Last month a ground breaking document was released by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, titled, “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.” Its release was authorized by the committee chairman, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski.
In a letter addressed to all the bishops in the United States, Bishop Rozanski wrote that “Pope Francis has made it clear that dialogue is a central priority of his pontificate, from the candid exchanges at the Synod of Bishops to his words to us at Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral in September: ‘The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.’ I’m pleased then to share that, over the past three years, Lutheran and Catholic scholars have been working together to unpack and lift up the fruits of 50 years spent in dialogue.”
He went on to explain that this new Catholic-Lutheran document, “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist,” was the product of much work by a group of distinguished Lutheran and Catholic scholars who have worked to cull from the vast compendium of official dialogues and scholarly essays over the past 50 years. Thirty-two agreed upon statements that illustrate major areas of agreement that no longer are viewed as church dividing. It also highlighted those remaining issues that we need to address where we differ, offering “reconciling considerations.” He wrote, “With the support of Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are pleased to share this document for further study, reflection and action.”
The document consists of five sections: an introduction; a statement of agreements on Church, Ministry and Eucharist; agreements in the Lutheran/Catholic dialogues — elaborated and documented; remaining differences and reconciling considerations and a conclusion with the next steps on the way. The introduction states that the inspiration for the document comes from the encouragement of Cardinal Kurt Koch, who in December 2011 proposed a declaration “on the way” on the three topics of Church, Ministry and Eucharist, based on the ecumenical leadership of Pope Francis and General Secretary Martin Junge and from the 2012 document of the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity titled, “From Conflict to Communion.”
“From Conflict to Communion” calls on Catholics and Lutherans to “always begin (dialogue) from the perspective of unity and not from the point of division,” and that we must allow ourselves to “continuously be transformed by the encounter with each other and by mutual witness of faith.” The new declaration calls for a greater reception of what is already agreed between us so that “at local levels a deeper commitment to Christ and greater engagement and collaboration with one another” can be achieved. It is the hope of the committee that “the Declaration makes more visible the unity Catholics and Lutherans share as they approach the 500 anniversary of the Reformation.”
Three of the main Statements of Agreement drawn from 50 years of dialogue are: “Catholics and Lutherans agree that the Church on earth has been assembled by the Triune God, who grants to its members their sharing in the Triune divine life as God’s own people, as the body of the risen Christ and as the temple of the Holy Spirit, while they are also called to give witness to these gifts so that others may come to share in them; Catholics and Lutherans agree that all the baptized who believe in Christ share in the priesthood of Christ, for both Catholics and Lutherans, the common priesthood of all the baptized and the special, ordained ministry enhance one another; Catholics and Lutherans agree that Eucharistic Communion, as sacramental participation in the glorified body and blood of Christ, is a pledge that our life in Christ will be eternal, our bodies will rise and the present world is destined for transformation, in the hope of uniting us in communion with the saints of all ages now with Christ in heaven.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.