At Martin Luther’s former monastery, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the general presumption that personal sins are of little consequence to God and spoke about current challenges to Christian unity.
“Insofar as people today believe in an after-life and a divine judgment at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings,” the Pope said at a meeting with the German Evangelical Church Council, gathered in the eastern German city of Erfurt.
“But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage?”
The Pope gave four examples of sin – the drug trade, corruption, violence and economic exploitation – and concluded “no, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the center of our lives, it could not be so powerful.”
The meeting with the Lutheran contingent took place at the former Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on Sept. 23, the second day of the Pope’s state visit to his homeland. The historic building was home to the Catholic priest turned Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, between 1505 and 1511.
The Pope did not shy away from praising certain aspects of Luther’s life and work.
“For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God,” said the Pope, observing that Luther constantly asked the question – ‘how do I receive God?’ “The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me,” said the Pope.
He also expressed admiration for Luther’s attempt to put Christ at the center of his thinking and spirituality, which Pope Benedict called “thoroughly Christocentric.”
The Pope noted that Luther had always asked the “burning question” of “what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God?”
The Pope said that he did not want his qualified praise of Luther to simply “be an attempt to talk our way past the urgent problems” in ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies.
At the same time, Pope Benedict emphasized the importance of remembering “just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task.”
One “error of the Reformation,” he said, was that Christians “could only see what divided us.”
The Pope was also candid in his assessment of what threatens Christian unity, pointing to two current challenges. His first concern was about new forms of Christianity that are currently “spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism” and yet have “little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.” The second challenge he warned of was “the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith.”
“Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?” he asked, giving the firm answer – no. He said that the Christian faith ought to be lived afresh but that this freshness comes “not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness.”
Pope Benedict concluded by raising up the Christian martyrs – Catholic and Lutheran – who died at the hands of the wartime Nazi regime as a shining example of genuine ecumenism in action.
The German Evangelical Church is a union of 22 Lutheran Churches. It has more than 24 million members, which is around 30 percent of the German population.