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Reformation invitation raised Catholic eyebrows

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Unity stems from loving Christ
by Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

Photo Caption: Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517 by posting his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. (

Five years ago, in October 2012, the Catholic bishops of Germany received a very odd invitation from the Lutherans, asking the bishops to join a celebration to commemorate the Reformation of 1517, the year Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of Germany’s Wittenberg Cathedral.

For many Catholics, the anniversary of the Reformation will be a matter of great sorrow and it is hard to see how a Catholic could celebrate an event that ruptured Western Christendom and rejected many teachings of our faith.

However, not only did Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, want to join Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the German Protestant churches, in an ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land to mark the Lutheran anniversary, but Pope Francis himself decided to share in this spiritual event.

He travelled to Sweden last October to offer his prayers in a service marking the beginning of preparations for the 500th Lutheran Jubilee. He has also gone to the a Lutheran church in Rome to pray.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), who set in motion the Reformation, had protested against corruption in Rome and abuses concerning the sale of indulgences. He was an Augustinian monk who demanded not innovation but a return to a primitive and solid practice of Christianity.

Luther also raised doubts regarding the validity of papal claims to supremacy and rejected transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, as well as biblical and theological justification allowing man a definite, if limited, role in his own salvation.

According to Luther, man is unable to respond to God without divine grace and is justified only through faith per solam fidem, by the merits of Christ. Works and religious observances are irrelevant, according to Lutheran belief.

It is no wonder then, that the German Catholic bishops were baffled by the invitation. Msgr. Mark Langham, Catholic chaplain at the University of Cambridge and a former official at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, wrote: “This anniversary takes place in a new era in relations between Catholics and Lutherans, an ecumenical engagement inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council which allowed each side to see the Reformation in a way that does not deny, but rather transcends, old polemics.”

This new encounter culminated in the 1999 Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, officially received by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. The document expressed a common understanding of one of the most hotly contested causes of the Reformation.

Msgr. Langham added: “Certainly, the involvement of Catholics in the anniversary presents a challenge for both sides, and calls for a fresh approach to our Reformation legacy. From Conflict to Communion is the aptly titled document issued in 2013 by official Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, outlining a common approach to the forthcoming anniversary of Luther.”

There are, traditionally, strongly partisan interpretations of the movement Luther started. For Catholics, “Reformation” means “division,” whereas for Protestants it means “rediscovery of the Scriptures.” Both points of view need to be taken seriously by each side.

It was Pope St. John Paul II who spoke of an “exchange of gifts” as the fruit of ecumenical dialogue, and Pope Francis has identified the rediscovery of Scripture in the life of the Church as one of the gifts received from our Protestant colleagues.

The Catholic bishops of Germany have felt able to acknowledge some elements of celebration to these events – not in any sense of the division of Christendom and rejection of the Catholic Church, but recognizing in Martin Luther a “Gospel witness and teacher of the Faith.”

For their part, Lutherans, per the official prayer in commemoration of the Reformation, have agreed that in recalling “the events that led to the foundation of their churches, [they] do not wish to do so without their Catholic fellow Christians.”

Yet we would be wrong to ignore the disunity of past centuries, and our relations can only be honest if we acknowledge the pain and hurt that we have caused each other. Rightly, Pope Francis and his Lutheran hosts in Sweden will express repentance for the divisions and hostilities caused by the Reformation and the reaction to it.

But, as Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has pointed out, such collaboration can only be successful if it is grounded in a deeper relationship, one that places Christ firmly at the centre of our lives as Christians.

Modern ecumenism understands that it is when we are closest to Christ that we are closest to each other, so this anniversary is more attentive to the Gospel. In this way, the anniversary can be a stepping stone to future unity, rather than a rehearsing of past hurts.

Msgr. Langham concludes: “There is no doubt that this anniversary presents a challenge to Catholics, who cannot celebrate the Reformation; but our commemoration can be more than a bland acknowledgement of a historical anniversary. In the larger horizon of Christ and the unity for which he prayed, we may recognize – and even give thanks for – the contribution and witness of Martin Luther.”

I hope that we, Catholics and Lutherans, realize the wish of Jesus – ut omnes unum sint (that all be one).


Last Updated on Friday, 05 May 2017 08:12  

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