Pope Francis embraces the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, during an ecumenical prayer service at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, Oct. 31, 2016. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Reformation turns 500: More bridges to build across the great divide

By  Fr. Damian MacPherson
  • October 30, 2017
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation is a benchmark accomplishment which should make all Canadians proud.


Anniversaries are not intended to stand outside the margin of our human experience. This is especially so when there are so many significant and life-giving memories to recall and celebrate.

At the same time, however, some anniversaries are not so much intended to be celebrated as they are to be commemorated. One such event is the 500th anniversary commemoration of the Protestant Reformation, taking place this year. Take note of the language — not a celebration, but a commemoration.

As Canadians celebrate 150 years, Catholics and Protestants, especially Lutherans, commemorate 500 years since one of the most radical divisions occurred within the Christian Church, namely, the Protestant Reformation. Certainly for Roman Catholics there is little or nothing here to celebrate, particularly when we consider that tumultuous period in our history.

But it is important to remember, to study and, yes, to commemorate such history because it is essential to understanding who we are today. Such dark-spirited events, however, are not the stuff for celebration.

From 1517, the year Martin Luther launched the Reformation, until the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, Catholics and Protestants shared a clear and determined division as expressed in many of their religious understandings and faith practices.

Unity remains elusive, but great and wonderful progress has been happening, due largely to decades of mutual dialogue between Catholic and Lutheran groups which continue to this day.

A major stumbling block and theological centrepiece which kept Lutherans and Catholics separated from one another was disagreement on the doctrine of justification — namely, how are Christians saved? Is salvation a product of faith alone, as Martin Luther professed, or does salvation require faith and good deeds? How do grace, good works and indulgences play a role, if any, in the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ?

These topics formed the basis of substantive issues for dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics. Reaching common ground was a slow achievement.

Actually, it took more than 40 years to arrive at an agreement on the central and dividing issue of justification. The breakthrough document, Justification by Faith Through Grace, is regarded as a high-water mark in the discussions between Catholics and Lutherans. It holds that Christians are saved only and entirely by faith through grace in the merits of Jesus Christ.

But that one success is not the end of the story. We need to continue to move forward in dialogue and resolve other key issues, which include authority and ministry. They are to some degree less contentious than the matter of justification, but they are important.

While we commemorate or remember the shadows of darkness from what was in the past, we should also take time to celebrate what we have achieved so far and applaud initiatives that we hope will bear fruit in the future. With the greatest of expectations, we continue to patiently work towards that moment of grace and favour when the joint celebration of the Eucharist occurs between Catholics and Lutherans.

Catholics firmly believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is the most complete sign of the unity we seek. As Christians, regrettably, we simply are not there yet. But as disciples of hope we hold firm to that passionate plea in John’s Gospel, “that all may be one” (John 17:21).

Together we believe and confess that there is no turning back as we seek to fulfill that lofty objective.

Going forward in hope we must pray, not just intermittently, but constantly. Our collective prayer should be an appeal that the power of the Holy Spirit will pave the way for that great and glorious day when the people of God, who constitute this pilgrim Church, will one day be without division and separation — finally united as one in Christ.

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

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