“Healing of Memories”

Ecumenical penance and reconciliation service

This year, for the first time in history, the Protestant and Catholic Churches, split since the age of the Reformation, will come together for an ecumenical celebration of the anniversary of the Reformation. One of the central events will be a penance and reconciliation service in Hildesheim on 11 March 2017, jointly held by the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, and the Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Landesbischof Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm. Under the motto “Healing of Memories”, the service will mark 500 years of the Reformation by contemplating the painful impact of the two divided Churches and pray for God’s forgiveness for the failings on both sides. But there will also be expressions of thanks and joy for common ground and aspects the two institutions admire in each other. This central service is not only a Church matter, but promotes understanding and reconciliation in our society. It will be broadcast live by ARD.

The German Bishop’s Conference and the Council of the EKD have suggested holding similar services on the regional or local level after the central celebration in Hildesheim. A liturgical blueprint, also underpinning the central service on 11 March 2017, is contained in the text published by the EKD and the Secretariat of the German Bishop’s Conference entitled “Healing of Memories – Giving Witness to Christ. A Common Address in 2017”. The publication describes key theological concepts and spaces of memory impacting on our collective memory to this day; at the same time, it highlights the progress that has been made by the ecumenical movement without ignoring the questions that remain open.

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The Will for Reconciliation

Protestants and Catholics have chosen a vivid scene for their reconciliation service: a 2.4-metre three-dimensional cross initially blocking access to the altar will be raised, freeing the path. This representation of a symbolic obstacle becoming a sign of reconciliation illustrates the message of the central penance and reconciliation service held in St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim on 11 March to mark 500 years of the Reformation: “Healing of Memories – Giving Witness to Jesus Christ”. The site is symbolic too: the service will be held in Germany’s second-oldest cross-denominational church, shared by Protestants and Catholics since 1542.

The Chair of the Council of the EKD, Landesbischof Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (right), and the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, gave the final blessing at an ecumenical concluding service on their common pilgrimage. (Photo: Harald Oppitz/KNA)

This will for reconciliation would have been unimaginable in days gone by. 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses protesting against abuses in the Church of his day. His criticism triggered the worldwide Reformation, which not only brought about the division in the Church, but also some extremely bloody wars in its wake. Protestants and Catholics used the subsequent anniversaries of the Reformation to condemn one another. But now they want to remember what they have done to each other over the centuries, confess their guilt, ask for forgiveness and “commit themselves to further deepening our togetherness before God”, as stated in the “Common Address in 2017”, a publication also containing the liturgy for the Hildesheim service, calling the neighbouring Catholic and Evangelical communities to do the same.

The paper was signed and presented by the Chair of the EKD, Landesbischof Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, and the Chairman of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The latter called it “An almost revolutionary event”. They emphasised ecumenical bonds, but also declared that striving for “the true understanding of the truth of the Gospel” was still ongoing.

The two highest German Christian representatives from Munich, who have a good understanding, will alternate in holding the penance and reconciliation service. In the summer of 2015 Bedford-Strohm and Marx agreed on the term “Festival of Christ” for the Reformation celebrations, commemorating common roots – Jesus Christ as the foundation of all faith. Under the heading “Healing of Memories” followed the “Common Address”, an ecumenical pilgrimage in Israel and now the penance and reconciliation service.

Bedford-Strohm: “The message of the Reformation no longer divides us”

The Kirchentag and the EKD present the programme for the anniversary of the Reformation

There has also been criticism of this ecumenical focus. The Viennese Evangelical professor of theology Ulrich Körtner objects that the ecumenical goal has been put before everything else: “The theological examination of the legacy of the Reformation and its lasting impulses remains superficial,” he wrote on “evangelisch.de”, considering it a “theological nadir”. He pointed to the EKD’s foundational text on the anniversary of the Reformation, “Justification and Freedom”, from 2014, which had been criticised by the Roman Catholic Church. “The project ‘Healing of Memories’ clearly pursues the goal of rendering the unpopular text ‘Justification and Freedom’ forgotten”, wrote Körtner.

Yet despite all common ground, divisions will also be evident in Hildesheim – divisions that many people do not understand: there will be no common communion. “We still have not found a way to celebrate our communion with Jesus in the Eucharist together,” will be Marx’s words according to the text of the liturgy. The ecumenical text declares the aim is “to continue to walk the ecumenical path together with patience and determination, so that unity continues to grow among us and common communion and taking of the Eucharist can become possible.” But a fast solution “appears unlikely”.

The Germans have an international role model for seeing an ecumenical opportunity in the anniversary of the Reformation. On 31 October 2016 the Lutheran World Federation and Pope Francis made an impressive start with a common service in Lund, Sweden, under the heading “From Conflict to Community”, after centuries of conflict and condemnation and decades of attempted rapprochement.

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Keyword: Healing of Memories

Germany’s Evangelical and Catholic Churches are seeking the path to reconciliation together to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There are many precedents for “Healing of Memories” throughout the world.

This has been the motto of the reconciliation process since the end of apartheid in South Africa, in which representatives of both Churches have been heavily involved. In a more narrow sense, “Healing of Memories” is a pastoral-therapeutic procedure in victim-offender mediation. In recent years the term has also been applied to reconciliation between religious communities, cultures and ethnic groups, for instance in Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The idea behind “Healing of Memories” is that participants arrange encounters for a certain period of time to tell each other their stories and their perspective on conflicts to gain clarity about their own suffering and what they have done to each other. “Healing of Memories” means healing of and through memories. Wounds and scars heal through the act of talking about experiences (healing of memories). And healing becomes possible via memories, in that the participants’ perspectives are expanded.

