On Monday, the 499th anniversary of German monk Martin Luther's posting of 95 theses on the door of the Catholic cathedral in Wittenberg, Pope Francis co-hosted an ecumenical prayer service in Sweden with leaders of the Lutheran Church. The service launches a year of celebration leading up to the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation.
The visit by Pope Francis was particularly remarkable, since Luther's resistance to papal authority, the sale of indulgences to purchase pardon for sins, and protest against excesses and abuses within the church led to his excommunication as a heretic, the church split known as the Protestant Reformation, and decades of brutal religious wars in Europe.
While Swedish society is primarily secular, the state church is Lutheran. Since the 1500s, Catholics in Sweden suffered persecution, discrimination and even death.
In the past, Pope Francis has painted Luther as "an intelligent man" who rightly called for reform of a corrupt, worldly church that "was not a role model [but stained by] ... greed and lust for power."
At the celebration this week, the pope stated that "the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church's life."
"We must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness," he said, calling on Catholics and Lutherans to "mend" history.
While Catholic-Lutheran relations have been particularly marked by periods of tension and hostility in the past, Christians of all persuasions face the challenge of how to relate to those with whom they disagree.
One of the principal issues dividing Lutherans and Roman Catholics was resolved in 1999, when the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) co-signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which states in part:
"In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."
Relations between Roman Catholics and Lutherans took further large strides this year with the adoption of "Declaration on the Way" by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which outlines 32 "Statements of Agreement" between Lutherans and Catholics regarding church, ministry and the Eucharist.
Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore, the Catholic co-chairman of the joint task force of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the ELCA that developed the declaration, said he hoped the bishops would endorse it as well.
"Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity," ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton said after the assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve the document. "After 500 years of division and 50 years of dialogue, ... this 'Declaration on the Way' helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians."
Lutherans and Roman Catholics are still divided on other issues, such as the nature of the Universal Church, the authority of the pope, the role of women in church leadership, and the nature of the Eucharist (Communion).
Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the LWF, told reporters that "people feel lack of unity the heaviest around the [Lord's] table." For centuries, Christians have been barred from partaking of the Eucharist in Catholic churches (though TWW team member Heidi Mann says she's received it, simply by going forward; in her experience, priests don't stop and ask what a visitor's denomination is). But by official position, it is Catholic barring of Lutherans; Lutherans (in the LWF anyway -- not Missouri Synod and a few other conservative branches of Lutheranism) practice "open Communion."
In a joint statement issued in Lund, Sweden, this week, the Roman Catholic Church and the LWF acknowledged that this has been a source of pain especially for family members "who share their whole lives, but cannot share God's redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed" by bringing members of both churches together at the Lord's table, "no longer strangers."
Pope Francis said that while theological differences still exist, the two churches can join forces to serve the poor and refugees, and to fight persecution of Christians. A hallmark of this pope's legacy is his effort to build bridges to other parts of the Christian family, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as to people of other faiths, such as Islam and Judaism.
Rev. Jens-Martin Kruse of the Lutheran Church in Rome described the pope's approach as "walking ecumenism." In the act of "walking together," Kruse said, "we find that we have ... more in communion than we thought before."
Teresa Jodar, a resident of Stockholm who attended the celebration earlier this week, agreed. "I am a Catholic," she said. "The Reformation ... was a sad separation. But we are celebrating taking a step closer. It is wonderful that we can work together instead of thinking about all of the differences that separate us."
More on this story can be found at these links:
The Pope Commemorates The Reformation That Split Western Christianity. NPR
Reformation Day: Pope Francis Marks Luther Anniversary in Sweden. BBC News
Pope Francis, in Sweden, Urges Catholic-Lutheran Reconciliation. The New York Times
ECLA Approves Lutheran-Catholic Ecumenical Document. ECLA
Catholic-Lutheran Document Sums Up Agreements, Maps Steps to Full Unity. Catholic News Service
Declaration on the Way. ELCA
The Big Questions
Here are some of the questions to think about:
What has been your experience (if any) interacting with Christians from other denominations? What benefits or negative consequences could occur for people who seek interdenominational or interfaith relationships?
How have relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches changed in your lifetime? Do you see the overtures for better relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church (and other Protestant groups) as a positive or a negative development? How did you arrive at your viewpoint?
What factors would you say most influence your own attitudes about ecumenical dialogue and relations? Rank in order of significance: a) Personal experience (positive or negative) with people in a different branch of the family tree of Christ. b) Views of church leaders. c) Local church or denominational culture. d) Personal and/or corporate Bible study. e) Other (specify).
How open are you to ecumenical dialogue, joint worship and/or cooperative service and mission projects? To what extent are you open to interfaith dialogue, and if not, why not? Worship experiences? Cooperation in service projects? Under what conditions do you think such ventures would be possible and potentially positive? When might they be impossible or potentially negative, and why might that be the case?
Can the church be true to its identity and faith and work with people or groups that don't share the same identity or faith? If not, why not? If so, how do we balance a commitment to biblical truth (as we understand it) with a call to unity in the church?
Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are selected verses from these Scripture texts. Something to think on and ponder.
John 17:11, 20-26
1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13, 20-27