Europe’s splendour is its people

Preparing the ground for reconciliation.

Walter Kriechbaum is an Evangelical Pastor and secretary of the YMCA of Bavaria. He has a soft spot for Europe and takes reconciliation seriously. To this end he has established friendships even in Poland and Ukraine within the international and ecumenical network Together for Europe

As a German, in my travels in Eastern Europe I’m often reminded of the historical cruelties. Once, while in the company of Polish friends, I found myself speechless at Lutsk (Ukraine), the place that commemorates the thousands of Poles that were mercilessly murdered. The same thing happened in a cemetery in the middle of one of the greatest battle fields of World War Two. All of a sudden, my friends asked me, a German and a member of the Evangelical Church, to pray upon the dead and ask for forgiveness and peace for our peoples of Europe”. Walter Kriechbaum experienced that living reconciliation together may entail, among other things, journeying with others along the pathway of affliction, taking upon oneself the sufferings of the others. Ecumenical reconciliation entails evaluating the gifts of the others and creating space for their development. Walter considers the suffering of an incomplete unity as a seed for the future.

Reconciliation does not require proportional representation

Munich 2016: During an ecumenical prayer meeting for the unity of Europe organized by Poles and Germans together, some twenty Russians entered the church unexpectedly. Water was leading the prayers together with a Polish friend, and for an instant was at a loss how to manage the new situation. Then he asked one from the Russian group to come forward and pronounce a prayer. At the end the participants – Catholics, Protestants, members of the Free Churches and Russian Orthodox – received a blessing from a Polish priest of the Schoenstatt Movement. Walter: “I learned that ecumenical reconciliation does not require either proportionality or deciding who is right. Jesus Christ dwells in the other’s heart and in a fantastic way he transforms diversity into a complementary, without any cancellations”.

Reconciliation requires trust

During his many travels in Eastern Europe Walter continues to weave a friendship net:  “This, however, demands patience and perseverance. Sometimes it takes years to eliminate distrust. I have understood that the ecumenical experience “in the periphery” means feeling close and far away at the same time, and to be able to tolerate tension. When all of us turn our gaze upon Jesus, an interior closeness slowly develops. This cannot be forced; it is God’s work”. Walter is convinced that the mutual trust that ensues allows persons to speak freely and to experience an interior freedom.

Reconciliation requires that we be detached

According to Walter “reconciliation and ecumenical harmony cannot be organized. We ought to be detached all the time, and keep on entering into the Kairos of God. Only he knows the right time”. Nevertheless, we may prepare for this. “Together we will succeed to make Europe to shine. Its splendour is its people that are journeying toward reconciliation”.  Walter is convinced of this and lives for it – starting anew each day.

Beatriz Lauenroth

The enduring legacy of the “Velvet Revolution”

Together for Europe 2018 – Prague

Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, a country at the very heart of European culture and history, with pay host from 15th-17th November 2018 to the annual meeting of the Friends of Together for Europe.

The great history of Central Europe, in particular of the Czech nation will serve as a backdrop for a new stage in the journey of Together for Europe, which promotes dialogue between divergent cultural and political identities.

In November 2017 the European meeting of Friends of Together for Europe took place in Vienna, a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. This year, we will have the opportunity to take another step to the very heart of Central Eastern Europe – Prague, with a singular desire to face challenges, prejudices and fears which weigh on the collective conscience of EU member states and beyond. Through the life of the Gospel, nourished and enlightened by the presence of Christ in the Christian communities, we wish to witness to the fact that the path towards Europe as a House of Nations and a Family of Peoples is not a utopia.

The enduring legacy of the “Velvet Revolution”

On 17th November, the Czech Republic commemorates the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” (so called due to its peaceful nature) which transformed the Czech Republic into a co-protagonist for the ongoing process of European reunification. The presence of the Friends of Together for Europe in Prague on this very day, urges us to renew our shared commitment: to bring to a post-secular culture the spirit of Christian Humanism, and in so doing contribute to building a more united Europe.

The renowned Czech Philosopher and Theologian Tomas Halik, friend of the late Vaclav Havel, Jaroslav Sebek of the Historical Czech Academy of Science, and Pavel Fischer an emerging Czech politician, together with leaders and representatives of different Movements, Communities and Associations will be present. Their contributions will reinforce the daring objective of this meeting: to recall a Europe of hope and promise, a Europe which stems from a rich heritage of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and calls out for communion and dialogue.

