CNA—This past week in the Holy Land, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a group of young people in their 20s actively participated in all various ecumenical prayer services.
They were German-speaking theology students enrolled in the annual program of ecumenical studies (called “Studienjahr”), which has been offered for 50 years at the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem.
The Studienjahr program
The Studienjahr program was launched in 1973 by the late Benedictine abbot Laurentius Klein (1928–2005). So far, more than 1,000 men and women have completed their training in the Beit Josef study house at the Benedictine Dormition Abbey, which stands on Mount Zion and has been a part of the Jerusalem skyline for over a century.
“One of Father Klein’s main intentions was to bring students from different denominations together, studying together, and that’s what we keep doing today,” the dean of the program, Johanna Erzberger, told CNA. “Usually we host students from Catholic and Protestant churches, but in the last few years we have had more and more students from evangelical churches.”
Erzberger, a former student of the program, said one thing that has changed is that “being Catholic or Protestant is not the main distinction anymore. Discussions or controversies are more within the denomination. Students who are more traditional or students who are more on the liberal side feel closer with each other, it doesn’t matter if they are Protestants or Catholics.”
Immersive student experience in the Holy Land
Every year, about 20 theology students from Germany arrive in Jerusalem to live an immersive experience in the interfaith environment of the Holy Land. They usually come from German universities with a scholarship from the German academic exchange service — the Studienjahr’s main sponsor.
They live, study, discuss and pray together.
Daniel Kargm, 21, hails from a small village near Augsburg. “I grew up in a very traditional Catholic family. Faith has always been very important to me,” he says. “At 17, after graduating, I decided to enter the seminary to become a priest.”
After a rigorous selection process, Kargm was admitted to the Studienjahr. “I wanted to apply to this program because I’m interested in the Old Testament, in the Holy Land, and in the topic of the historical Jesus of Nazareth,” he said.
In these months, Kargm has not only connected with his fellow budding theologians but also immersed himself in the richness of Christian and religious traditions of the Holy Land.
He attends the Arabic-speaking Catholic community, plays the organ at the Lutheran church, prays with the monks of the Dormition Abbey, and participates in liturgies of the Eastern Christian churches.
The students engage with colleagues and professors from local universities — both Israeli and Palestinian.
“I thought Judaism would have been a big topic for me, but in fact Islam is now a very big question mark. I know many Muslim people who have a deep spiritual life and rich spiritual history. [I am asking] questions like, ‘Which religion is the truth?’ and ‘How can truth and faith be in more than one religion?’” Kargm shared.
He continued: “I began to wonder what it means to belong to a religion and, in fact, what a religion is. I’m planning my life, thinking of becoming a priest, and these kinds of questions are very present within me.”
One of Kargm’s closest friends in the student residence is a Protestant young man. Both of them are big fans of the German soccer team Bayern Munich, which brought them together from the very beginning.
Song, Music and Prayer in the Upper Room, the Cenacle
For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, on Jan. 25 the students of the Studienjahr enlivened the prayer in the Upper Room — which is just a few meters from the Dormition Abbey and where Jesus is believed to have shared the Last Supper with his apostles before his passion — with song and music. Passed down through the generations, the room has been incorporated into the Jewish complex of the “Tomb of David” and is available for Christian use only a few days a year.
“Music is a very good approach to ecumenism because it is universal: Everybody can relate to it and the feeling that the music conveys brings us all together,” Johanna Wirth, a member of the choir of students, said after the ecumenical prayer on Thursday evening, adding: “In this room, listening to the same music or singing the same songs brings us together.”
Wirth, a Lutheran, attends the Studienjahr program. She explained that being in contact with different Christian and religious traditions in Jerusalem “challenges me, because I have to go out of my comfort zone and question my own faith, because it is questioned by others — by their traditions, by their prayers … In the end, all that makes me go back to my own tradition even more than before: I learn to appreciate what I have in my own tradition and I also gain a lot of positive things from other traditions and religions.”
Benedictine abbot of Dormition: Father Nikodemus
The prayer in the Upper Room was presided over by the Benedictine abbot of Dormition, Father Nikodemus Schnabel, an expert in ecumenical studies and the Eastern churches.
“We are really one of the ecumenical places in Jerusalem. The Last Supper Room is above any denomination and specificity, because it is not a church, it doesn’t belong to any of the churches,” Schnabel said. “This is the place of the Pentecost, the place of the Last Supper, of the washing of the feet, of the first apostles’ council. What happened here is a heritage and vocation to really be engaged in ecumenism.”
Schnabel continued: “I feel the prayer of the Lord ‘that they all may be one’ is more and more important these days because we’re a hotspot of anti-Christian hate. All this anti-Christian hatred by Jewish extremists is never ‘death to the Catholics,’ ‘death to the Orthodox,’ ‘death to the Lutherans’ — it is ‘death to the Christian,’” he said. “Enemies of Christianity are more ecumenical in their thinking than we as Christians… We should learn from the people who hate us.”
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Abbot Schnabel’s abiding hope
During the prayer evening, Schnabel shared his dream that next year in 2025 — “when Eastern and Western churches will celebrate Easter and Pentecost together, and 1,700 years after the Council of Nicea that all Christians accept — we can gather all the heads of the Churches together in the Upper Room. It would be a strong sign to the world from Jerusalem that we are united as Christians.”