Sitting in choir at St Matthias Abbey on my first night I felt “I am at home. I belong here with my German Catholic brothers.” It was 46 years since my first visit as a student and the friendship between our two communities has grown deep and strong. During my few days there I talked with Athanasius (who was Abbot when I first came), Ignatius, the present Abbot, Gregor, Simeon and Hubert about our relationship and where it might go from here. Both of our communities need to attend to matters of renewal, of finding a new way to live out our particular charisms. Yet we also have a gift to offer the Church and the society around us. As the hard won relationships across Europe threaten to break up, we in the Church need to hold them together to try and create peace – that same peace which the Prince of Peace brings us at Christmas.
From Trier I went to the Christusbruderschaft, Selbitz, near Nuremburg. They are Lutheran sisters of a Franciscan spirituality, and thriving. There are about 100 sisters and they do a lot of retreat work, teaching and various kinds of social and pastoral work. Sr Mirjam and I have worked together ecumenically for the past 24 years. The Community began just after the Second World War and has grown into a traditional religious community with an impressive level of spiritual and theological life and a lovely community atmosphere.
Quite near to them is the former concentration camp of Flossenburg. This is where Dietrich Bonhoeffer died. Sr Mirjam took me there and I was overwhelemd by the brutality of it. The Germans all credit to them, have not flinched from facing up to the evil of their Nazi past. They have created a deeply moving museum describing the life, brutality and often death of inmates of that camp. About 100,000 men, and some women and children, were imprisoned there and about 30,000 died. In the Catholic chapel of Christ in the Dungeon, overlooking the place where so many were executed there is a bust of the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ecumenism in suffering.
Flossenburg reminds us of the need to hold together – Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans, English and Germans against the darkness of a resurgent popularism which threatens to divide Europe again.
Fr Nicolas CR