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Christian brotherhood

September 23, 2011

Continuing his four-day tour of Germany in Erfurt, the pope has sought to foster a closer relationship with the Protestant Church. Both sides seemed satisfied with the meeting, although there were no concrete results.

The pope with Nikolaus Schneider
The pope met the head of the Protestant ChurchImage: dapd

Benedict XVI continued the second day of his tour of Germany in the town of Erfurt, the state capital of Thuringia in the former East of the country.

In the scrubbed-up streets of the old town in Erfurt, a number of shopkeepers had put out pope beer mugs, special coins and postcards in their windows. But there weren't many shoppers around, as the area around the cathedral was hermetically sealed - only pass-holders were allowed access. Hundreds of police officers were guarding the protective fences. Residents were asked not to open their windows. Man-hole covers and cable shafts were also sealed off. Erfurt was on high alert for the papal visit.

Yet few citizens were able to steal a glimpse of their visitor from Rome. Indeed, most of them have little interest in the pope and their main concern was how all the tight security measures would affect the traffic. Just seven percent of the population of Thuringia is Catholic. Most don't believe in God at all.

Together against secularization

Benedict XVI became the first pope to enter the heartland of the protestant movement since the Reformation led by Martin Luther almost 500 years ago. The Augustinian Monastery, where Luther himself once served as a monk, was chosen as the symbolic meeting place of the two denominations. For senior church insiders this visit alone was seen as a spectacular feat.

Nikolaus Schneider (l.) with Benedict XVI
Both churches stressed the need for rapprochementImage: dapd

The pope told the head of the Protestant Church in Germany, Nikolaus Schneider, that in future the two churches should stress what they have in common, not their differences.

"It was a mistake of the period of the denominational era that we only saw what separated us, and that we didn't recognize what we share with the great requirements of the Holy book and common ancient Christian denominations." In a world, which was largely turning away from faith, he said, the two churches should come together for the sake of Christianity. The pope warned at the same time of the new forms of Christianity, which seek to spread faith across the world with missionary zeal, and which the traditional churches appear unsure how to counteract.

Schneider, the highest representative of the Protestant church in Germany, told the pope the churches should be able to "overcome their stubbornness and understand traditions that grew up separately as common gifts." He said many people across the country were yearning for a closer understanding, particularly those of faith who were married to someone of the other denomination.

"It would be a blessing for all of us, to allow them Eucharistic harmony free of restrictions in the near future," Schneider said. He was speaking of Protestant spouses being allowed to take the sacrament during a Catholic Mass.

Nothing concrete

In his sermon in Erfurt, Benedict disappointed those who had hoped for concrete results from the ecumenical discussions. The pope said there could be no political-style compromises when it came to questions of faith. "The Christian's faith is not about weighing up advantages and disadvantages. A self-created faith is worthless."

The head of the German Bishop's Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch told Deutsche Welle that the Pope had honored Martin Luther more than he had expected. The pope seized on Luther's central theological question of how one finds God, and turned it into a common basis for Catholicism and Protestantism. The Protestant Schneider told reporters he was very satisfied with the meeting. He said they were now on the road together, but it would be hard. Both sides had to work towards each other.

Schneider invited the pope to look at the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the birth of the Protestant Church, in a new light. "If we can make progress on that, anything is possible," he said indicating that the Catholic Church would play a part in commemoration celebrations in 2017.

The Marian altar in Etzelsbach
The pope visited the Marian shrine in EtzelsbachImage: DW

"But the pope certainly won't be coming to Wittenberg in 2017," Schneider said, referring to the moment in 1517 that Luther broke away from the Roman Catholic Church.

The real difference between the two denominations centers on the differing roles of priests in the two churches. Catholics believe that their religious leaders are the direct successors to the apostles, with the pope as Christ's representative on Earth, as their head. In Protestantism there is no sanctification of priests; they are commissioned by the individual religious communities. The church is less hierarchical.

By foot to Etzelbach

On Friday evening the pope held vespers on the site of the Marian chapel in Etzelsbach. The Erfurt diocese had said some 90,000 pilgrims had trudged to the rural area from nearby car parks to attend the prayers. The pope himself flew in by helicopter to be greeted by waving crowds.

Peter Kittel, who organized the event said, "the vespers in the twilight and the subsequent parade of the pilgrims will be the high point of the Holy Father's visit to Germany." Everýone was asked to bring blankets, food and chairs - but they won't need a ticket.

Etzelsbach lies in the Eichsfeld region and is a Catholic stronghold in the largely Protestant former East Germany. The pope is honoring the hardships faced by the Catholic Community under the communist dictatorship. Local conservative councillor Werner Henning wrote a letter to the pope to invite him. Henning was one of the most important figures at the time of the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989. He spoke at the famous Monday peace demonstrations and helped to bring about the fall of the regime.

"For us in Eichsfeld religion is our own thing - the church doesn't have to do much to drive it," Henning said about the strong sense of community among the Catholics in the area. Around 70 percent of the 100,000 inhabitants of Eichsfeld are Catholic.

Like in his first stop in Berlin, the pope met protests in Erfurt, but only on a small scale. A demonstration is planned for Friday evening with around 300 participants expected. While the pope celebrates Mass in the center of Erfurt, the protesters want to create a religious-free zone elsewhere in the city center.

Author: Bernd Riegert / ji
Editor: Rob Turner