Hope for unity and communion of Christians

Hope for unity and communion of Christians

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Lutheran Bishop Wayne Miller sign an agreement during an Oct. 31 service at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The two leaders renewed a covenant between the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Metropolitan Chicago Synod.
CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic

Catholics and Lutherans gathered this past week to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Wittenberg. The leaders that gathered asked for forgiveness for the violence that was sparked by the Reformation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were in attendance at the ceremony in the church where legend has it that the German priest and theologian, Martin Luther, is said to have nailed his “95 theses” to the church door. These actions are said to have sparked a religious revolution in Europe that Christians are still dealing with to this very day. The Reformation caused such an upheaval in Europe that it lead to wars, persecutions and mass departures of pilgrims to what later become the United States of America.

The Vatican and Lutheran World Federation released a rare joint statement on the anniversary, saying they “begged forgiveness for our failures and for the ways in which Christians have wounded the Body of the Lord and offended each other during the five hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation until today.” “We recognize that while the past cannot be changed, its influence upon us today can be transformed to become a stimulus for growing communion, and a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation,” they added.

The service at the gothic Schlosskirche (All Saints Church) in Wittenberg in eastern Germany marked the end of a year-long commemoration by Protestants in 700 German towns and cities. Chancellor Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor, said during her speech at Wittenberg’s City Hall that “Luther had spurred a movement that nothing can stop.” “He laid the groundwork for a new understanding of Man and the eventual development of modern democracy,” she said, while noting the church’s “crucial role” in society. Germany is one of several countries that do not have a strict official separation of church and state.

Before the service began, participants gathered in the street leading up to the 16th century church, which houses Luther’s tomb. Luther challenged his day’s Catholic leaders practice of selling “indulgences” to repentant worshippers, some of the money collected was used for the construction of churches in that day. He contended that Christians could not buy or earn their way into heaven, he contended this only happens by God’s grace. His challenge reverberated in Europe and was the foundation of many new Christian denominations including the establishment of the Church of England in 1534. Martin Luther was also associated with one of Germany’s darkest periods with his attacks on Judaism in his writings that were used as a reference for some of the Nazi ideology. Chancellor Merkel said it was essential that Luther’s anti-Semitism never should never be whitewashed from his theological legacy.

Four days before the commemoration in Wittenberg, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the Church of Scotland at the Vatican. At this meeting, Pope Francis said, “Let us thank the Lord for the great gift of being able to live this year in true fraternity, no longer as adversaries, after long centuries of estrangement and conflict.” He added, “The past cannot be changed, yet today we at last see one another as God sees us. We are first and foremost his children, reborn in Christ through one baptism, and therefore brothers and sisters. For so long, we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harboring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.” Pope Francis said that in today’s world Catholics and Protestants are “pursuing the path of humble charity that leads to overcoming division and healing wounds.

Vatican City announced the issuance of two new stamps, one marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and another celebrating the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis de Sales, who had “the will to save the Church of Rome from the Reformation.” The first stamp depicts Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon (one of the other reformers) kneeling at the foot of the Cross “in a penitent attitude,” according to the Vatican office that prints up the stamps. The explanation that was given for the stamp included Pope Francis’ talk a year ago to mark the begging of the commemoration. In that speech he said, “The faith in Jesus Christ shared by Catholics and Protestants requires daily conversion and demands that we reject historical disagreements and conflicts. The unity of Christians is a priority!”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.