The events of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe marked the end of one epoch in the history of the continent. The waves of protests and demonstrations that took place at that time gradually resulted in the collapse of totalitarian regimes and contributed to the fall of political ideologies. The subsequent fall of the Iron Curtain symbolically expressed the breakdown of the Western and Eastern blocs and sealed the fate of the bipolar world. Countries and nations that had freed from the rule of dictatorial governments inherited a devastated landscape, a shattered economy, and a distorted moral consciousness. “The overthrow of totalitarian power was an important step because it was the first one, but it was just the beginning of a journey on which we will have to take many more steps, undoubtedly more difficult steps,”1 Václav Havel told the European Parliament in spring 1990. These events not only marked the end of the long-standing status quo but heralded a new beginning in the sense that, for the whole of Europe, the prospect of an unprecedented opportunity opened up to become an island of friendly and peaceful cooperation between all its inhabitants. Thus, the turning points of the late 1980s and early 1990s became the starting points for far-reaching transformations in the security, political, economic, and civic structures that were to guarantee the future of the united continent. In this sense, we can say that, in 1989, Europe entered a time of change that deeply affected not only public systems, institutions, and mechanisms but also required radical changes in human thought, human behaviour, and social consciousness. “Without courageous people, no substantial structural changes are conceivable,”2 dreamed thirty years ago in Strasbourg the already mentioned dissident and politician.
Also for the Christian churches of Central and Eastern Europe and for their mutual relations, the collapse of totalitarian regimes meant the end of coexistence in the conditions determined by a form of a political system that not only harshly suppressed the Christian faith, but at the same time, in some areas, also insidiously tried to misuse religious life to its own advantage. In particular, we can think of the area of ecumenism, the genuineness of which has been thoroughly tested in the countries of the communist government. Such verification of the ecumenical idea was connected with the profiling of various forms of efforts for the mutual rapprochement of the churches. Thus, in addition to some ecumenical activities that the state not only controlled but even supported, we witnessed manifestations of mutuality that came from the hidden life of the churches. This “ecumenism from below” grew out of the mentality of enthusiastic Christians, who had the courage to accept their conditions as a challenge to change their own way of thinking and to create a new quality of relationships with others. At the same time, such a form of ecumenism was undoubtedly supported by Christian solidarity in opposition to state power or by shared persecution. The description of ecumenical relations of churches during the communist dictatorship forms a separate chapter for historians of the ecumenical movement. To evaluate this experience theologically remains a challenge for those dealing with issues of ecumenical hermeneutics.3
However, the fall of communism not only concluded one period of ecumenical relations, but it also became a historical challenge as concerns their continuation and a new beginning. The challenge was not only that the churches had to renew their own lives decimated by decades of political oppression, but also that if they did not want to lose their credit, they had to find their proper place in the midst of a deeply changing society. Changes of political, economic, and cultural paradigms in Central and Eastern Europe have called on Christian churches not only to build and strengthen structures but above all to enter the process of inner transformation based on attention towards the “signs of the times” and their interpretation in the light of the Gospel of Christ. The gift of external freedom posed a question to the churches about their inner freedom, which could only be answered by a courageous confrontation with the shadows of one’s own past and, at the same time, by abandoning one-sided concentration on oneself.
It is the area of ecumenism that represents a completely exceptional space where such a transformation can be verified. The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which we recently commemorated, is an extraordinary opportunity to look at the state of our ecumenical fellowship in an atmosphere of regained political and civil freedom. One may ask to what extent we, as Christians and churches in Central and Eastern Europe, have grown into the freedom of the Spirit, which is the primary precondition for the renewal of relations between Christ’s disciples. One may ask whether, in the suddenly accelerated pulse of life, we have not rather decided in favour of the idea of pragmatic “peaceful coexistence”, which ultimately leads to disinterest, indifference, and mistrust and means capitulation to the task entrusted to us. One may ask what place we have reserved for ecumenism in our communities, whether we have not made from priority only a secondary and irrelevant fact, or whether we have not limited our closeness to exceptional moments of “ecumenical celebrations”, during which we could more or less ostentatiously show off our unity. One may ask whether we have not unilaterally preferred the development of ‘“ecumenism of structures” at the expense of awakening authentic ecumenical sensitivity on a personal and local level.
