German bishops celebrate 50th anniversary of 'revolutionary' and 'irreversible' Decree on Ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism was “revolutionary” as the Catholic church committed itself to work together with other Christian churches for Christian reconciliation. The commitment was “irreversible,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference Nov. 21 on occasion of the 50th anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio.

In his sermon in Munich’s Liebfrauendom (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady), Marx recalled that in the decree the Catholic church had realized the division of Christianity “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

Christ belongs “not only to one church, one group, not even to us Christians – but to all human beings,” Marx emphasized. Since the Decree on Ecumenism, it had been clear that it was not a case of everyone converting to Catholicism but of “us all being able to learn from one another,” he recalled. And even if the ecumenical movement experienced “highs and lows,” the Catholic church was grateful for “this gift that was bestowed on us … a gift that is final and binding,” he underlined.

Marx called on the churches in Germany to “proclaim the Gospel Message vigorously, spiritedly and invitingly. The explosive power of the Bible must be discovered anew and we must show that this God (of the Bible) is someone who is deeply wounded and not a ruler.”

At their recent plenary, the German bishops published a text especially for the 50th anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio entitled “Called to Unity.” The bishops pointed out that “the Gospel Message is only credible if we bear witness to it in unity and love. We invite all the (Christian) faithful to pray for full Christian unity so that Christ’s mission ‘that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ could be fulfilled.”

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The Second Vatican Council had resolved the dilemma of division, emphasized Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, saying only 36 years before the Decree on Ecumenism was published in 1964, Pope Pius XI had forbidden all ecumenical contact in his encyclical letter Mortalium Animos.

“Meanwhile we have an imposing abundance of ecumenical texts, projects and initiatives on the international, national, regional and local level,” Woelki said at the ecumenical celebration in Cologne Cathedral. “In our communities, alienation, foreignness and unfamiliarity have given to trust. What we need most is joint action, mutual respect and confidence.”

“Although each one of us calls itself a church, we are never a whole church without the other churches. We must bear witness to Jesus Christ’s Gospel Message in unity and love otherwise it isn’t credible,” Chairman of the Protestant Churches in Germany Heinrich Bedford-Strohm said at a celebration in Bonn, Germany. The cooperation of Caritas International and Diakonie, the Protestant churches’ social welfare organization in disaster relief and refugee aid in Germany were great examples of ecumenism at work, he said.

Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople are a perfect example of “living ecumenism,” chairman of the German Orthodox bishops’ conference Archbishop Augoustinos (Lambardakis) said, adding that getting to know one another better is the most important element of ecumenism. Francis and Bartholomew are moving faster than ecumenical dialogue as they have met four times just this year.

On the eve of his departure for Turkey, Francis warned against resignation as far as ecumenism was concerned. The quest for Christian unity remains one of the Catholic church’s primary concerns.

[When not writing for NCR, Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]


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