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Card. Karl Lehmann: The Exchange of Gifts: East and West

16 marca 2004 | 14:09 | Ⓒ Ⓟ

The following suggestions are to serve as an introduction and an invitation to common discussion:
1. During the breakthrough of 1989/90 that abolished the division into the Easter and Western blocks and saw the collapse of the major symbol of that division – the Berlin Wall – it became clear that a new model of relations between the East and the West had to be devised.

2. The ambiguity of the situation rested in the fact that the West appeared to dominate and play the part of the victor. There were two main reasons for that situation: first, the communist regime crumpled, second, the citizens of Central, Eastern, and Southern European countries regained their freedom in terms of the human rights. It would have been a mistake, however, if the West took on the pose of a winner in the conflict with the East, for that would have simply meant a new form of enslavement.

3. The events that occurred in the East were a clear manifestation of its inner strength. Eventually, the resistance and perseverance, the strength of beliefs with faith in a prominent role, as well as the cry for freedom that could not be silenced by partial solutions, in combination with other factors (e.g. economic ruin) brought about the collapse of communist dictatorships. Many of those who participated in the struggle against a more powerful enemy lost their lives, their health, had to serve long prison and labour camp sentences, and were forced to put up with numerous adversities. One aspect of their struggle was the amazing loyalty towards the Church, accompanied by a special way of deriving joy from faith and a striking intensity in receiving sacraments.

4. During the First European Synod of Bishops in October and December 1991, the new relationship between the East and the West was often referred to as the “exchange of gifts”. This idea is mentioned a number of times in the final document, which reminds us that we are “witnesses to Christ, who saved us” (Apostolic Exhortation 103, Bonn 1992). Obviously, it should be considered in the context of the Church’s teachings about charisma. The assumption is that numerous communities are endowed with a unique ability, which cannot be specified precisely, but which should be sought by every form of co-operation. It is that ability which makes the exchange of gifts possible in the first place. Here is one of the most important excerpts from the final document:

“Once again we have discovered the richness of Europe, the source of which are the two complementary, yet basically identical, Christian traditions – that of the West and that of the East, each characterised by its particular theology, liturgy, spirituality and canonical practices. Here, again, we must recall the metaphor of “the soul that breathes with two lungs”, which offers the most accurate description of the reality of our Church. In the course of our discussions, we have realised the way in which individual gifts enrich and shape our message. At the same time we felt how painful the results of divisions within the Church can be (III, 7, p. 24).”

Mutual respect requires that the structure of bilateral relationships involves a two-way exchange. Only then can we achieve true solidarity and balance between the stronger side and the side that needs support. The idea of the “exchange of gifts” is further elucidated by the concept of the Church as presented at the Second Vatican Council.

5. The idea of the “exchange of gifts”, especially in the context of the co-operation between the East and the West, was useful in the last decade as a kind of leitmotif. It is therefore not surprising that that concept was emphasised in the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa”, a post-synodal document of the Second Assembly of the Special Synod of Bishops for Europe (1-23 October 1999), although it lacks the poignancy of the 1991 document. The final message of the Synod, dated October 1999, reads as follows: “Once again we experienced moments of communion in faith and charity, led by a desire to bring about a fraternal “exchange of gifts” and mutually enriched by the diversity of each other’s experiences.” (Ecclesia in Europa. John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation III, p. 9)
This is still a valid idea, as evidenced by numerous sermons and speeches given by the Holy Father since 1992, especially those given at ad limina visits. They present an opportunity for the “exchange of gifts” on multiple levels, from diocesan and regional to international.

6. The idea of the “exchange of gifts” has lost nothing of its validity. Progress, especially the progress in the East, cannot be construed as a forced acceptance of all things Western.

Besides the adverse results of laicisation and individualisation, anonymity and consumerism, social indifference and the rise of unhealthy capitalism, there is also the risk that the inevitable process of development might result in the loss of numerous fruits and spiritual experiences by the East. Naturally, that danger is still present, especially in the context of the European Union expansion due on 1 May. We should therefore concentrate our efforts on ensuring that the exchange between the East and the West is not limited to the levelling of economic needs and interests.

The idea of the “exchange of gifts” should be continuously implemented. However, it must not be understood in a romantic or mystical manner exclusively and subjected to ideological abuse. It has ameliorative potential only if interpreted as the reception of spiritual gifts and the exchange of human values.

It is then the source of universal inspiration, including the area of ecumenism. The document from the Synod of Bishops of 1999 on the theme of Europe suggests that:

“Dialogue must continue with firm resolve, undaunted by difficulties and hardship. It should be carried on‚under different aspects (doctrinal, spiritual and practical), following the logic of the exchange of gifts which the Spirit awakens in every Church; it should train the community and the faithful, and young people in particular, to experience moments of encounter and to make ecumenism, rightly understood, an ordinary dimension of ecclesial life and activity’.” (Ecclesia in Europa 31, p. 35)

Mainz, 12 March 2004

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