This evening, the cathedral of St. Peter in Regensburg was the setting for an ecumenical celebration of Vespers, presided by the Pope and attended by representatives from various Churches and ecclesial communities in Bavaria, the Lutheran and Orthodox Churches of Bavaria, and members of the ecumenical commission of the German Episcopal Conference.
Prior to his arrival, the Pope paused briefly at the church of St. Ulrich, less than 100 meters from the cathedral, where he greeted the provost and rector of the church, and the president of the Jewish community of Bavaria. Then, in procession with the representatives from other confessions he moved on towards the cathedral. For many years the cathedral's famous choir was directed by the Pope's brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, now director emeritus of that institution.
"We are gathered here - Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants - to sing together the evening praise of God," said the Pope at the start of his homily. "This is an hour of gratitude for the fact that we can pray together in this way and, by turning to the Lord, at the same time grow in unity among ourselves."
The Pope then addressed a special greeting to representatives of the Orthodox Church saying "I have always considered it a special gift of God's Providence that, as a professor at Bonn, I was able to come to know and to love the Orthodox Church, personally as it were." And in this context he recalled how "in a few days time, at Belgrade, theological dialogue will resume on the fundamental theme of 'koinonia'."
"Our 'koinonia' is above all communion with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. ... This communion with God creates in turn 'koinonia' among people, as a participation in the faith of the Apostles, and therefore as a communion in faith - a communion which is 'embodied' in the Eucharist and, transcending all boundaries, builds up the one Church."
The Holy Father expressed the hope that the Belgrade meeting would prove fruitful so that communion in the faith may mature towards full unity. "'So that the world may believe,' we must become one," he said, "the seriousness of this commitment must spur on our dialogue."
Pope Benedict then extended "warm greetings to our friends of the various traditions stemming from the Reformation. ... Obviously, I think in particular of the demanding efforts to reach a consensus on justification. ... I am pleased to see that in the meantime the World Methodist Council has adhered" to the declaration on justification.
"In theology justification is an essential theme," said the Pope, "but in the life of the faithful today - it seems to me - it is only dimly present. Because of the dramatic events of our time, the theme of mutual forgiveness is felt with increased urgency, yet there is little perception of our fundamental need of God's forgiveness, of our justification by Him. Our modern consciousness in general is no longer aware of the fact that we stand as debtors before God and that sin is a reality which can be overcome only by God's initiative. Behind this weakening of the theme of justification and of the forgiveness of sins is ultimately a weakening of our relation with God. In this sense, our first task will perhaps be to rediscover in a new way the living God present in our lives."
This rediscovery, said the Pope, depends on three key concepts, all contained in the passage from the Letter of John read out during the ceremony: confession, witness and love.
"The 'confessio' that ultimately distinguishes us as Christians," said the Pope, is "faith in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God Who has come in the flesh. ... It is through Him that we come into contact with God. In this time of inter-religious encounters we are easily tempted to attenuate somewhat this central confession or indeed even to hide it. But by doing this we do not do a service to encounter or dialogue. We only make God less accessible to others and to ourselves. ... In this common confession, and in this common task, there is no division between us."
Confession "must become witness," Pope Benedict observed again returning to the Letter of St. John where the Apostle claims to be a witness of Christ with the words: "We have seen." This presupposes "that we also - succeeding generations - are capable of seeing, and can bear witness as people who have seen. ... Let us help one another to develop this capacity, so that we can assist the people of our time to see, so that they in turn, through the world fashioned by themselves, will discover God! Across all the historical barriers may they perceive Jesus anew. ... To be a witness of Jesus Christ means above all to bear witness to a certain way of living. In a world full of confusion, ... it is the responsibility of Christians, now, to make visible the standards that indicate a just life."
The final concept, love ('agape') "is the key-word of the whole Letter," concluded the Holy Father, "and particularly of the passage which we have heard. 'Agape' does not mean something sentimental or something grandiose; it is something totally sober and realistic." It "is really the synthesis of the Law and the Prophets. In love everything is 'fulfilled;' but this everything must daily be 'filled out.' ... Yes, man can believe in love. Let us bear witness to our faith in such a way that it shines forth as the power of love, 'so that the world may believe'."