Pope stresses Christian unity at Lutheran church

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict told Rome’s Lutheran congregation on Sunday that Protestants and Roman Catholics should be thankful for all the unity achieved among Christians rather than complain about the slow pace of dialogue.

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Addressing about 350 Lutherans in their small church, Benedict said both sides had accused each other of slowing down the ecumenical movement, but that only God, not humans, could create true unity.

The movement has brought Christian churches closer together in recent decades but has lost momentum lately.

Some Protestants, especially in Germany, say Benedict has contributed to that by stressing more strongly the Catholic claim to be the only true church.

They say he also seems more interested in improving ties with the theologically conservative Orthodox churches than with more liberal Protestant groups.

In the Vatican’s view, several Protestant churches have drifted away from common ground by ordaining women as priests and bishops or blessing same-sex marriages.

“We have divided the one path into many, so the witness we should give has been obscured,” Benedict told the German-speaking congregation, which his predecessor John Paul II visited in 1983, in their common native tongue.

“I think we should first be thankful that there is so much unity. It’s nice that we can pray together today, sing the same hymns together, hear the same word of God together, that we can interpret and try to understand it together.”

Benedict said only God could create more unity among Christians because “a unity we negotiate ourselves would be human-made and as fragile as everything that humans make.”

The leader of the Lutheran community, Doris Esch, recalled that Benedict had helped to work out a Catholic-Lutheran statement in 1999 resolving some theological disagreements dating back to the Reformation, the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, in the 16th century.

“Holy Father, may you feel welcome here,” she said.

Germany’s churches are planning an ecumenical festival in Munich in May. Some Protestants asked for a joint communion service but the Catholics declined because the two sides do not agree on the nature of this central Christian rite.

Editing by Kevin Liffey