In this way, the Prague event will become a fundamental phase of Together for Europe which continues its commitment for a more united, brotherly and just Europe. It will also be a unique opportunity to prepare together for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. The meeting will conclude with an open evening, in which Movements and Communities from different churches and which are present in the Czech Republic will be represented.

Address: Mariapolis Centre, Mladoboleslavská 667, 190 17 Prague 9 – Vinoř, Czech Republic – Tel. +420 286 007 711; Email: cmpraha@espol.cz;  www.centrummariapoli.cz

Beatriz Lauenroth

Foto: Canva

 

Vienna Cathedral at the Centre of Europe

An ardent ecumenical prayer service. On the 9th November, 2017, Vienna Cathedral – dedicated to St Stephen – became the focal point for Europe.

Visible, inviting, and European – this is how this “Ecumenical Evening Prayer for Europe” came across in the cathedral church of Vienna, the Stephansdom.

Members of the ecumenical network Together for Europe at the heart of the Austrian capital city, at the vigil of their annual Congress. They came from countries such as Portugal, Russia, England, and Greece.

Their aim: unity and reconciliation among various Christian denominations and cultures, as well as solidarity and integration within Europe.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn lead an ecumenical group of representatives of various Churches: hundreds of people gathered under the “Lettner” Cross which is a significant memorial of the victims of the two world wars. “People today do not expect us to rule, but to serve,” the Cardinal emphasized in his speech. The solemn prayer for a TOGETHERNESS of cultures and generations and for peace resounded powerfully.

“This moment of prayer was a multilingual, visible, and European sign of hope,” said one of the participants, “and it gives us hope for the future.”

Video Ecumenical Prayer Vienna (German)>

At the reception that followed the celebration, Thomas Hennefeld, Superintendent of the Reformed Church of Austria and President of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria, and Joerg Wojahn, Head of the European Commission Representation in Austria,  underlined that Christian values are the basis for a united Europe. “We need everybody,” exclaimed the representative of the EU.

After November 9, 1938 (the Night of Broken Glass) and November 9, 1989 (fall of the Berlin wall), couldn’t November 9, 2017, day of the ecumenical prayer, be a significant step on the road of Together for Europe and a sign for Europe?

Beatriz Lauenroth;  Photo: Annemarie Baumgarten

 

 

Decades of surprise

‘Behind the iron curtain’ was a metaphorical attribution given to those countries that from the end of the Second World War until 1989 were part of the communist bloc. The ‘iron’ curtain in question represented the ideological split which divided Europe in two halves, an ideological split physically represented by the Berlin Wall.

When for research purposes I visited Prague, in former Czechoslovakia, the memory of Jan Palach was very much alive with many university students considering him a hero: on 16th January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire to draw the attention of the world to the exasperation in which his nation lived. My impression was that in the capital city of Czechoslovakia two parallel worlds coexisted: one official and visible, and another hidden but ever so present.

I had a similar experience living in Hungary in the 1980s. At that time, only a censored and sanitized version of news from Eastern European countries reached the West… Not much was known about Hungary outside the events of 1956. Initially I travelled to Budapest on a research scholarship into children’s literature, but my stay developed into a chain of surprising events and considering the political and historical context – small miracles.

Thanks to the translations I became known for, I received an award which allowed me to remain in Hungary as a lecturer at the Janus Pannonius University of Pecs. In a context of politics manipulated by interests and ideology, the ability to incorporate any kind of positive message into teaching required a sense of personal responsibility and freedom.

On one of my train journeys, while waiting at one of the endless border custom checks, I spotted a bird jumping on the barbed wire fence dividing the two countries. This sight prompted me to ponder how long those barriers would remain and I drew some hope from Giambattista Vico, a philosopher from Naples, Italy, who spoke about the fact that things which are outside their natural order do not remain so.[1]

In 1989, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall I happened to conduct a sociological study on the change of toponyms of the streets and squares of Budapest and on destiny of statues left in that country by communist realism. These were eventually to be transferred to a specially designated garden which served as a sort of a ‘historical ZOO’ where parents would bring their children on Sundays… Some of the Soviet red star sculptures would have to wait for years to be taken down owing of their sheer size and weight.

After 16 years in Hungary, and after visiting other former Warsaw pact countries such as Slovakia or Poland, and places such as Auschwitz I understood better the reason of my being and I have become more and more grateful to God for the possibility to help make Europe and the entire world a family.

