In the last days of the Second Vatican Council, at the end of a meeting with observers of other Churches and Christian professions, Paul VI gave each one a small bell to call them every day to common prayer. It was an eloquent symbol open to the future, which today Benedict XVI called to mind in another way, referring to the Gloriosa , the gigantic medieval bell in the Cathedral of Erfurt whose solemn, deep tones rang out at the end of Mass. “It is a living sign of our deep rootedness in the Christian tradition, but also a summons to set out upon the mission” the Pope said.
In the heart of Germany, in the beautiful capital of Thuringia — called altera Roma , “the second Rome”, in the Renaissance because of its numerous churches — Benedict XVI reflected on German history, from its evangelization in the early middle ages to more recent times, in the 20th century frighteningly and tragically scarred by two dictatorships of different colours [brown and red], both unholy and hostile to humanity. It was a reflection that could gaze steadily even at the darkest past.
Thirty years ago, in 1981, who could have imagined the Fall of the Berlin Wall eight years later? Or going back 70 years, in 1941, who would have thought that the Third Reich, exalted by Nazi rhetoric as being 1,000-years-old, would be nothing but ashes four years later? Those events are long gone — even though in Erfurt the Pope met the last Catholic priest to have survived Dachau, 98-year-old Fr Hermann Scheipers — but their effects on the Christian faith persist today, just as damaging as the effects of acid rain are on the environment of that region.
In posing these questions however, Benedict XVI recalled those who in Christ’s name were able to oppose — often to the point of martyrdom — the pagan omnipotence asserted by Hitler; just as, much later, many Catholics resisted the Communist ideology. They raised their children in the faith and often visited the small Marian shrine in Etzelsbach — in the heart of a region suffocated by a totalitarianism that claimed to be democratic — where an ancient image of Our Lady of Sorrows is venerated, a frequent pilgrimage destination of Benedict XVI who presided at Vespers with thousands of the faithful.
In Erfurt, too, the question of God, truly crucial and on whom all things depend, also came up. That is why the Pope gave it prominence in speaking to the Evangelicals at Luther's convent and called for a common testimony in a world confused and often inhumane. And to demonstrate the importance of God there is also the example of the Saints who — from different parts of Europe (Italy, Ireland, England, Hungary) — evangelized Germany. In fact, Bishop Severus with his relics, the missionaries: Kilian, Boniface, Eoban and Adelar with their martyrdom, the young Elizabeth with her charity showed that the relationship with God is possible and is worth living for. In a communion that transcends distance and time, which we need to look at with a clear gaze because it opens on the future of God.
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