The bishop of the Diocese of Essen, Germany, voiced support for allowing a Protestant married to a Catholic to receive Communion during his diocese’s annual Corpus Christi procession May 31.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck’s call comes amid continuing debate within the German Catholic Church about Protestants receiving the Eucharist.

The Protestant community in the western German city welcomed his comments.

Protestants, including clergy, participated in the Catholic procession for the first time in history along with about 2,000 people including members of diverse Catholic foreign-language communities.

Overbeck cited St. John Paul II as an inspiration and called for greater unity among Christians during a time when the German Catholic Church remains split over the issue of Communion being given to Protestant spouses of Catholics.

“Because we as baptized and believers accompany Christ, we are always on the path of unity,” Overbeck told people gathered for the observance. “That is why Pope John Paul II always greatly valued marriage of baptized persons belonging to different denominations because of their intrinsic value and because of their contribution to ecumenism.”

Overbeck openly advocated for permitting Communion to be shared by spouses, citing ecumenism as part of the legacy of St. John Paul. He said also that Pope Francis is following in the saint’s footsteps.

“Already in 2003, Pope John Paul II spoke of accommodating a grave spiritual need of individual believers with regard to eternal salvation, if a believer’s deep longing to receive the Eucharist is not satisfied and thus their faith becomes endangered,” Overbeck said.

The bishop cited Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) on ministry to and with families in his remarks, saying the pope was “opening a wider path when he points out … that development of conscience also opens up a pastoral access in the question of receiving the Eucharist because it is necessary to come to a responsible personal and pastoral decision in specific cases.”

At a time when the German Church remains rife with disunity, Overbeck called for Christian unity as the procession stopped at the city’s central Protestant church for the first time.

“On our path to unity, we proceed and celebrate today’s Eucharist with this request: that unity grows between all Christians,” the bishop said. “We respect what makes us different. We are never searching for cheap solutions, but bind ourselves in those already possible for us today, more than ever when it is about theologically responsible help in pastorally difficult situations, such as those in marriages between different denominations.”

After a May 3 meeting at the Vatican with a group of German bishops, Francis asked the bishops to continue working together to find broader consensus on guidelines for allowing a Protestant married to a Catholic to receive the Eucharist.