Pope Francis gives a gift to Rev. Jens-Martin Kruse during a visit to Christuskirche, a parish of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Rome Nov. 15, 2015. CNS photo/Massimiliano Migliorato, Catholic Press Photo

Hope for future in Reformation’s past

  • October 12, 2016

Oct. 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the date Martin Luther posted his 95 proposals on the door of a Catholic church in Germany to launch the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, Luther’s imprint on Christianity has never faded over the centuries.

The event is being referred to as a commemoration and not a celebration. In anticipation of this historic occasion Pope Francis will travel to Lund, Sweden, for a joint ecumenical commemoration at the end of this month. The Bishop of Rome will be joined by the president of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan.

Rather than highlight division, the event is expected to underscore the significant ecumenical developments which have taken place between Catholics and Lutherans over the past 50 years of dialogue. First among these achievements is the observable degree of genuine fraternity, hospitality and respect generally shared worldwide by Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Compared to a history rife with disharmony and, at times, violence, it is fair to say that a mutual bonding has been well established and equally appreciated.

Among the building blocks contributing to this relationship are the words of St. Pope John Paul II in an Oct. 31, 1983 letter to Cardinal Willebrands. He referred to Luther as a theologian who “contributed in a substantial way to the radical change in the ecclesiastical and secular reality in the West.” He continued: “Our world still experiences his great impact on history.”

Perhaps an even more substantial benchmark of success between Lutherans and Roman Catholics was the historic 1997 document Justification by Faith Through Grace, a joint declaration between the two religions.

Pope Benedict XVI once described his fellow German, Luther, as a man in sincere search of the face of God and a believer with deep, Christ-centred spirituality. By his endearing comments and by affirming the correctness of Luther’s theology of “justification by faith” in a 2011 address to the Council of Evangelical Church in Germany, Benedict further contributed to the foundation of a deepening relationship. The ground has truly shifted between Lutherans and Roman Catholics and our collective response should be, “Praise the Lord.”

Of course, we are not there yet. But these breakthroughs have overcome the major stumbling blocks which once stood in the way of unity. Now unity appears achievable. Just as important then, so now, is that we continue the dialogue. Just as important then, so now, is that prayer must accompany this dialogue.

In preparation for the 500th anniversary commemoration, two important documents have been published. The first (From Conflict to Communion) is by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The other (Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist) is by the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

The first text draws on 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in further pursuit of the unity goal both sides wish to achieve. The active pursuit of this objective is propelled by the never-to-be-forgotten words of St. Pope John XXIII: “The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.”

The second document articulates the consensus achieved by Lutherans and Catholics since 1965 on the topics of church, ministry and Eucharist. It cites 32 agreed statements in addition to noting the many differences and reconciling considerations still under discussion.

Together, the two documents provide a good overview of what has transpired ecumenically over the many years of fruitful dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

In addition, pastors will be pleased by an accompanying resource, Common Prayer, which provides an introduction to the document Conflict and Communion as well as a jointly approved common prayer text to guide ecumenical commemorations. This useful resource is intended to encourage commemoration at every level, always mindful that prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement.

The upcoming trip by Pope Francis to Lund to meet with Lutheran leaders is no mere symbolic gesture. More than just marking the anniversary of the Reformation, his presence and his words in support of Christian unity are bound to ignite enthusiasm and hope for a successful outcome someday to the ongoing dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

Every ecumenist — and indeed all Christians — should hope and pray that the Pope will break new and important ground as Lutherans and Catholics continue to find ourselves “on the way.”

(Fr. Damian MacPherson, SA is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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