Italy: A place for dialogue and spiritual friendships

9 Feb 2024

In this Voices from the Communion, Rev. Michael Jonas shares his journey from ordination in Germany’s Black Forest region to leading the Lutheran community in the heart of Rome

Rev. Michael Jonas, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran community in Rome, Italy, with Prof. Dirk Lange, LWF Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations. Photo: CatholicPressPhoto/A. Giuliani

Rev. Michael Jonas, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran community in Rome, Italy, with Prof. Dirk Lange, LWF Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations. Photo: CatholicPressPhoto/A. Giuliani

German pastor Michael Jonas leads the Evangelical Lutheran Community in Rome

(LWI) - For over a century, the Christuskirche (Christchurch) in central Rome has been home to an international community of Lutherans living and working in the Eternal City. In 1983, Pope John Paul made a visit to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. Both of his successors, the German Pope Benedict and the current Pope Francis have also gone to pray and to meet with the community there.

But fostering good relations between Lutherans and Catholics is only a part of the work of this small but vibrant community, currently led by German pastor Rev. Michael Jonas. On any Sunday throughout the year, the church may welcome visiting Lutheran leaders from Scandinavia, African or Asian families wanting to baptize a baby, or a crowd of American tourists searching for a place of familiar Lutheran liturgy and music.

Alongside these varied ecumenical and liturgical commitments, the church also runs outreach programs offering practical and spiritual support to local homeless people and migrant women with young children. Pastor Jonas says it is a “privilege” to oversee these local diaconal ministries, while also being part of a “worldwide Lutheran family.”

Can you share something about your background and where your interest in ecumenism originates?

I was born and raised in southern Germany in the Black Forest region. In that part of Germany, Christians are about half Protestant and half Catholic, so from the very beginning I was used to having Catholic friends and classmates. After school, I studied in Tübingen, but I also spent a year studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, as well as at the Waldensian theology faculty there.

You also worked in Tübingen after your ordination, didn't you?

Yes, I was ordained in 2007 and spent my first four years at the university, teaching and working as an assistant chaplain for the students. Not long after that, I returned to Rome in 2011, this time to work at the Melanchthon Center.

Tell us more about what that center does?

It is an important ecumenical study center, founded in 2002 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy and the Waldensian Faculty of Theology. It was established by German and Swiss Protestant churches to offer the possibility for Protestants from all different countries to study in Rome and to learn more about the Roman Catholic church.

The majority of students are German speakers, but we would like to make it more international. We offer accommodation and Italian-language classes for around ten students a year, so that they can choose from the rich array of theology lessons available at the Catholic universities in Rome. They make friends with Italian Catholics, but they also meet other students from all parts of the world.

Rev. Michael Jonas, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran community in Rome. Photo: Private

Rev. Michael Jonas, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran community in Rome. Photo: Private

Since 2018, you have been serving as pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran church in Rome – tell us something about that community?

A Lutheran community has existed in Rome for over 200 years, dating back to its founding by diplomats at the Prussian embassy at the start of the 19th century. Our church was only built a hundred years later, in the early 20th century, and inaugurated in 1922, although the Romanesque style of architecture makes it seem older than that.

The congregation has around 500 members, about a third of them Italians, a third expatriates who are working in Rome for a few years and a large number of older German women married to Italian men. We use German for about 80 percent of the time, but we also have services in Italian and some activities in English too.

We often have tourists or people from different countries wanting a baptism or a wedding, or just looking for a Lutheran identity in Rome. We try to make all visitors feel included and they often tell us that music, as well as the liturgy of the Eucharist, are international languages that make them feel welcome, whatever their nationalities or mother tongues.

You also run other activities, including some diaconal projects, don’t you?

Yes, for a couple of decades we have been running a Wednesday morning breakfast for the homeless in our central part of the city. Volunteers provide both breakfast and lunch packages for around 80 regulars and even during the pandemic we managed to keep this service going for them.

Another project which has been running for many years is a space for African migrant women with young children who come to talk and to receive some baby clothes or other essentials. There are about 40 or 50 women who come regularly and this is an important, intimate, place for them to be able to talk openly about their challenges. It is run by our women and I try to keep out of their way, but I am very proud of their work.

Ecumenical dialogue is also a significant part of your work – the community has had visits from three popes in 1983, 2010 and 2015.

Yes, as I am currently the only Lutheran pastor in Rome, I am invited to many meetings and events. I meet regularly with Cardinal Koch at the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, so we speak about different issues and he asks for my advice. I think the basis for any ecumenical progress is good personal relationships. I want to be a part of creating that, fostering spiritual friendships and offering a place where progress in our dialogues can be lived out.

I wasn’t the pastor of the church for any of those papal visits, but our members still talk about them. They were a very strong sign for our congregation and they changed the role of our parish, as other churches got to know more about us. Politically, it opened doors and created a lot of openness - people said if the pope went there, well then, these Lutherans can’t be so dangerous!

Do you and your parishioners feel connected to the wider communion of Lutheran churches?

Yes, even though every parish has a tendency to be a bit inward looking, ours has to be more international because we receive people from all over the world. Lutheran bishops who are visiting the Vatican often join us for Sunday worship, so our congregation is used to seeing visitors from Africa, Asia, the United States and elsewhere.

Last year, we celebrated the baptism of three babies from Namibia and our members felt really proud of being part of this bigger Lutheran family. We are a small church, but we have the privilege of experiencing worldwide Lutheranism and as pastor, I enjoy that privilege too.

LWF/P. Hitchen