A day of joy

Benedict XVI's visit to the Lutheran Community of Rome

“Your Holiness, may you feel at home here today”, said Doris Esch, president of the Lutheran Community in the Via Sicilia in Rome, on welcoming Benedict XVI on Sunday 14 March and recalling the first visit of John Paul II to the church in 1983, a visit, she added, “we have not forgotten”. After the welcoming remarks of Doris Esch, the pastor of the Lutheran Church Jens-Martin Kruse said: “we are really happy about this event and welcome the Pope with great joy”. The Holy Father, stressed Kruse, “knows our church and our community fairly well, as he also does our Lutheran theology and our spirituality”; “he comes to a church that he knows well” and “for us he is the bishop of Rome”. “We already made this invitation to him in 2008”, continued Kruse, but “the fact that he has accepted to pray with us today underlines our warm relations with the Catholic Church”. The pastor then donated to the Pope a reproduction of the baptismal font in bronze, with the inscription of the liturgical formula.Local ecumenism. Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed in an atmosphere of joy by the leaders of the Lutheran Community of Rome, which comprises some 350 officially registered members, not counting the many ‘hidden’ members and travellers passing through on a visit. “The Community – says a press release issued on the eve of the meeting – sees in the visit of the Bishop of Rome a sign of stronger and more mature ecumenical relations, which have become here, over the years, a practice fostered by the various Christian denominations”. Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State; Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and Agostino Vallini, Vicar for the diocese of Rome, also participated in the German-language service. The Lutheran Church was represented, in turn, by the Dean of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Italy (CELI), pastor Holger Milkau, and two exponents of the German Evangelical Church (EKD), including the EKD delegate for Southern Europe, pastor Michael Riedel-Schneider. The decision not to involve representatives of Italy’s national Protestant Churches was conscious, as pastor Kruse explained. In his view, the visit of the Pope, Bishop of Rome, deliberately takes on the character of “local ecumenism”. For this reason, the Catholic parish priest of the area and the abbot of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dom Edmund Power, were also present. The God of life. Pastor Jens-Martin Kruse pointed out in his sermon the “happy coincidence” of 14 March with “Laetare” Sunday which, according to the liturgical calendar, is “a time of jubilation and festivity prescribed during the period of Lenten preparation for Easter”. “It seems to me – said pastor Kruse – a happy sign for the service we will celebrate with the Pope because during the time of Lent the light of Easter is glimpsed. And this is the situation in which Christians are living in this world: we are not in heaven, but we know what is to come. And it is the situation in which the Churches are living: we are not united but we are together on the road of communion. For this reason we can say with all our heart that it will be a day of joy”. In his sermon, the pastor spoke of the hope in the Resurrection that animates the liturgical life of Christians in this period of Lent. With the Resurrection, he said, “God demonstrated he is a God of life, who created new life wherever we see only death and ruin”. That does not mean – he added, referring to the ecumenical situation between the two Churches – that the fractures have been healed; or that the divisions between the Churches have been overcome, but, as the apostle Paul says, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). Unity is a gift. “Unity – said Benedict XVI, in his homily – is a gift that can only be given by God”: if “our witness is darkened by division”, “we ought not to quarrel but try to be more united” because it’s not true that, as many say, ecumenism has stalled”. Benedict XVI recalled that “there are many elements of unity” between Catholics and Lutherans. “We listen to the same Word of God, we all look together to the one Christ”, animated by the “hope that this unity may become ever deeper”. Nonetheless, added the Pope, “we also have to recognize that it is we ourselves who have destroyed our unity; we have divided the one path into many different paths” but “if we are here together today it’s because we listen to the same Word of God, and bear witness to the one Christ”. Though “we are saddened to know that this division is the result of a sinful situation, we must also recognize that unity is a gift that can only be given to us by God”.

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