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Protestants' high hope for Pope Francis

February 6, 2017

As Reformation Year begins, the leadership of Germany's Protestant Church makes a visit to the Vatican. Expectations for the meeting with Pope Francis are high.

Deutschland Martin Luther-Farbglasfenster in der Lutherkapelle der Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Ebener

A high-ranking Protestant delegation from Germany - the home of the Reformation - will visit the Vatican on Monday. After frequent ecumenical disillusionment over the past 20 years, many are astonished to see the meeting take place at all.

The Protestants' visit is particularly significant as 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

Deutschland Der EKD-Ratsvorsitzende  Heinrich Bedford-Strohm ARCHIV
Bedford-Strohm called for an atmosphere of mutual trustImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Reichel

The chair of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, expressed his hope "that we can extend the spirit of mutual trust and mutual respect between the denominations, and introduce it at the level of a universal church as well."

He said he also hoped "we can consider what concrete steps we can take towards visible unity."

'Meeting as brothers'

Bedford-Strohm, the Protestant Bishop of Bavaria, knows Pope Francis and is familiar with his open manner. In April 2016, he visited the pope at his Vatican guesthouse, Casa Santa Marta, and spoke him for more than an hour.

"We met as brothers. That gives me hope," Bedford-Strohm said afterwards. Congratulating Pope Francis on his 80th birthday in December, the German also wrote of his "great respect and deep gratitude" for the way the pope performs his duties. 

This is not the first time German Protestants have traveled to the Vatican. Nonetheless, a visit like this is something special, even 506 years after a young German monk named Martin Luther visited the papal state - only to publish, a few years later, his theses rebelling against the Catholic system of dogma and indulgences.

Papst Franziskus
The pope has met with several Protestant officialsImage: Getty Images/AFP/T.Fabi

The pope from a far-off land

Perhaps it took a pope from a non-European country to turn the official antagonism between Catholics and Protestants into more respectful cooperation among Christian believers. Without ignoring official Catholic teachings, Francis has made a point of emphasizing what people have in common over what separates them.

This is a welcome attitude in a tricky ecumenical situation. Until the late 1990s,  there had been a conciliatory approach on ecumenical issues that was already widespread at the grassroots level and practiced at the vocational theological level.

Then Rome issued statements about the meaning of the church, which Protestants viewed as an affront. The EKD, under Bishop Wolfgang Huber, responded with its "profile-based ecumenism." In 2011, Pope Benedict, the German pontiff, came to Erfurt - one of the most Lutheran of places. But his message at that time was more an analysis of the situation than a new path forward.

A chalice and a Lutheran Bible

Now Francis sits on the chair of St. Peter. He has met with Protestant priests on many of his trips: sometimes Baptists, sometimes Lutherans. Like his predecessor, he too visited the Protestant-Lutheran church in Rome, and he was the first pope to gift it with a chalice for the Communion service.

On Reformation Day in 2016, Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, at the invitation of the Lutheran World Federation, and attended a service there as a prelude to the anniversary of the Reformation.

This unconventional pope is certainly capable of seeking a rapprochement with the ultra-conservative Pius X brothers while simultaneously according greater esteem to Protestant Christians. For him, the common bond all Christians share in baptism has a very particular significance.

The Protestant delegation from Germany will present Pope Francis with a copy of the new Lutheran Bible. This is certainly not intended as an affront, but as a gift from the heart, the very core of Protestant existence.

Israel Jerusalem Landesbischof Heinrich Bedford-Strohm Kardinal Reinhard Marx Deutsche Bischöfe im Heiligen Land
Cardinal Reinhard Marx (left) and Bedford-Strohm in BethlehemImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Kern

The German Protestants are making a point of setting an example on a number of fronts. In October, representatives of the EKD and the Catholic German Bishops Conference made a devout and sincere joint pilgrimage to sites in Israel and Palestine that are holy to all Christians. On March 11, a central "ecumenical service of penitence and reconciliation" will be held in the German town of Hildesheim, followed by similar regional celebrations.

Academic representatives also, on occasion, express criticism of initiatives like these. Some also have reservations about celebrating alongside Catholics on October 31, 2017 - Reformation Day.

A visit to Germany?

But perhaps this year will see an even bigger ecumenical gesture. In the current edition of the weekly German newspaper "Die Zeit," prominent Christians expressed their views on the EKD's visit to Rome.

The most concrete response came from Monika Grütters. A Catholic, she is the German government's minister of state for culture, and as such she is supporting this year's Protestant celebrations to the tune of several million euros.

"It would be a great joy and a great signal if, this year of all years, Pope Francis were to decide to visit Germany," she said.

There has long been speculation about a papal visit to Germany. Denials have frequently been issued, only to be followed up with fresh hints from people who see the pope on a regular basis.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C