Ecumenically Speaking: Caritas Pirckheimer

This week, we’ll be celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by highlighting historical figures who were practicing ecumenism before it was cool, acting with charity and forbearance toward their fellow Christians.

Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Caritas Pirckheimer. Artist: Imitator of Albrecht Dürer (20th century). Public domain via Met Open Access.

Caritas Pirckheimer (1467 – 1532)  was a German humanist, nun, and lover of scripture who corresponded widely in Latin and German and kept careful records of her conversations and letters. Caritas was Abbess of the convent of Saint Clare in Nuremberg from 1503 to 1532. Through a letter-writing campaign, she valiantly attempted  to convince the City Council of Nuremberg to allow her convent to remain open as the Reformation changed the religious practices of that city. Her carefully-articulated arguments were responded to by the head of the City Council in a sometimes tense, always respectful back-and-forth dialogue that she records in her journal. Her arguments range from practical to spiritual, and she demonstrates an admirable tenacity and a wry sense of humor throughout.

Caritas’s honest words in these letters get at the heart of relationships between Protestant and Catholic Christians in the crucible of tensions and antagonism between them:

Therefore, in the name of our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior, we beg your honor to have patience with us poor creatures. Do not force us into a faith we do not believe in. Even the Turks allow everyone to remain in his own faith and do not coerce anyone. Every day, we will pray earnestly to God that he might increase his proper, true Christian faith in us. If he makes us of another mind, we will not keep that from you. No one’s faith and conscience should be subject to coercion, since God, our Lord, wants consciences to be free and not forced. Therefore, it is not appropriate for anyone to bind them or imprison them. We earnestly and humbly desire that you honor and accept our petition. It comes from the depths of our being and is without any temporal or spiritual advice and with no pretense, as we will indicate, but from our own consciences and our troubled hearts. *

In the end, it was a conversation with a Lutheran theologian and Reformation leader that saved her community from immediate closure. She met with Philipp Melanchthon in 1525, and after their dialogue, he convinced the Nuremberg City Council to allow the convent to remain open for its current sisters (though no novices were to be admitted).

Have a suggestion of an ecumenical trendsetter? Leave us a comment or let us know at praytell@csbsju.edu

* Pirckheimer, Caritas. MacKenzie, Paul A., trans. Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, The Library of Medieval Women. Woddbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2006.

Other posts in this series:

Argula von Grumbach

Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf

Henry Constable

John Amos Comenius

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

John Dury

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