“Whoever looks to God will shine; their faces will not be downcast,” sings the psalmist. In Hamburg, in trust and simplicity, one could see a light shining on the face of the Church. That light revealed its true face, its face of communion.
In Hamburg as in many other places, the Church is sometimes viewed as an out-of-date institution, with no appreciation of the beauty of today’s world, a vestige of the past that is afraid to accept present-day society. And yet it bears within it a Gospel reality, sometimes concealed, but still intact in its pristine freshness. It takes very little for this reality to become visible. And so, from time to time an unexpected event, like the arrival in Hamburg of thousands of young adults from across the European continent, can provide the “very little” necessary. A “very little” that gave many Christians and non-Christians of the city the opportunity to give the best of themselves.
A simple sign
The meeting in Hamburg did not claim to be anything but a simple sign. You could read this in the booklet prepared last autumn to explain the meaning of the meeting to the residents of Hamburg: “The European meeting is not a conference on a precise topic. The participants do not share a specific political outlook, nor do they constitute a movement. They come from different churches and different Christian traditions. They cut across human and geographical boundaries. They come not to focus on what divides them, but on what unites them, not to reinforce their pessimism, but to glimpse signs of hope.”
The meeting took place at a trying time for the Christians of Hamburg. The financial situation of the Lutheran and Catholic churches is more and more difficult. They have to make painful decisions: closing churches, shutting down some agencies that began their work many years ago with great generosity and can no longer continue in the same style. And that causes tensions. “This is no time to hold a youth meeting,” said many people. But others asserted, “We need something different just now.”
The meeting did not provide any solutions to the problems of the Church, nor did it offer a brand-new proposal to enable Christian communities to find a way to grow. It was essentially a celebration of what already exists, and also of what is hoped for. The meeting wanted to foster a rediscovery of what already unites us as Christians from different backgrounds, well beyond the painful legacies of history. It tried to express the desire to let go of what has wounded us in order to pray together, as a dozen Church leaders—Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic bishops—did the evening of December 30th when they knelt together around the icon of Christ on the cross.
“We are not alone”
Many different Christian denominations are present in Hamburg. Close to 280 parishes and congregations of these confessions welcomed the young participants, both in the city itself and in its surroundings. A good welcome was extended in neighboring cities as well, as far as Lübeck or Lüneburg, more than sixty kilometers from Hamburg.
Six Protestant and Catholic bishops of the greater Hamburg region had written a joint letter to all the parishes to encourage them to open their doors to the tens of thousands of young adults who were coming from throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and even beyond: “They will give a sign of hope and encouragement in a world where many are searching for meaning and support. Let us offer them a warm welcome!”
The common prayers took place in large halls decorated by reproductions of local painters, such as the altars of Meister Bertram, or by large crosses symbolizing the tree of life, like the one in the nearby cathedral of Lübeck. A young woman from the South of Germany described her experience marked by these prayers:
“As soon as I entered Hall 4 the first evening, I felt the togetherness. As soon as you begin to sing and pray together, all your burdens become lighter and a great peace arrives, with joy. It helps to see that we are not alone in our faith, that others are there, too. In these prayers, I felt that God was so near. And that joy was infectious. It was impressive to see the attitude of people in the street or in the underground change, and to discover their attention and their interest. Our host family overwhelmed us by their hospitality. We had no language problems; they tried to understand what we were looking for, and I was so happy when our ‘host mum’ came with us to the evening prayer in the halls. It was beautiful to see all the generations mingling and older people letting themselves be touched by the prayer.”
The Lutheran bishop Huber, president of the Evangelical Council of Churches in Germany, wrote to Brother Roger, “This meeting in Hamburg is an immense sign of peace and openness to reconciliation. It is striking to see so many young adults from throughout Europe and from other parts of the world take part in the ‘pilgrimage of trust on earth.’ This ‘pilgrimage’ has already influenced many generations of young people and given them the courage of faith to make the commitments that our day calls for. Your own commitment, dear Brother Roger, is a decisive catalyst in this regard. Through you and your brothers the young people grasp that they are not alone in their efforts for reconciliation in our world, but on the contrary that they are linked together in a worldwide prayer community.”
