On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his Catholic Church. His Theses denounced some of the evils he saw in the Church. The Church excommunicated Luther and branded him a “heretic.” Thus began what is commonly called the “Protestant Reformation.” The Catholic Church responded to Luther’s accusations with a Counter Reformation of its own. These actions eventually led to religious wars that plagued Europe for centuries. On all sides, individuals were accused of heresy and, in some cases, imprisoned or burned at the stake.
Fast forward 499 years to October 31, 2016. In Lund, Sweden, the World Federation of Lutheran Churches kicked off their year of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And who was present at their prayer service? None other than Pope Francis!
The Pope’s presence at this event was quite remarkable—both for the fact that he was invited and the fact that he accepted the invitation. His presence raised more than a few eyebrows—both Catholic and Lutheran! But it clearly demonstrated just how far Catholics and Lutherans have come toward reconciliation since those burnings-at-the-stake days. This movement toward reconciliation began in earnest in the 1960’s when the Second Vatican Council promoted ecumenism, that is, the dialogue among the various Christian Churches and among other faith traditions. Since then, both Catholic and Protestant theologians have been quietly working behind the scenes to address issues of division and issues of oneness.
In 2015, one such task force of Catholics and Lutherans produced a document called the “Declaration of the Way.” It established 32 points of agreement between Catholics and Lutherans. Jans-Martin Kruse, pastor of the Lutheran Church in Rome, says, “We find we have lots of things more in common than we thought before.” The Catholic Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore underscored the importance of these meetings with one another: “We need the encounter of dialogue to understand that the other person has something of value for me to hear.”
What were some of the changes in the Church that Luther desired? He wanted “ordinary” people to read the Scriptures. But in his day the Catholic Church, afraid of private interpretation of the Bible, discouraged this practice. Luther also wanted the faithful to receive both the bread and wine of the Eucharist—not the practice at that time for the laity. He wanted a married clergy and the ordination of women. He had questions about papal authority.
In an informal interview, Pope Francis praised Martin Luther for being a “great reformer.” The Pope acknowledged that the Catholic Church of Luther’s day “was not a role model. There was corruption, worldliness, greed, and lust for power. Luther protested against these things.”
Bishop William Gafkjen, chair of the Evangelical Lutheran Conference in America, has been impressed by the tone of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. He said, “I see it as a profound witness to a troubled world that tends to shout at each other across great chasms, with accusations and innuendos.” But this group of Catholics and Lutherans who have deep differences, have moved beyond shouting at each other. He concludes, “We try to speak to the best and look for the best in each other, rather than misrepresenting or accusing each other.” This is certainly a lesson for all of us, not so?
Today let us pray for all Lutherans and Catholics and their attempts at reconciliation. And let us pray for all Christians that we may work to heal the divisions among us. And may we Christians reach out to our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions—Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others—as we join in praying and working together to build a better world.
Have you had any experience with ecumenism?
If you’re Catholic, have you seen in yourself a change in attitude toward non-Catholics over the years? If so, what change have you seen? What accounts for this change?
If you’re not Catholic, have you seen in yourself a change in attitude toward Catholics over the years? If so, what change have you seen? What accounts for this change?
I’m offering two short videos today. The first is the story behind the famous hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” that many of us are familiar with. The second is the singing of the actual song with the lyrics. You can listen to either one or both!
Here is the hymn:
Please share your thoughts below. We’d love to hear from you!
PS: Coming Attractions… I’m giving a few talks soon that you might be interested in:
Nov. 11, Saturday: 10:00 – 2:00: “Wonder, Courage, Hope: Three Essential Virtues for the Spiritual Life”; at the Sisters of Notre Dame, Thousand Oaks, California. This day is for Sisters of Notre Dame, their Associates, and the Sisters of the L.A. diocese. For details call 805-496-3243 or check their website: https://sndca.org.
Dec. 2, Saturday: Advent Day of Prayer: Marillac Center, Leavenworth, KS: 913-680-2342; visit their website for details.
Dec. 11, Monday – 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm: Advent Talk on Courage, Love, and Hope; St. Paschal Baylon Parish, Highland Heights, OH; check website for details.
Feb. 24, 2018, Saturday: Retreat Day from 10:00-4:00; St. Peter Church, Naples, FL 239-775-9576; visit website for details.
Feb. 26, Monday evening: talk on hope at Espiritu Santo Parish, Safety Harbor, FL 727-726-8477. check website for details