



Information Service N. 132 (2009/III-IV)