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Culture

Germany's Catholics, Protestants Come Together for Historic Event

The Pope's refusal to grant Catholics the right to take communion together with Protestants threatens to overshadow the first-ever joint gathering of the churches in Germany.

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Over 200,000 people are expected to come to Berlin for the first Ecumenical Kirchentag.

It's been heralded as the turning point in the history of Christianity in Germany. Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther upset the church with his reformation theses, after bloody religious wars, hate and estrangement that spanned centuries, more than 200,000 Protestants and Catholics plan to proclaim their desire for unity over Ascension weekend in Berlin during the country's first Ecumenical Kirchentag, which begins Wednesday.

But clashes are on the agenda. While the visitors were looking forward to celebrating the holy communion together, the Pope ruled out the possibility.

In a papal encyclical issued in April, the Pope forbid sharing the Eucharist with churches not in full communion with Rome. Subsequently, Catholics may not engage in the ceremony with Protestants, whose beliefs the Pope has described as an ecclesiastical community rather than a church.

A Protestant congregation in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin has, nevertheless, invited visitors of both denominations to a Catholic mass and a Protestant communion. Catholic representatives have threatened to punish the Catholic priest who organized the service.

But he may find solace in the results of a recent survey indicating that the majority of Germans do not believe the separation between the two churches is necessary in this day and age. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said there were no good reasons for a separation between the churches, the poll commissioned by the DPA news agency showed.

A many-voiced harmony

The fact that affiliations between the churches continue to develop in Germany is in no small part thanks to initiatives from the churches' rank and file -- where decisions don't necessarily reflect the strict positions in the upper echelons of the churches. The nearly 50 German ecumenical centers, where Protestant and Catholic congregations share their houses of worship, illustrate the point.

At the ecumenical congregation in Darmstadt's Kranichstein neighborhood, people of both denominations are welcome to take part in the holy communion, Pastor Harald Seredzun said. He too is disturbed by the conflict: "We feel it here too. The so-called ecumenical concelebration is something that in my opinion must come and will come, too."

The two denominations have lived under the same roof at the ecumenical center in Hesse for more than 30 years. But no one is forced to be part of the joint community. Each congregation has its own rooms and endeavors to maintain its own unique character.

"I like to illustrate it with an image," Seredzun explained. "The ecumenical choir doesn't achieve unity by singing in unison, but rather in many-voiced harmony. And the riches of harmony are attained when each person hits his note exactly. The image shows that one has a pillar in one's own identity, in one's own roots, which enables communication."

Sometimes, however, the voices of the denominations rub off on one another. At the ecumenical communion, for example, the participants search for a common spirituality.

"Mixed Protestant, Catholic. We often don't know ourselves exactly who is Protestant and Catholic," Anna Zeh, who organizes the communion in Kranichstein, explained.

But Zeh doesn't see ecumenism as the amalgamation of denominations.

"I wouldn't want to exchange my Protestant service for the Catholic one, because the sermon is the main thing for me," Zeh said. "That's how I grew into it. And the Catholics would certainly complain if they always had to undergo our dry Protestant service."

Down with the walls

Ecumenism is handled differently in the church center Arche in Neckargemünd near Heidelberg.

"The most important thing is that in ecumenism -- here in Arche, which was established by the Ecumenical Council -- here there is the basic principle that everything is thought through, experienced, and carried out collectively and that separation requires justification," Protestant Pastor Christoph Lauter explained.

The pastor's office, song book and caretaker are all ecumenical, Lauter told German public television. Only the rooms for worship are separate.

But every first Sunday of the month is ecumenical day. Then the caretaker rolls away the walls dividing the denominations and a joint sermon is held.

A few years ago a joint communion was regularly celebrated too, but that came to an involuntary end.

"Someone came from outside and saw how we handled the holy communion, and he tattled on us," a congregation member recalled the beginning of the end of the ecumenical ceremony.

Despite the ensuing objection from the Catholic diocese Rottenburg / Stuttgart, the ecumenical congregation in Neckargemünd has remained loyal to its original concept. The denominations don't just want to be neighbors.

That is far too little, one visitor told German television after the ecumenical service.

"When you experience this, it's entirely different then in other ecumenical centers, because here all circles are together throughout the week. There is an ecumenical church musician, an ecumenical choir. It is all joint, you have ecumenical Bible work. I have done Bible work with groups here, where Catholic women read the Bible for the first time because they weren't allowed to before. And this experience was simply magnificent.

"Mutual stimulation is totally normal here because you do everything jointly. And there are many people who ask me, and who don't know, which confession I belong to, and who are absolutely sure I'm Catholic. But I'm a Protestant pastor here. That is the funny thing about it."

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