A meeting like this cannot take place without the support not only of the local churches, but also of all the different administrations and services of the host towns. Organizing the transportation, for example, requires that many people give up their holidays to ensure additional services. Or the welcome in the schools: the custodians agreed to come to work and did it with great good will.
“In your home I discovered God”
One of those who was in charge of the preparation in the host parishes gives several examples based on what he heard in a small parish far from Hamburg. It welcomed 250 young people, all in families:
“The meeting touched many different people, some of whom were already church members, others who were rather far off.
“In that district, there was a joint preparation between the Catholic and the Lutheran parishes. All the meetings of the two preparation groups were held together. The priest and the pastor were not very visible during the preparation. But, after the meeting, I saw the priest in tears explaining how beautiful the Eucharist on January 1st was for him. Beforehand he was afraid and was wondering, ‘What shall we do if the church is too small and there is no room?’ But afterwards he told me that he had celebrated ‘the most beautiful Mass’ in his twenty years as a priest.
“A young couple who no longer goes to church—or who perhaps never did—welcomed seven participants, five Russians and two Poles. One of the Polish boys wrote them an email afterwards: ‘In your home I discovered God.’ After the meeting the young woman said, ‘I welcomed them even though I don’t believe in God.’ She paused a moment and added, ‘At least up till now I thought I didn’t believe in God…’
“The prayers in the parishes and the celebration on January 1st encouraged people to reflect and to look for how to prepare beautiful celebrations in the future. They began to think about ways to make the liturgy more meaningful. This also led them to ask the question of how to support the priests and pastors in their ministry.”
After the meeting, each parish was invited to meet for a follow-up gathering to share their experiences. At Börnsen, for example, after everyone told their story, the question arose: how to continue after the meeting? Many had discovered that a Bible text and a few questions were enough to foster a good discussion. They realized that such sharing did not require a long preparation; very different people could come together in a simple manner and have a profound dialogue. So they decided to meet once a month for a meal together followed by a time of sharing on a Bible passage. The evenings will end with a simple time of prayer together. The idea they had is to have this meeting in the parish house in this recently built district and to invite young families who have just arrived in the area.
“Christ existing as the Church”
The face of the Church that shone out was that of communion. A German theologian, imprisoned and executed during the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke of “Christ existing as the Church.” When he was 21, he wrote that “in Christ humankind is really drawn into communion with God” (Sanctorum communio, Berlin 1930). In this spirit, how can we show that the Church does not exist for itself but for the world, to make the face of every human being shine out?
The meeting tried to multiply opportunities to extend fellowship as far as possible. On several occasions visits were made to prisoners in the prison located near the exhibition centre where the prayers were held. Two other visits took place during the months of preparation to a prison for minors on an island in the Elbe River. Several of the afternoon workshops witnessed to this presence of the Church rooted in the burning questions of German society: “Simple actions to give dignity: a life devoted to the homeless in the port district St-Pauli.” “At the central station, different paths in life cross: discover the ‘railway station mission’”. “Rediscover a taste for life: the ‘Jesus Centre’ and the ‘Teestube Sarah’, two centres of hospitality in the port district St. Pauli.” “When the Gospel transforms a passage in the underground: a Christian presence in the ‘Rathauspassage’.”
On January 1st, during the last prayer service, to conclude the meeting Brother Roger described several features of the face of the Church as communion:
“When we live in communion with God, we desire as well to live in communion with others. The Gospel invites us to love and to say it by the way we live. It is our life that can make faith, trust in God, credible for those around us. Today more than ever, are not Christians called to be an irreplaceable leaven of communion in the places where they live? How then can Christians still remain divided? Communion is the touchstone. It is born in the heart of hearts of a Christian, in forgiveness and in love. For twenty-six years now, we have been undertaking a ‘pilgrimage of trust on earth’ with the young. At the end of this meeting in Hamburg, which was a stage in this ‘pilgrimage of trust on earth,’ we would like to remember that communion is a life, not a theory. To love and say it with our lives, yes, to love in goodness of heart and to forgive: there we find one of the wellsprings of joy.”