When looking for answers to these and other questions, it is advisable to pay attention to what I would call “dynamics of change” as the determining context. This means, on the one hand, taking into account the complex of great changes which the countries with the communist past have undergone over the last thirty years and which in many respects have affected Christian churches as they became free to enter the public space. Therefore, it is important to examine the impact of this fact on the quality of ecumenical fellowship and cooperation. Our ecumenical experience is not isolated from the worldwide Christian ecumene. Therefore, to take into account the dynamics of change also means assessing the specific local experience in relation to the changing paradigms within global ecumenism, which, by coincidence in 1989, was pointed out by the then President of the World Council of Churches Konrad Raiser.4 What the Christians and churches of Central and Eastern Europe experience in their relations must be seen as part of the search for a new articulation of eschatological hope for the full and visible unity of the Body of Christ as we have witnessed in world ecumenism in recent decades. From this point of view, it seems important to honestly analyse everything that has proved to be ecumenically fruitful in the past and, at the same time, to learn to recognise what springs from the present moment as an authentic promise of unity. After all, if a certain form of ecumenism has already been exhausted today, it does not necessarily mean the end of the movement itself, which is anchored in the will of the Triune God.
To capture the forms of ecumenical relations between Christians and churches in Central and Eastern Europe in the dynamics of change outlined above is the task of the present volume, which was created by ecumenical theologians coming from different countries and belonging to various denominational backgrounds. Along with them, the reader will be able to share immediate ecumenical experiences in areas that are historically, politically, and culturally very diverse to identify the manifestations of the same Spirit, who creates unity through diversity. The individual chapters are summarising studies, which present the most important contributions to local ecumenical relations over the last thirty years. Furthermore, the book presents case studies concerning partial phenomena of ecumenical coexistence, the analysis of which provides insight into general causes and broader contexts. Finally, there is an attempt to evaluate a particular experience at the general level of impulses for ecumenical hermeneutics.
The series of views is opened by the Lublin theologian Piotr Kopiec with a probe into the history and present of ecumenism in Poland, which from a religious point of view is usually perceived rather as a traditionally homogeneous environment deeply shaped by Roman Catholicism. The Polish scholar not only describes the beginnings of ecumenical efforts in this country, which were significantly affected by the Roman Catholic Church, but also analyses the important local ecumenical agreements that have emerged in the last decade. An important conclusion reached by the author based on his research is that Polish ecumenism can be characterised primarily as an activity “from above” rather than a movement “from below” and as a field where the doctrinal element prevails over the receptive one.
In his text, Péter Szentpétery from the Lutheran Theological University in Budapest describes the ecumenical coexistence of the churches in Hungary in close connection with the political changes the country underwent in 1989. That moment, according to him, represented a “kairos of the great awakening of church life”, which the churches were not able to use properly, though. The text deals intensively with the level of the relationship between the Christian churches and the state. While the memories of the years of communist dictatorship still call the churches to the need to heal the wounds of the past, the current political distribution of forces encourages Christian ecumene to responsibly seek ways leading to authentic witness to the faith in today’s polarised society.
Cristian Sonea, who works at the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Cluj-Napoca, offers a comprehensive view of the ecumenical situation in post-communist Romania. From his perspective, he draws particular attention to the role played by the majority Orthodox Church in inter-church relations in the local environment as its theologians offered many important impulses to world ecumenism in the past. His contribution reflects an atmosphere of vacillation between ecumenical openness and crisis as well as hope and disappointment, which intertwine at the local and global levels. As conclusion, the author declares for a clear option in favour of ecumenism as a prophetic and eschatological dimension of the Church’s mission.
Pope John Paul II once called Ukraine a “laboratory of ecumenism”. The specifics of the fellowship of Christian churches in this post-Soviet country are described and analysed by Andriy Mykhaleyko, who works at the University of Eichstätt. In particular, the author’s text emphasises the political and national factors that significantly determine the form of ecumenical relations in Ukraine, which plays a strategic role, both political and ecclesiastical. In addition to this ecclesiastical-political level, he notes the intertwining of the global and local dimensions of ecumenism in this country. The life of the local churches and their ecumenical impulses cannot be considered separately from the relations that prevail between the great centres, namely between Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow.