I also feel how right Victor Hugo was in in his famous [mis]quote : Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.[2]

by Tanino Minuta

[1] Giambattista Vico, Opere Vol. I, Tipografia della Sibilla, Naples, 1834, p. 12. [free translation]

[2] http://nuovoeutile.it/222-frammenti-sulla-creativita-a-cura-di-annamaria-testa/ [http://www.quotecounterquote.com/2011/02/nothing-is-more-powerful-than-idea.html]

 

 

Studying, living, and teaching history

9 November 1989: an unforgettable date in recent history marking the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the evening of that same day I was too transfixed in my chair in front of the TV to notice an unexpected event the import of which my own young generation at the time could not possibly grasp.

I had studied (and held a degree in) modern history. I studied all about the Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall, which in those November days was being reversed to rubble. A few months later we were to learn from the press the stories of the peoples of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania who, by means of more or less peaceful revolutions, were freeing themselves from seven decades of Soviet burden.

I could never have dreamt on that November day, that the stories and images from the media would have become incarnated for me, in real people whom I was about to meet, as only a short month later I descended in Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, brought by train from Rome crossing Slovenia and Croatia. I was offered the post of Italian language and history teacher in a secondary school in the Hungarian capital. A small group of people with big smiles and a bunch of flowers welcomed me in the smoky atmosphere of the station. This was my first encounter with a country in Eastern Europe: the cordial encounter with these normal people who soon became a family to me, in distinct contrast to the atmosphere of sadness and distrust that still prevailed, with unambiguous signs of ‘control’ (groups of Soviet soldiers discharged onto footpaths by imposing military trucks). This despite the fact that a Hungarian Republic had been proclaimed in October 1989. It would take more than two years for the last soldier donning the red Soviet star to leave the country for good.

The first months of ‘freedom’ were a transition phase both politically and socially: whilst the democratic government was making its first steps and had to cope with many unknowns (and strikes!), a variety of products, some from abroad slowly filtered into the shops. Daily life was still complicated, at least for me, coming from the West. I was used to a certain style of cooking, but it was impossible to find the same ingredients on the market. One day in 1990, the taxi and the public transport drivers blocked all bridges over the Danube in protest against the increase in the price of petrol. In a flash there were endless queues outside shops selling bread and soon all shops were empty. «it’s like in ‘56» – people would say, meaning: there was nothing left to eat. People were unable to reconcile these conditions with a belief that the worst had already passed never to return.

Only when I began to teach did I fully appreciate the different social history in which I was now living, where all historical references were seen from the perspective of Moscow and revolved around the concept of class struggle. I found myself having to explain to my ingenuous students, things which until then I had taken for granted. Among the most obvious was an episode just prior to Christmas in 1990. In order to practice Italian conversation, we spoke about Italian Christmas traditions. I described enthusiastically images of the Nativity and the crib present in those days in every Italian family. After I spoke for about half an hour, a girl with dark hair put up her hand at the back of the class and asked: «Professor, but who is this Jesus?».

by Maria Bruna Romito

 

A view of the Balkans by a man from Naples

It is not easy to sum up more than ten years in Slovenia, Croatia and Romania.

I can say that I felt immediately at ease. My early times in Slovenia were demanding, because it was so completely different to where I had come from. I did not speak the language; the weather was very cold with the typical smell of coal burning in stoves inside seemingly every house. One of my first enduring impressions was the sense of order and discipline. I can recall going to buy fruit with one of my friends from the community. While he joined the queue outside the shop, I stood slightly to the side. Then I noticed that there was another queue forming behind me… I soon realised that the same was happening at bus stops too. I was very impressed by it.

After 5 years in Slovenia I then moved to Croatia which accompanied an immediate sense of freedom: I was starting to study the language at university, I was meeting many people, exploring and discovering the city I was living in and doing many interesting things which I could not do before. I found the Croats similar to my own people: warm, welcoming and appreciators of good food.

Fall of the Wall
This was an unforgettable experience lived with my friends moment by moment, aware that what we were seeing on the TV was the world in the process of changing!

