A Catholic and Protestant community in Germany is making the idea of “ecumenical congregations” a reality.
– “Divine will” and a “win-win” situation
German Bishops’ website katholisch.de carried March 7 the story of the Catholic parish of St. Judas Thaddäus in Oberhausen, in the diocese of Essen.
The St. Judas Thaddäus parishioners have been forceed by falling numbers in faithful and rising maintenance costs to “move in” with the local Protestant parish, in their church.
“We could no longer finance the large church and the large community center,” said parish priest Christoph Wichmann, who was gathering between 30 and 50 older people at Sunday Mass.
But rather than close the parish down completely, Wichmann and his parishioners decided to search for an alternative place for local Catholics to meet, and found one in the Quelstrasse Protestant community centre.
“Of course I myself reacted to [the Catholic proposal] with joy”, Quelstrasse pastor Anke Augustin told katholisch.de.
“As a theologian, it has long been clear to me that no single Church has the truth – not even mine”, Augustin explained.
For his part, priest Wichmann said it is important “that we make it clear that there are new beginnings and that we as Christians can only exist ecumenically”.
Both Protestant pastor and Catholic priest agreed that the new “ecumenical congregation” – in which the two groups meet for worship at different times, but jointly organise community services and ecumenical gestures – is “coincidence or divine will”, in Augustin’s words, or a “win-win” situation, in Wichmann’s.
The Catholics have even been able to place their Stations of the Cross and a statue of Mary in the Protestant community centre.
Though when they celebrated one last Mass in their old church with their bishop, Franz-Josef Overbeck, and processed over to their new Protestant home, they were careful to avoid any hint of triumphalism.
“We wanted to make it clear that we meet at eye level. It shouldn’t be a hostile takeover”, explained Wichmann.
The idea of “ecumenical congregations” between Protestants and Catholics in Germany has been on the table ever since at least January, when the approval in theory of the idea of the Catholic Bishop of Hildesheim, Heiner Wilmer, made Catholic Church headlines.
As for Protestants and Catholics sharing communion, on the other hand, even though the German Catholic Bishops’ voted in 2018 by a two-thirds’ majority for that step, cold water has been poured on the idea since by a vocal opposition among some members of the episcopate and a corresponding complaint to the Vatican.
As recently as early January, German Bishops’ pointman for ecumenism Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg again naysayed the idea of shared Eucharistic hospitality, warning that a September 2019 vote in favour of intercommunion by the German Ecumenical Working Group of Evangelical and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK) “does not necessarily correspond to the reality of Church practice” yet.
– … But there’s still hope
But still there is hope for the supporters in Germany of intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants.
New German Catholic Bishops’ head Georg Bätzing of the Limburg diocese said just after his election this week that the ÖAK shared Eucharistic hospitality study is based on “recent theological and especially liturgical insights and the results of previous ecumenical dialog”.
“It is my personal conviction that what is written there is justifiable”, Bätzing added.
The German Bishops’ Conference chairman approval of the ÖAK intercommunion proposal came just a week after the same ÖAK study was endorsed February 28 by the Council of the Evangelical Church (EKD) in Germany.
The governing body of the EKD said the ÖAK proposal was a “theologically consistent continuation” on the path started by the Catholic and Protestant Churches with their mutual recognition of baptisms in 2007.
“With the ÖAK votum [approval], an ecumenical document [on intercommunion] is now available for the first time, which argues on the basis of an intensive scientific examination of the testimony of the Scriptures and makes it clear that the diversity of the different traditions does not mean arbitrariness, but wealth”, EKD chairman Heinrich Bedford-Strohm explained.
The Bavarian Lutheran bishop expressed his desire that the ÖAK document on open communion receive “the worthy and in-depth discussion that it deserves and that is necessary to make its promising potential fruitful”.