The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
A few weeks ago, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Eastern Synod Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryse and I took part in a service commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We were joined by Catholics and Lutheran adherents and others from a variety of Christian denominations.
There were mixed choirs supported by the Basilica’s powerful organ, sincere prayers for Christian unity and the tangible witness of being together in prayer. In our own way, we were living out ourselves the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, “that all might be one” (John 17.3).
It was a joyous occasion for many. But not for all. Some were troubled by the gathering. Were we on the verge of canonizing Luther and his teachings, some wondered. How can we “celebrate” the Reformation when it meant tearing apart the fabric of Christ’s church, others asked. I had several email exchanges beforehand as well as heated discussions with some of my Roman Catholic faithful. I didn’t ask Bishop Pryse whether he had encountered criticism.
But the purpose of the event was not to glorify Martin Luther or the Reformation, as some mistakenly assumed. The Superior of the Augustinians noted the two aspects of this watershed moment in the history of Christianity: “Luther not only abandoned the Order but abhorred religious life with all his might, rejected ascetic practices and piety, rejected praying the breviary and other obligations, radically altered sacramental theology, condemned the vows and promoted the abandonment and the mass exodus of vowed religious….
“The Order of St. Augustine, to which Luther belonged, has no reason to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation but, yes, to commemorate it. And we do it with serenity, highlighting the positive aspects that it brought about: the revalorization of the individual, the reaffirmed confidence in God, the centrality of Sacred Scripture, the bringing of the liturgy closer to the people, the development of a sense of community, a healthy secularity, and the need for reform, understood as a return to the essentials.”
And so in planning this event over the past year we were faced with a choice: we could ignore the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation or we could acknowledge it and try, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to see what possible graces can be found as we work and pray with our fellow Christians who, since 1517, have been separated from us. The Second Vatican Council urged us to do precisely this in its 1964 degree Unitatis redintegratio, “On ecumenism”.
There are areas where Catholic and Lutheran theology is not congruent. However, the Catholic Church and Lutherans have been working for many years on the important task of understanding and, if possible overcoming, differences. And there has been progress.
The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, for example, produced after many years of work, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1997 which was an important document clarifying our different theological positions and points of convergence. The common understanding of the meaning of “justification”—the key concern of Luther—was agreed to by both faith communities with the approval of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
For moments such as those to happen, a lot of effort is necessary behind the scenes, including cultivating occasions where we can pray together and express some common teaching. Given the drastic effects of the Reformation, and the continuing prejudices and misinformation about Catholic and Lutheran theology, times where we can find common ground are important as Christianity as a whole faces exclusion from the public square. The divisions within the Christian community are something we can work to address without either body compromising their beliefs.
In this spirit of continuing, honest though challenging dialogue, we can continue to work and pray for greater unity. Ultimately both Lutherans and Catholics are convinced this will be the work of the Holy Spirit, but we have an important part to play in our respective communities fostering respectful dialogue.
True ecumenical prayer and dialogue seeks common ground but does not ignore important differences. A helpful part of that process is finding occasions where we can pray together especially in areas that are difficult for both communities,