The war
The war in the Balkans was one of my strongest experiences of that period. It was a strange one in that Zagabria, where I lived at the time, was not involved in the conflict directly. The first few days, however, were terrifying because of the presence of snipers shooting randomly at civilians. My strongest memory however is not so much of destruction but of solidarity among people. It was very moving to witness the arrival of humanitarian aid in the form of food and clothes. Around that time my parents both passed away in Naples. I went back to Italy, emptied my family home in Naples and brought everything back with me to Croatia to help those in need.
I recall how in 1993, still in the midst of war, we managed to organise a youth festival for approximately 3.000 young Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as Muslims from former Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. One of the most emotional moments was a chant by a Muslim choir! The event was broadcasted by TV and radio and was on the front pages of all newspapers in the capital.

Dacia (Romania)
My experience in this country was one of coming from a life of prosperity and wellbeing to a situation of relative poverty. There was a sense in which the communist regime had managed to destroy all cultural, civic and folk tradition of that country. I was shocked! I recall a youngster whom I knew from having seen him around and who asked me for money. At the time, I could not help him because I did not have the amount he required. The episode made me think a lot: why did he asked me of all people? Because he knew I was Italian and thought I can return at any point where I came from. Real poverty is a feeling of not having anything and no one “able to help”.
As in Zagabria, also in Romania I experienced a deep communion among brothers and sisters who were looking for something that would finally give meaning to their life: Love! And with many of them, just like with those in Slovenia and Croatia to this day I have strong brotherly relationships.

by Gennaro Lamagna

Further and further East

Rossiya mon Amour  

Winter 1991, Moscow. In the early afternoon, my plane touched down in Sheremetyevo Airport.

The arrivals hall was poorly lit, the queue outside the passport controls and visas, long. I had gotten a job at the famous Lomonosov University and with all my possessions was moving to Russia. It was already dark outside and I had the impression that this was the end of the world. Then I heard an announcement: Connections for Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk which made me realise that this was where everything started.

Magical beginnings

In Moscow, I lived in a small ecumenical community. Our apartment on Volochaevskaya street was in a working-class quarter, which did not feel particularly safe. When I asked why we didn’t move, like all the foreigners, on the secure embassy grounds, I was told: “Not to worry because where we were, we were protected by the proletariat.”

Contact with our neighbours was indeed spontaneous and easy: elderly women, sitting in the courtyard day and night knew exactly of all the comings and goings; the spontaneity of the children made me forget the awful smell of the dirty staircase. Our new friends – colleagues, students, old and young – all came gladly to Volochaevskaya. They don’t mind that the sofa in our apartment was half eaten by mice and that there was a water leak from a tube in the corridor. The beginnings of our deepening friendship helped us see everything in a different light and forget all the rest.

“Spiritual children” of Alexander Men

In the early 1990s production in Russia decreased rapidly. Shops were empty, everything was scarce. Religious life appeared to be extinct. Within the walls of former churches there were vodka making factories, offices, shops …

We had a long-standing acquaintance with the Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Men. Since the 1960s he had clandestinely baptised thousands of people and had shown a level of ecumenical openness that was dangerous for his time. A lively Orthodox Christian community formed around him. When he was violently killed, he left behind his “spiritual children” as traumatised orphans.

Where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Mt 18:20)

Soon many people joined us. We lived together the word of the Scripture, for example, ” Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). As they said, they found a new homeland with us. “You don’t proselytise, instead you help us to become yeast for a self-renewal of the Russian Orthodox Church.” After years of spiritual drought, we experienced with them and many others a new Spring. I had never been so happy. The thirst for spiritual life united us despite our cultural differences, diverse upbringing or mentality.

My discovery

In the 1990s – with perestroika and glasnost – many organisations, among them sects, as well as genuine charities from a variety of Churches (Renovabis, Kirche in Not, Bonifatiuswerk, …) and religious Movements (Communion and Liberation, Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare, Community of Sant’Egidio, …) succeeded in entering countries behind the so-called “Iron Curtin”. Some stayed on and some have since left.

What is my personal experience as a citizen of Western Germany after nearly two decades in Russia? I have received much more from this country than I could ever give: among which the gift of deep contemplation which during the Russian Orthodox Liturgy allowed my relationship with God to grow deeper; solid friendships which continue in spite of distance and which reminds me of how much I am loved. In short, I have rediscovered my vocation as a Christian and as a woman: I am called to love.

I believe that during these years we have, in our own way, re-written the Acts of the Apostles. The reality of “having love for one another and having everything in common” (see Acts 4:32) both marked and moulded us. In this light, everything appeared as new: the Gospel goes much further … well beyond Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk!

by Beatriz Lauenroth