The aspect of continuity and discontinuity in ecumenical relations during the communist era and in the period after 1989 is studied in the chapter written by the ecumenical theologian Jaroslav Vokoun from the University of České Budějovice. For his research, he chose a very particular form of ecumenical cooperation, which had taken place since the 1970s among the Czech exiles scattered throughout Europe and overseas. The originality of the “ecumenism of encounters” that developed in these circles laid in the fact that it did not pursue any specific consensus in dogmatics but was distinguished by its openness to the topics that transcended the pure inter-confessional and inter-ecclesial space. Both, the dialogic and personal dimension of this type of ecumenism represents only little developed potential in today’s life of churches …
After the “Velvet Revolution” in November 1989, the visits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI significantly affected ecumenical relations in the Czech lands. Robert Svatoň from the Faculty of Theology in Olomouc deals with the various responses that these four papal journeys evoked in the local Protestant environment. According to the author, as concerns the ways of reception or rejection of the suggestions of the papal magisterium, the main characteristics of Czech Catholic-Protestant ecumenism manifested themselves by the following: focus on historical memory, profiling of one’s own identities, the tension between the universal and particular form of Christianity, but also the experience of a deep bond among believers of both communities.
In his contribution, the Lutheran theologian Ľubomír Batka from Bratislava focused on a specific ecumenical experience, presenting the five imperatives contained in the document of the Catholic-Lutheran Commission From Conflict to Communion from 2013 as a starting point for ecumenical relations between churches. It was the translation of this important text of the world ecumenical dialogue into Slovak that became an opportunity for a group of local theologians to enter the process of ecumenical learning, which represents a challenging way to get to know the respective confessional specifics and especially to find what unites us as Christians. The experience described by the author fits very well into the ecumenical “hermeneutics of conversion” he postulates.
The final chapter of the book, written by Reinhard Thöle, Professor Emeritus of the University of Halle, offers a possible hermeneutic key to understanding the ecumenical efforts as a manifestation of a divine-human activity. Ecumenism is a space where paradox and antinomy find their place. Although we cannot produce unity by church-politics or theological debates, we cannot prevent it. In contrast to the false forms of “management-ecumenism”, the author points to the analogy of ecumenism with a liturgical event, in which what is earthly is transformed by God into a sign of the coming eschatological reality.
The end of one epoch and of one form is the beginning of a new age and of new manifestations. This is the experience of the society and churches of the post-communist part of Europe in the last thirty years. At the same time, the fruit of knowledge in this period is that the most decisive things for the society and churches do not consist in the change of structures but spring from a changed mentality and transformed relations. In the area of ecumenical relations, that substantial and decisive change takes place when God enters our way of thinking and our ideas of existence. First, as the one who judges their genuineness, but above all as the one who transforms everything – including our mistakes, our betrayals, and faults – into the form of heavenly Jerusalem. May Christians and churches, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, grow in courage for inner freedom, which is increasingly open to this kind of transformation, in order to determine the form of our ecumenical living together.
Václav Havel, Evropa jako úkol: Výběr z projevů 1990–2004 (Praha: Úřad vlády České republiky, 2005), 9.
One of the first attempts was a collection of contributions Ökumene in Ungarn, der Tchechoslowakei und Polen (Beiheft zur Ökumenischen Rundschau Nr. 64), ed. Hans Vorster (Frankfurt am Main: Lembeck, 1992). The book presents selected aspects of ecumenical cooperation at the time of communist totalitarianism in the mentioned countries from the point of view of various denominations. The authors pay attention not only to the experience of local ecumenism, but they also focus on the interactions with global ecumenism. However, they reflect the level of the ‘unofficial’ forms of ecumenical cooperation rather marginally, which was probably due to the fact that the book was published soon after the revolutionary events of 1989. Later texts already dealing with this issue are to be found in Christian World Community and the Cold War, ed. Július Filo (Prešov: Vydavateľstvo Michala Vaška, 2012).
Cf. Konrad Raiser, Ökumene im Übergang: Paradigmenwechsel in der ökumenischen Bewegung? (München: Kaiser, 1989).