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“Not Everything Has to Be Uniform” Three questions for the EKD’s Theological Vice President Thies Gundlach on ecumenism

Dr. Thies Gundlach, Vice President of the EKD Church Office and director of the Department of “Church Activities”. (Photo: Norbert Neetz/epd-bild)

The Theological Vice President of the EKD Church Office, Thies Gundlach, has played a large role in the preparations for the penance and reconciliation service. The Evangelischer Pressedienst spoke with about the project.

Herr Gundlach, “Healing of Memories” – what does that mean?

Back in the sixteenth century, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation caused rifts that continue to shape our image of each other to this day. For Protestants, our Catholic brothers and sisters are often those who are a bit narrow-minded and more conservative, while for the Catholics the Protestants are much too close to the state and always go on as if they were modern. Getting over these false images and prejudices together and asking for God’s forgiveness and forgiveness from each other – that’s the main idea behind “Healing of Memories”.

What are you hoping the impulse will be?

If we are able to speak about each other in future free from the prejudices that somehow lurk in our heads and in our hearts, and instead consider the others as enrichment, as a gift of the diversity of God’s mercy, a great deal will have been achieved. The theological differences remain, such as the different understanding of office and communion; we mustn’t overlook that. But I believe that the healing of memories is a very important precondition for taking the next ecumenical step together and honouring the remaining differences with great serenity. Not everything has to be uniform.

Will 2017 go down in history as the ecumenical anniversary of the Reformation?

Yes, it is unprecedented, being able to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation together like this while respecting our differences. It used to be a massive festival of demarcation in which Protestants said, “We are not Catholic”. And that was a large part of the message. Today we no longer do that, we say, “We are Evangelical for a good reason, because we want to strengthen the freedom of a Christian in and for the present.” We like being Evangelical, and celebrate it properly, but without saying, “We are better than the Catholics.” That is the new bit – and a massive change for the perception of common responsibility in our world.

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St. Michael in Hildesheim from the tower of St. Andrew’s Church. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Photography von Hildesia)

Symbol of Lost Unity Cross-denominational church and world heritage site: the 1,000-year-old St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim

The venue for the ecumenical penance and reconciliation service “Healing of Memories – Giving Witness to Jesus Christ”, St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim, is a special house of worship. Over 1,000 years old, the church is not only a UNESCO world heritage site, but also a cross-denominational church. Here Protestants and Catholics have prayed for centuries under the same roof, albeit at different times. “It is a symbolic site,” says Thies Gundlach of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). What better place then to hold the central penance and reconciliation service marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and the outgoing Federal President Joachim Gauck are expected to attend?

There are still 64 cross-denominational churches in Germany, most of them in the Palatinate and Franconia. Some of them are partitioned by walls, in other the confessions alternate. “Every church is unique,” explains writer Heinz Henke from Bautzen. Germany once had thousands of such churches. Especially after the Thirty Years’ War, many rulers sought to find compromise between the confessions and merged churches. Often they simply didn’t have enough money to rebuild churches that had been destroyed. But life together was not always easy. “There was often friction,” says Henke. Especially baptisms and funerals were a cause of discord. “And so they made certain that they were autonomous once more.”

Access from the Evangelical St. Michael’s Church to the Catholic St. Michael’s Monastery in Hildesheim. A wall divided the two confessions until 2006. (Photo: Jens Schulze/epd-bild)

Of the remaining cross-denominational churches, St. Michael’s in Hildesheim in the second oldest, after the cathedral in Bautzen. Protestants have held their Sunday services in the large knave since 1542. A side room, the crypt, containing the tomb of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (ca. 960–1022), remained under the aegis of the Catholic diocese. Catholics continue to celebrate Mass there every Thursday. “St. Michael’s Church is a reminder of the Church’s lost unity,” says Hildesheim’s Evangelical superintendent Eckhard Gorka.

For over 400 years the two parts of the church were hermetically sealed off from one another, reflecting the relationship between the two confessions. There were originally two doors between the large and small rooms. “But they were completely bricked up,” says Gorka. And the walls seemed impenetrable. When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the Romanesque church on Reformation Day in 1900, the people of Hildesheim specially created access between the knave and the crypt. But no sooner had he left than they bricked up the opening again. Catholics and Protestants continued to use separate entrances.

It wasn’t until 1972 that one of the two doors was opened and replaced with an iron grille. But it too was usually locked. “When I was vicar here in 1992, we visited the crypt only once, with the help of the sexton,” Gorka recalls. It was not until 2006 that the breakthrough came: workmen removed the grille and opened up the second door too.

As the stones fell, both confessions said prayers together: on one side Gorka waited with a trombone choir, while on the other side the Catholic bishop Norbert Trelle came in full regalia and handed him the Bernward cross. This breakthrough was “an irrefutable ecumenical symbol”, smiles Gorka. The service “Healing of Memories”, which will be broadcast live by the television channel ARD, is intended to help continue the growth of ecumenism in Germany.