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Facing the wounds

The pathways are open and full of promise

Keyword: Ecumene

Christian Krause

Bishop Christian Krause continues to play a significant role in the field of ecumenism and has the gift of focusing on important developments in this ongoing dialogue. As a student, while serving as a translator, he participated in foundational ecumenical dialogues. Then, later he went on to direct the World Lutheran Federation Refugee Service in South Africa and Tanzania. From 1994 to 2002, he was the Lutheran bishop of Braunschweig (Germany), and then president of the Lutheran World Federation from 1997 to 2003. During that time, together with Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he signed the Lutheran-Catholic Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg, in 1999. He speaks here of his ecumenical vision in today’s world.

Ecumenism often serves as a kind of a seismograph that reveals the situation of Christianity in the world. If we often speak of an ecumenical ice age, of old and new trenches and weakened bridges, we could have the impression that the presence and action of Christians on the world stage is not in the best of health. On the other hand, the concept of the “ecumene” exerts a certain fascination when it gives witness to wide-open horizons, solidarity, and cooperation between Christians in this same era of globalization. Frequently, the seismograph numbers oscillate between the two poles.

Ecumene: what is it?

But what is it? The word "ecumene" derives from the Greek word oikos, meaning "home". It is used to describe the place where people live together. Therefore, globally, it means "the whole of the inhabited world". But it is not only a geographical term. We can also say that it describes the vision that God has of the world, one that has become a reality among us with the coming of his Son Jesus Christ: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but might have eternal life."(Jn 3:16) More precisely, ecumene describes this space as the literally unlimited love of God, a space destined to become the homeland of all human beings, whether good or bad, and regardless of their history and origins.

No more war

In Christianity’s history, understanding of ecumene has often been perverted or simply forgotten. After two world wars in the twentieth century that brought immense brutality and inhuman actions heralding hatred and hostility, and after unspeakable suffering following the destruction of cities in the "Christian West", ecumene has returned as a sign of a longing for that particular dimension of hope rooted in forgiveness and reconciliation. There was a longing for a new, shared, peace-filled beginning and, above all else, the cry arose: "Never again war!”

In this atmosphere, Christians from all over the world have acted to give ecumene a concrete structure and organize it within a framework that does not allow it to remain as a mere vague concept. In 1948, Geneva saw the birth of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and it was no coincidence that the United Nations was founded the following year. In the midst of the rubble left behind from the disastrous war, world peace and cooperation between peoples was needed. It was a positive development, an initiative seen by Christians as a sign of God's love.

World Christianity shapes itself

In the mid-twentieth century, the situation of the Churches was markedly different from today. Christian churches were mostly present in Europe and North America. At its founding in 1948, the WCC had a total of 147 member churches, predominantly from these two continents. Now, seventy years later, there are 349 member churches in 110 countries, with about half a billion members. This growth is due to the addition of some Orthodox Churches and, in particular, the inclusion of more recent Churches born in the southern hemisphere during the 1960s.

The situation of Churches of different confessions around the world is similar and they in turn gathered in world confessional alliances after World War II. One example is the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, by those Churches which were mainly present in Europe and North America. Here too, starting from around 1960, there has been a great influx of new member Churches born from the previous work of Lutheran missionary societies and European emigrants in Africa, Asia and Latin America which have become independent Lutheran Churches in their own countries. While European Churches today are shrinking, Churches in these other continents are experiencing constant growth. The two most numerous LWF Churches today are situated in Ethiopia and Tanzania, numbering 7.9 million and 6.5 million faithful respectively. Christianity’s center of gravity is moving south!

Ecumene and the universal Catholic Church

While the world ecumene has seen a structuring of itself in the manner described above, the Roman Catholic Church has followed a different path and is not a part of the WCC. With its hierarchical and centralist structure that distinguishes it from the WCC and other world confessional alliances, it considers itself a world Church in its own right. Although configured in this way, it underwent a fundamental renewal of its ecumenical engagement during the 1960s as well.

With the convocation of the Second Vatican Council, many windows and doors of the Roman Catholic Church have opened. This has led, among other things, to reconciliation with the Orthodox Churches. After a thousand-year separation from the Western Church, the Orthodox Churches came together under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (now Istanbul), making these Churches – which are also part of the WCC -- an important bridge within the world ecumene.

At the same time, important dialogues began between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the Reformation, in particular with the Lutheran Churches united in the Lutheran World Federation. It was not a general kind of ecclesial diplomacy. Rather, it was a commitment to return together to the theological "points of rupture" of the Reformation in the 16th century in order to carefully face