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European Churches. Father Heikki Huttunen: “We need each other despite our differences”

The General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) is drawing close. Participants will convene in Novi Sad, Serbia, from May 31 to June 6. As many as 500 participants , representing the three Christian families, Orthodox Protestant and Anglican, are expected to arrive from across the Continent. Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop Justin Welby and Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II have already confirmed their participation. Invited guests include Frans Timmermans and Mairead McGuinness

The 16th General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches will take place in Novi Sad, Serbia, from May 31st to June 6. 500 registered participants representing all 115 CEC member Churches and the three Christian families – Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant, will be arriving from all over Europe. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I,  Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby have already confirmed their participation. Invited participants include, inter alia, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, representing the Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch and  All the East, Bishop Irinej of Backa, representing the Serb Orthodox Church, and Archbishop Antje Jackelén, from the Swedish Church. The meeting will be equally attended by representatives of European institutions such as Frans Timmermans, first Vice-President of the European Commission, and Mairead McGuinness, first Vice-President of the European Parliament. The General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches Christian Churches (which this year will be addressing the theme “You Shall be my Witness”) is the most important decision-making body. It takes place every 5 years when Church representatives convene to evaluate the work done so far, discuss the new situations of the Churches in Europe, and jointly identify the message and service that best contributes to the European Continent in this historical period. “It is thus a crucial meeting”, said Father Heikki Huttunen, CEC Secretary General, because “the Assembly defines the priorities of our commitment for the next 5 years, without making plans but giving a direction”

What is the climate in Europe today? The context is one typical of post-modernity, with trends that are equally common and conflicting with each other. For example, while on the one side there is growing interest for spirituality and religions enjoy increased consideration, on the other we are witnessing the advance of a secularization process. This can be seen in the young generations, that are growing  up in an environment that is no longer Christian, as well as at political level, where Church relations with government and State representatives are increasingly less important and strong. Moreover, we are also witnessing a radical change in Europe’s religious landscape where certain religious practices are increasing and others are declining. On the whole, it could be said that the ongoing changes and the new challenges don’t pose a risk to Christianity in Europe, and Churches today are called to remind Europe that they are at the service of the faith, of hope and of love.

This is a critical moment in history. The Mediterranean region is again marked by conflicts, poverty, migration, couple by the growth of populist movements. How are the Churches addressing this situation?

They are making many efforts but perhaps what they do is not visible or is not properly made visible.

I think that the faithful can and must bear utmost Christian witness at local level, where Christian communities are addressing the challenges of the areas in which they live. Some have opened the doors of their homes or of the Churches to migrants. at territorial level; others have given a voice to those who have none; others still have offered concrete help to the unemployed, to the poor, and to those who are afflicted by forms of loneliness. So the question is: how can public opinion be informed of this commitment? How can Church contribution be given visibility? From this perspective I think that Pope Francis is an answer to this question: many people acknowledge the Pope’s commitment to make the Churches go forth into the world and offer their service to humanity, especially to the suffering members of humanity. The Holy Father is increasing the credibility of Church service, also at international level. Perhaps he is pointing to a new Church model.

What is the secret of Pope Francis, in his ability to reach out to public opinion? His credibility. When he speaks, people perceive that he is speaking with his heart and that he is at the service of the truth. But this is true also for other Church leaders and pastors, even though not all of them enjoy the Pope’s same visibility. It’s a common denominator of Christian religious leaders.

CEC Churches are very diverse: this organism represents a wide spectrum of Christianity, ranging from the Orthodox to the Anglican and Protestant traditions. You coexist with strong diversities. Do you consider this a problem? It’s a problem but perhaps it’s also a resource. Indeed, the Churches are different from one another… but we aren’t only different. There are many things that we share. And that is what brings us together: we are Christian, we share the commitment to follow in the footsteps of Christ and we firmly believe in Jesus’ prayer for unity, that everyone may come together as one. The question of differences has been discussed at length over the past 100 years in the ecumenical movement, and a lot of progress has been made. The most significant outcome of this new course is that the Churches today no longer see each other as enemies nor are they in opposition.

We have gradually learnt to rejoice of the good news of the other and understood that good news for one of the Churches is good news for all.

You said that diversity can be a resource. Why? Because we have different experiences and we live in different environments. When we listen to one another we realize that indeed, we are different but we also need each other, and this need is even stronger than we admit. One of the definitions of post-modernity is the fact that different identities with different backgrounds have started to live side by side. People with different identities and cultures have come to live in Europe and we were shocked to see that we had different ways of seeing things. The main challenge today is how to live together and how, notwithstanding our diversity, we can all be members of the same society. We must make sure that nobody feels left out and that no identity group closes in on itself because these processes further the growth of terrorism, expand the divides, promote conflicts. Christian communities are called to find their place within this plural reality.

Especially those Churches that historically were majority Churches, today are increasingly called to be a reality among many others.

Father Huttunen, how do you see Europe? Europe must find its place in the world, it shouldn’t focus only on finding an answer to its own problems. All of our problems are global problems. And we can’t separate Europe from the rest of the world. We should admit that to date Europe has benefitted from world injustices. Calling for “More justice in the world for the whole of humanity” means that Europe should assume her own responsibilities. The Middle East, conflicts, poverty in many African countries … it’s not a question of sending humanitarian aids. It’s not enough. We ought to reach out to the root causes of the many ongoing crises.

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