Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

An Ecumenical Comparison of Niemoller's Maundy Thursday Sermon, 1945, and Rahner's Holy Thursday Homily, 1976

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

An Ecumenical Comparison of Niemoller's Maundy Thursday Sermon, 1945, and Rahner's Holy Thursday Homily, 1976

Article excerpt


While there is no evidence that the two men ever met, Pastor Martin Niemoller (January 14, 1892-Match 5, 1984) and Father Karl Rahner, S.J. (March 5, 1904-March 30, 1984), shared much in common. Although they were born twelve years apart, both studied for ordination to Christian ministry during the 1920's, while Germany's political and economic stability was severely tested in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I. In the years following their ordinations, the Nazi government interrupted and restricted their work. Both heeded a call at different times in their lives to reach out beyond their denominations to seek unity and understanding. Both were known for their excellent preaching and pastoral care. Both died in March, 1984. (1) Both witnessed through the actions of their lives and their preaching that their deaths and the death of Jesus were intertwined in the last supper and the eucharistic community that evolved from it.

Their vocational paths and life experiences, though different, molded their preaching and theology, moving each toward a deep respect for ecumenism. Niemoller appeared to be motivated by his appreciation of ecclesiology and the power of Christians' working together, and Rahner was encouraged by aggiornamento, the renewal of theology and liturgy resulting from the Second Vatican Council.

By comparing and contrasting the selected sermons, I hope to illustrate how two very different people, under quite different circumstances, explored the mystery of the last supper and found meaning that transcended doctrinal differences. The messages were preached for the same liturgical occasion, the commemoration of the last supper, when each would have been expected to expound on the eucharist--Niemoller's for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 1945, near the end of his imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp, when he was fifty-three years old, and Rahner's for Holy Thursday, titled "Jesus' Supper and Our Eucharistic Community," in familiar surroundings at Innsbruck on April 15, 1976, at the age of seventy-two. Preaching thirty-one years apart, both focused on the timeless challenges of the paschal mystery.

What Experiences Influenced Niemoller's Ecumenical Preaching?

Niemoller's family, military experience, preparation for ministry, active vocation before and during the Third Reich, and even his heavily nationalistic philosophy contributed to his formation for ecumenism. Niemoller's father, Heinrich, was an outstanding Lutheran pastor and preacher, and his mother, Paula Muller, came from French Huguenot ancestry. Heinrich's active ministry began in the Landeskirchen, as the regional churches of the Reformed tradition were called. These were headed by each state's princes, prior to the abdication of the princes and the separation of church and state that occurred with the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1918. Both father and son would experience the disarray resulting from Hitler's break-up of Germany's Protestant federation in 1933, with the institution of the Nazi's Reich Church. Martin's involvement in the opposition pastors' Confessing Church led to his subsequent imprisonment, requiring his parents to help raise Martin's six children, the youngest born after be was incarcerated.

After the war, Martin participated in developing the post-World War II ecclesial fellowship, Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (the Evangelical Church in Germany; E.K.D.), and eventually represented its member churches to the World Council of Churches. (2) Niemoller's service as an officer-cadet in the Imperial German Navy, 1910-18 (much of the time as a U-boat officer), until the close of World War I, initially seemed compatible with his Christian faith. However, during the war, Niemoller's logs offer glimpses into some of his troubling decisions, which, together with his World War II experiences, certainly contributed to his later pacifist positions, as well as a charitable regard for all people, even during war. …

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