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James MassaDecember 03, 2007

Orthodox monks in flowing black robes mixed with women pastors of Reformation churches, as well as with young Pentecostal Christians from what are the fastest growing new churches of Europe. The mingling took place at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly, a fall gathering of representatives from the major families of European Christians. Held in Sibiu, Romania, on Sept. 5 to 9, the assembly was a remarkable achievement, as seen from the vantage point of an American Catholic observer, who imagined what it would be like for all the Christian communities in the United States to gather, literally, under a common tent. The Light of Christ Shines Upon All was the theme of the assembly; some participants felt that their experience of the light extended beyond the five-day gathering.

Each morning I traveled half a mile across the medieval town of Sibiu with three Scandinavian friends I had met on a long bus ride from Bucharest, then entered a large tent in the middle of the town square that accommodated the 2,500 delegates. Greetings and embraces among pastors, lay leaders and older ecumenical veterans continued until 9 a.m. every morning, when we were interrupted by a Romanian Orthodox nun sounding a wooden clapper. After a prolonged silence, music from a Scandinavian evangelical choir opened our morning prayer. The tent, reminiscent of encounters between Israel and God in Scripture, became a true meeting place in which the reconciling presence of Christ remained throughout the week.

The assembly showed an extraordinary degree of coordination between the Council of European Churches (representing Protestant and Orthodox groups) and the Council of European Bishops Conferences (representing the Catholic Church). Two previous meetings in Basel, Switzer-land, (1989) and Graz, Austria, (1997) had not enjoyed significant participation from Eastern European and Orthodox Christians; but this year the Romanian Orthodox Church and Met-ropolitan Daniel, who would soon be elected patriarch, served as the principal hosts of the event. Msgr. Aldo Giordano, general secretary of the Council of European Bishops Conferences, noted a further contrast between the Sibiu assembly and its precursors: Europe was divided [in 1989]. In 1997 we met at a second assembly in Graz and it looked as though we had a new Europe of freedom, but then only a few years later other questions emerged, such as the environment, terrorism, and bioethics.

Issues of Concern

These issues were much on the minds of the plenary speakers, as well as the presenters who addressed smaller groups in afternoon breakout sessions. Concern about the human causes of climate change dominated many of these discussions. In his keynote address on the first morning, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Ioften called the Green Patriarchurged Christians in Europe to take on a spirit of repentance for having damaged the worlds ecosystems and to pursue a change of life that accompanies repentance. In a letter read to the assembly, Pope Benedict XVI also offered his support for addressing concerns about the environment. Protecting water resources and paying attention to climate change are important issues for the entire human family, the pope asserted, adding that attention to the ecological crisis was a welcome sign of better respect for the wonders of Gods creation.

My Scandinavian companions were encouraged by the Christian consensus on ecological threats as well as other key social issues like immigration reform, fair trade and debt cancellation for struggling nations. Fear of strangers, particularly Muslim immigrants, has been a pressing concern in places like Copenhagen, where the publication of 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in September 2005 sparked protests around the world. One of my companions, Kahn, the successful owner of a software company who immigrated 20 years ago to Finland from Vietnam, openly acknowledged his apprehensions about the high Muslim birthrate across Europe. Sister Suzanne, a member of the Josephite congregation who has worked for more than two decades in youth ministry, shared her difficulties in fostering attitudes of tolerance and respect among young people who feel as if their own Scandinavian culture is slowly disappearing. Stefan, the youngest in our group, told of his struggles to convince his university classmates that Catholic resources can help to resolve tensions in a Europe that is paradoxically fracturing culturally just as it is uniting politically. Despite these anxieties, the final communiqué in Sibiu recommended that the participating churches and their leaders offer better pastoral care for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees and promote the rights of ethnic minorities in Europe, particularly the Roma people.

In addition to the social and political challenges facing the churches, the assembly also focused on spiritual and theological ways of overcoming confessional divisions. Why dont we share our buildings with one another, since our congregations are getting so small in many parts of northern Europe? asked one retired Reformed pastor from Scotland in a small group discussion I facilitated. Delegates from the Reformation traditions also pushed hard in the plenary sessions for a resolution encouraging the churches to study and adopt a new policy on mutual recognition of baptism. The final communiqué took up this recommendation, while recognizing that the question is deeply linked to an understanding of Eucharist, ministry, and ecclesiology in general.

No Cozy Ecumenism

In his opening-day address, Cardinal Walter Kasper acknowledged that many in the assembly felt hurt by the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of June 29, 2007, that repeated Catholic teaching that Protestant communities are not churches in the proper sense. Reactions to the document had been heated during the summer and threatened to cast a pall over the Catholic presence in Sibiu. Cardinal Kasper, who heads the Vaticans Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, admitted that the document had strained relations between Catholics and partners from the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. I am not unaffected by it, either, said Kasper. I, too, had problems with it, for the hurt and pain of my friends is my hurt and pain as well.

The cardinals appeal for a dialogue of truth that shuns a cozy ecumenism was also reflected in presentations on familiar moral issues that divide Christians on both sides of the Atlantic. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, for example, warned the participants of an emerging crisis in the ecumenical movement based on widening differences in moral conviction: Believers cannot recognize at the same time the value of life and the right to death, the value of family and the validity of same-sex relations, the protection of childs rights and the deliberate destruction of human embryos for medical purposes. Kirills remarks were aimed not only at civil legislatures but also at the governing bodies of churches like the Lutheran Church of Norway, which days after the assembly approved the widely publicized appointment of a gay pastor living openly with another man. [It] does not help to conceal wounds, said Cardinal Kasper; we need to leave them open, even when there is pain; only then can we treat them and, with Gods help, heal them.

As an American, I was struck by the ways in which interchurch reconciliation is woven into hopes and strategies for Europes ongoing political consolidation. The interdependency of these two processes was taken for granted by both church and civil officials who addressed the assembly. Even as the framers of the European Unions constitution continue to grapple with their Christian cultural roots, the voices heard in Sibiu projected confidence that the continents future would have to make room for the spiritual energies that shaped its past. José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said that if the European Union were to be reduced to its economic and geographic dimensions, it would lack true unity.

A Christian Crossroads

Sibiu has been named Europes Cultural Capital for 2007, and has always been a remarkable crossroads for Europes Christian communities. The citys largest Roman Catholic church sits on the main square, the Piata Mare. Constructed in 18th-century baroque style and topped with an onion dome, it evokes the period of Habsburg influence. Nearby a Lutheran church that contains a valuable pre-Reformation altar stands a few hundred meters from the citys Orthodox cathedral. Dating from the early 20th century, this Romanian Orthodox edifice looks like a miniature of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and its side walls hold brilliant icons of biblical stories. Farther down the street is a Hungarian-speaking Reformed church with a towering Geneva-style pulpit and magnificent pipe organ. During the assembly, representatives of every faith community wandered in and out of one anothers worship spaces in a seamless witness to Christian unity.

In Sibiu, Europes Christians had a brief taste of the unity in fellowship that is the Spirits ultimate gift. For me and my Scandinavian companions on this pilgrimage of hope, the light of Christ illuminated every step of the journey. Our emotional farewells in the Bucharest airport were interspersed with promises of a reunion, whenever the Christian leaders of Europe determine that another such assembly accords with the one Lords will.

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