The Vatican official responsible for links with other churches has rejected suggestions of a "standstill" in the search for Christian unity - writes Anli Serfontein.
"There has already been a lot of movement," Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Ecumenical News International in Wittenberg, the eastern German town where in 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, thereby setting in train the breach with the papacy.
"I hope that there can be even more movement for the unity of the Church, the cohesion of Christianity and for common witness," said the cardinal when interviewed on 1 November while attending a ceremony seeking closer ties on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
"We have learned a lot in the last 50 years," noted Kasper, a former professor of theology in Münster and Tübingen, and bishop of Stuttgart in southern Germany from 1989 to 1999. "At the university I spent a lot of time teaching about Martin Luther, and I have learned from that experience too."
Kasper was asked about comments by Wolfgang Huber, who retired at the end of October as Germany's senior Protestant bishop, in which he said the Vatican had created "difficulties" for ecumenical dialogue in the past decade.
"Well we caused each other difficulties," said Kasper, laughing. "Difficulties are always made from both sides. I also wished for more, but one can wish for a lot in life and it does not happen.
"The main point is that we should stay on the ball and should continue," said the cardinal. "Difficulties are sometimes from the one side and sometimes from the other, one should not overrate them. The basics, the direction is right and we should jointly continue the course."
The Wittenberg event followed celebrations in Augsburg the previous day to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signing an agreement about the doctrine of justification, a central point of contention at the time of the 16th-century Reformation.
Kasper described the 1999 agreement as a "milestone, but also an interim step, and one on which we would like to build". He added, "In the council for promoting Christian unity we are to hold a conference in February to look towards the future together with our ecumenical partners. We want to think together about what the next steps could be."
At the 10th anniversary celebrations in Augsburg, Kasper had described the joint declaration as a sign of the workings of the Holy Spirit. "We cannot be thankful enough for that and for many, many other steps that have been possible since," he said in a sermon at Augsburg Cathedral, the city where the declaration had been signed 10 years earlier.
"The godless complain about the supposed standstill in the ecumenical movement and the miserable moan about what has not yet been achieved, forgetting all that has been given us in the last few years, all that is sheer ingratitude," asserted the cardinal.
In 2006, the Methodist World Council also affirmed the joint declaration.
In remarks during the Augsburg celebrations, the LWF general secretary, the Rev Ishmael Noko, said in signing the joint declaration, Lutherans and Catholics had "set out a common journey of healing" their memories of mutual condemnation.
"Ten years ago in this city we committed ourselves to a joint ecumenical journey. We did not doubt that we will walk forward together in new ways," said Noko.
"Of course the mutual condemnations of the past remain a part of our history; that cannot be changed. And the painful legacy of our estrangement gives us memories which bear the wounds of our separation," noted the LWF general secretary. "Ten years ago, in this city of Augsburg we said that these memories of separation and hostility would not be the memories of our children."
In Wittenberg, Noko told ENI that the ecumenical movement continues to grow. "The seeds have been sown and it serves no purpose to be suspicious all the time," he said.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]