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Bishop and cardinal say unity efforts must face differences


Germany’s top Protestant bishop has urged a stepping up of efforts to allow Christians of all denominations to share in the Eucharist together.

"We should not slacken in our efforts to find a solution to this issue," Bishop Wolfgang Huber of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) said at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu on 5 September. Gathered in the Romanian city are more than 2000 participants from throughout Europe and from the continent’s main Christian traditions.

"It can be seen just how urgent this issue is wherever you have people who belong to different churches in the same family, in ecumenical spiritual communities or who are linked in other walks of life or work with members of different Christian churches," Huber said.

He was speaking on the first full day of the assembly alongside Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top official for Christian unity.

In his speech, the EKD leader pointed to a recent agreement in Germany to formalise the mutual recognition of baptism between the various denominations, an initiative, he pointed out, which had its roots in a proposal by Cardinal Kasper.

Huber said he hoped the agreement on baptism would help "show the way towards an answer to the question of sharing in the Eucharist together". Still, he said a recent Vatican statement reiterating that Protestant denominations are not churches "in the proper sense" was damaging the search for Christian unity. "Mutual understanding and mutual respect are important preconditions for ecumenical progress," he said.

Cardinal Kasper in his address to the gathering said it was not the Vatican’s intention "to hurt or belittle anyone" with its statement. "I know that many, especially many of my evangelical brothers and sisters, felt hurt by this. I am not unaffected by it, either; I, too, had problems with it. For the hurt and pain of my friends is my hurt and pain as well," said the Vatican official.

"But what are we to expect?" continued Kasper. "Cosy ecumenism and fake ecumenism, which are all about being nice to each other, do not get us very far; the only way forward is dialogue in truth and clarity."

The fact that it is not possible for all Christians to share in the Eucharist was "offensive and, for many, a heavy burden", Kasper noted. "But", he continued, "it does not help to conceal wounds; we need to leave them open, even when there is pain; only then can we treat them and, with God’s help, heal them."

Still, said Kasper, "our divisions are partly responsible for divisions in Europe and for the secularisation of Europe. Our divisions are partly responsible for the fact that many people despair of the Church and question it."

The Vatican official said also that many positive things for Christian unity had happened in recent decades.

"We Catholics have learned from the Evangelicals about the meaning of the Word of God; at the same time they are leaning from us about the meaning and form of the liturgy," he said. "One cannot think of Europe without the Reformers or Johann Sebastian Bach, or witnesses like Dietrich Bonhoeffer," the German Lutheran theologian executed for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.

The Sibiu assembly is organized by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). The two groupings account for most of Europe’s Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. It follows similar assemblies in Basel, Switzerland, in 1989 and in Graz, Austria, in 1997.

Ecumenical News International