On November 14, 2015, Pope Francis visited the Lutheran Christ Church in Rome and participated in the worship with the German-language congregation. The event deserves in every respect great attention. The service can be watched on Youtube. It shows how the pope celebrated this liturgy with great warmth and in an easy-going atmosphere amidst Protestant Christians; and how sensitively and well thought-out the service was in its preparation by the congregation and its pastor. In his greeting, Pr. Dr. Jens-Martin Kruse recalled the words that Pope Francis had said upon his election: “And now let us begin this journey, the Bishop and the people, this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust. Let us always pray for one another.“ Before the evening prayer began, three members of the congregation were able to pose questions to the pope. It is impressive and moving to listen to his answers. For this reason we offer here a small extract of the conversation; the complete text in German can be found here.
My name is Julius. I am nine years old, and I really like to take part in the children’s services at this congregation. I am fascinated by the stories of Jesus, and I also like how he acted. My question is: what do you like best about being pope?
The answer is simple. What I like best… If I asked you what you like most to eat, you will say: cake, dessert. Or maybe not? But you have to eat everything. What I honestly like best is to be a pastor, to be a shepherd. I don’t like the office work. These jobs I don’t like. I don’t like giving official interviews—this here is not a official but informal—but I have to do them. What do I like best? Being a pastor. Now, I am gladly a pastor, and when I am being a pastor, what I like best is being with children, talking to them, and you learn a lot, yes, you learn a lot with them. I am glad to be a pope in the style of a pastor… I also really love to visit prisons, but not that they bring me behind bars! Because talking to prisoners… you understand maybe, what I’m saying to you—because each time, when I step into a prison, I ask myself, “Why them and not me?” And then I feel the salvation of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ for me. For he is the one who has saved me. I am no less of a sinner than they are, but the Lord took me by the hand. I feel that too. And if I go into a prison, I’m happy. To be pope is to be bishop, pastor, shepherd.
My name is Anke de Bernardinis, and like many people in our congregation I am married to an Italian, a Roman Catholic Christian. For many years we have lived happily together and share both joy and sorrow. For this reason it really hurts us that we are divided in our faith and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper together. What can we do, to finally reach fellowship on this point?
Thank you, Mrs. de Bernardinis. To answer the question about a common Lord’s Supper is not easy for me, above all in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper. I’m afraid to do so! I make your question my own—so I ask myself: to share the Lord’s Supper, is it the end of the way or strengthening on the way to making progress together? I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand it. It’s true that in a certain sense “share” means that no differences exist between us, that we have the same teaching—I underline the word, a word that is hard to understand—yet I ask myself: don’t we have the same baptism? And if we have the same baptism, we must walk together… When you pray together, then baptism grows, becomes stronger. When you teach your children who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus has done for us, you do the same thing in Lutheran as well as in Catholic language, in fact it is the same. The question: And the Supper? There are questions which one—only when one is honest with himself and the modest theological lights that I have—likewise must answer, you see. “This is my body, this is my blood,” the Lord said, “do this in remembrance of me.” And that is a strengthening along the way that helps us make progress… To your question I answer only with a question: How can I make it happen with my husband so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my way? It is a problem that each person must answer. A pastor friend of mine said to me however, “We believe that here the Lord is present. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. What is the difference?” ”Well, there are the explanations, the clarifications”… Life is greater than explanations and clarifications. Always make reference to baptism: “One faith, one baptism, one Lord,” Paul says to us, and the inference can be drawn from there. I will never dare give permission to do this, for it is not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I dare not say more.
Pope Francis concluded his sermon on Matthew 25:31–46 by deviating from his prepared manuscript with words that pointed a way forward: “It pleases me—and with this I will close—when I reflect on the Lord as a servant who serves; then it pleases me to ask him that he will be the servant of unity who helps us to make progress together. Today we have prayed together. To pray together, to work together for the poor and needy, to love one another with the true love of sisters and brothers. ‘But, Father, we are still different, because our dogmatic books say one thing and yours say another.’ A great church member from among you once spoke about how the time had come for reconciled diversity. Let us pray today for this grace, the grace of this reconciled diversity in the Lord, that is in the servant of YHWH, the God Who has not come to us to be served but to serve (Mk. 10:42). I thank you very much for this brotherly hospitality. Thank you.”
The “great church member” to whom the pope refers was Prof. Dr. Harding Meyer, former director of the Institute in Strasbourg, whose pioneering work in ecumenism developed the strategy of “reconciled diversity” that made the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification possible.
At the end of the service, Pope Francis presented Pr. Kruse with a eucharistic chalice and paten; something he otherwise only does in visits to Roman Catholic dioceses. A remarkable sign! May this visit of the pope in a Lutheran church promote the cause of the ecumenical movement and touch many people!