National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 20, 2003

A nun enters Kirchentag, Germany's ecumenical gathering, under an inflated halo balloon in Berlin May 28.
-- CNS/Reuters
Historic first: Catholics join in German church assembly

Catholic presence made Lutheran Kirchentag ecumenical

Catholic News Service

When the first ecumenical Kirchentag (church day) kicked off in Berlin May 28, some participants said they hoped the event would bring the Catholic and Protestant faiths closer to unity, while others said they have been behaving as if the churches already were unified.

By the time the crowd of more than 200,000 gathered on the lawn in front of Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag, for the church assembly’s closing celebration June 1, many felt a united faith community was already in evidence. But Catholic church suspensions and threats of excommunication for Catholics who took part in a shared Eucharist (see related story) made it clear that there were still some major ecclesiastical stumbling blocks along the road to unity.

The assembly’s opening had been auspicious, packed with Catholic and Lutheran laity and their clergy, together with leaders of both churches -- including, vicariously, the pope. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, papal nuncio to Germany, read a message from John Paul II that stressed the “common message” of all Christian faiths. “When all of you together witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its strength, you make it clear that Christians have a common message for the world. I want to encourage you to do so, especially in Germany.”

The pope reminded participants that Germany was the source of division in the church in the 16th century. (When the German Augustinian friar Martin Luther nailed his protests of Catholic church abuse of power to the door of Wittenberg chapel, it is commonly accepted that his action signaled the beginning of what would become the Protestant Reformation.)

Since then, the pope said, “Many steps have already been taken toward reconciliation. Carry them forward with sensitivity and consideration toward one another.” Carrying them forward, both Catholics and Lutherans would learn in the days ahead, was not without challenges.

This first ecumenical Kirchentag built on the traditions of the Protestant, or Lutheran-Reformed, Kirchentag and its younger and smaller counterpart, the Katholikentag, or Catholic Day. About 190,000 people registered for the five-day event, with several thousand more attending some parts of it. Over the long weekend, some 3,200 events were held at 600 Berlin locations. In addition to more than 40 Catholic bishops as well as dozens of Protestant and Orthodox leaders who attended, speakers included athletes, actors and authors; Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists.

While the assembly sought unity among churches, it was also a cause for unity among Berliners. Private citizens offered some 12,000 beds to Kirchentag participants.

Following the opening ceremony, participants streamed into Berlin’s grand promenade, along which church groups and organizations presented their work. The domes of St. Hedwig’s Catholic cathedral and the Berlin Protestant cathedral were joined in a “bridge of light.”

Participants took on Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s invitation to “conquer the city,” spreading out across Berlin wearing the bright orange scarves bearing the assembly’s slogan, “You should be a blessing.”

Initially, lay organizers said they hoped it would be possible to hold a joint Communion by the time of the Kirchentag. Catholic church prohibitions meant it was not possible -- at least officially -- even though lay people at the assembly had a different attitude.

Anneka Camphausen, a Lutheran, said she had been receiving Communion at Catholic Masses for some time. The eucharistic ministers who served her never knew she was not Catholic, she said. Her boyfiend, Sebastian Hack, a Catholic from Hamburg, said he hoped the Kirchentag would bring the churches closer together, paving the way for an eventual canonically legal joint Communion.

Janina Kaatz, a Catholic from Berlin, said she would participate in a joint Communion service. “I find what the pope says on this issue not quite right,” she said.

The May 29 Catholic Mass in which non-Catholics were invited to Communion prompted penalties from Catholic authorities and displeasure from Lutheran organizers of the Kirchentag as well. The event was not an official part of the Kirchentag, but some 2,000 participants took part in it. Kirchentag organizers criticized the service for distracting from the assembly’s ecumenical message and forcing a unity that does not exist.

But by the time the event closed, the positive was getting more stress than the negative. “The road we have already traveled together gives us a taste of the full community for which we yearn,” said Elisabeth Raiser, Lutheran organizer of the event. “We want to continue on this road together.”

“No one can tear apart what now unites us,” said Hans Joachim Meyer, Catholic organizer of the event.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz, head of the German bishops’ conference, said the experience of the ecumenical event would make a difference at the next Catholic church assembly to be held next year. Lehmann said next year’s Catholic assembly for youth would also have a more ecumenical flavor.

Egon Richter, 46, from the northern city of Osnabruck, where his Catholic community already holds services with Protestants and Muslims, said he hoped church leaders would promote more unity.

“It already works quite well at the community level,” he said. “But there has to be more unity at the institutional level.”

NCR managing editor Pat Morrison contributed to this story.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: