The head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Dr Nikolaus Schneider, has said he is hopeful for future Christian unity after meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Dr Schneider had been scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI during an early April trip to Rome. Instead, he spent about 30 minutes with Pope Francis on Monday in the papal library in the Apostolic Palace.
“I hope a Pope who shows himself so close to the poor and the suffering also shows his understanding of couples who share everything except Communion,” he told reporters. In Germany where tens of thousands of Catholics are married to Protestants, broader permission to receive Communion in each others’ churches is something many people have been seeking for years.
The pastor, who is a member of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, praised the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for his important contributions to the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran theological agreement on justification, the dispute at the heart of the Protestant Reformation; and he described as “historic” Pope Benedict’s decision in 2011 to visit the former Augustinian monastery where Luther lived until 1511.
But he said the German-born Pope also “offended” Protestants when, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he insisted in 2000 that Protestant communities were not “churches in the proper sense” because they have not preserved apostolic succession among their bishops, nor a traditional understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist.
In the run-up to Pope Benedict’s visit to Germany in 2011, hopes had been raised that he either would lift the 500-year-old excommunication of Martin Luther or would make it much easier for a Lutheran married to a Catholic to receive communion in the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict knew of the expectations. In the Augustinian monastery where Luther had lived, he said conjecture about him making an “ecumenical gift” demonstrated a “political misreading of faith and of ecumenism.”
Progress in Christian unity is not like negotiating a treaty, he told his fellow Germans. Ecumenism will advance when Christians enter more deeply into their shared faith and profess it more openly in society, he said.
Dr Schneider said he expects the emphasis on Christian unity being built on a common faith in Christ to continue under Pope Francis, and he hopes that it also can be the basis for joint a Catholic-Lutheran celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
But Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, have questioned the extent to which the communities can or should “celebrate” an event that caused a major divide among Christians and, in Europe, led to bloodshed.
Dr Schneider told reporters that Protestants regret the “death and division” that followed the Reformation, “but the motive wasn’t the theses of Luther, he wanted a return to Christ and to the Bible, and we can’t help but rejoice over that.”
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the two leaders’ conversation about ecumenism “also focused particularly on the value of the ‘ecumenism of the martyrs,’ which the pope gives particular weight to, knowing the suffering” shared by Catholics and Protestants who refused to betray their Christian faith under the Nazis in Germany.
“The blood spilled by the martyrs is something that profoundly unites different Christian confessions in a common witness of Christ,” Fr Lombardi said.