REFORMATION 500: WHAT IS THERE TO CELEBRATE? A ROMAN CATHOLIC PERSPECTIVE by Julien Hammond

This article represents the first in our proposed Reformation 500 Series, in which Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox writers are invited to reflect on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther-nailing-theses-560x538I credit the Orthodox theologian, Father John H. Erickson, for teaching me that ecclesial anniversaries are tricky occasions to prepare. As he noted at the June 1997 Orientale Lumen Conference between Catholics and Orthodox:

What some of those touched by such events remember with joy, others remember with a sense of anguish and pain. Specific incidents which some may have completely forgotten, others take as the key for interpreting the entire occasion.

I think this probably describes pretty much the different ways that Catholics and Lutherans might view the Reformation 500 anniversary.

For many Lutherans, the anniversary may be an occasion for much pride and joy: a touchstone moment to celebrate all that Martin Luther stood for and all that has been accomplished in his name and in the name of Lutheranism over the centuries, and to dream of what may still be possible in the Lutheran Church today.

For many Catholics, however, the Reformation continues to be viewed only as “The Great Divorce.” Many are not thrilled with the prospect of remembering this anniversary at all—never mind seeing the Pope praying alongside leaders of the Lutheran World Federation in Lund, Sweden last October.

Anticipating such reactions, the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity wisely published a study guide in 2013 to prepare both Catholics and Lutherans for the Reformation 500 anniversary. The study guide is called From Conflict to Communion (hereafter FCC).

Instead of promoting a spirit of triumphalism on either side, as has typically been the case with past Reformation-centennial events, FCC focuses on themes of remembrance and repentance, thanksgiving, and commitment to common witness. While asking for forgiveness for the divisions of past centuries, it seeks to remind Catholics and Lutherans of the theological progress made in the last 50 years to overcome these divisions. It showcases the gifts of the Reformation available to both of our communions, and highlights the ways in which Catholics and Lutherans around the world are working together today to address issues of common concern: Syrian refugees in the Middle East, human trafficking, and the poor and needy, among others.

Above all, FCC emphasizes that, if there is to be a celebratory dimension to the Reformation anniversary at all, it is not in the identities of our sectarian differences but in the celebration of Jesus Christ, shared and loved by Catholics and Lutherans alike. Now here is something (or rather Someone) truly worth celebrating.

But what of the differences and divisions that remain between us as Lutherans and Catholics? FCC reads:

Ecumenism…cannot base itself on forgetfulness of tradition. But how, then, will the history of the Reformation be remembered in 2017? What of that which the two confessions fought over in the sixteenth century deserves to be preserved? Our fathers and mothers in the faith were convinced that there was something worth fighting for, something that was necessary for a life with God. How can the often forgotten traditions be handed on to our contemporaries so as not to remain objects of antiquarian interest only, but rather support a vibrant Christian existence? How can the traditions be passed on in such a way that they do not dig new trenches between Christians of different confessions?

Part of the Reformation story that we must also tell is that for the past 50 years, our Churches:

  • have been in dialogue with one another;
  • have prayed and worshipped alongside one another;
  • have come to acknowledge and celebrate a common baptism in Christ;
  • have faced political, social, and economic challenges together;
  • have married into each other’s lives, both figuratively and literally (through inter-church marriages);
  • have abandoned the language of heretics and schismatics in reference to each other. We now can and do rightfully call one another sisters and brothers in Christ.

Moreover, as Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism points out, Catholics have come to recognize that

…some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments, which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.

These are significant developments that are part of our common history and part of the Reformation story that must be proclaimed during this anniversary year. This, too, is something truly worth celebrating.

To encourage us along this line, FCC presents five imperatives for Catholics and Lutherans to work on throughout the anniversary year and going forward. These focus on:

  • strengthening what is held in common;
  • being transformed by the encounter with the other;
  • renewed commitment to seeking visible unity;
  • rediscovering the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for our time; and
  • witnessing together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Where might such a new emphasis lead us in the next 50, 100, or 500 years? How shall we steward our people, our communities, into more effectively living under the same roof notwithstanding differences that may remain between us? How can we avoid returning to past patterns of seeing only differences? Where should we turn our attention today to begin to witness, as Lutherans and Catholics together, to the mercy of God in our world and in our communities? How shall we move forward after the Reformation 500 anniversary is concluded?

It is incumbent upon all Catholics and Lutherans to address these questions and take seriously the kairos moment that this anniversary represents. By doing so we participate in the Lord’s own reconciling ministry, and we set the stage for greater celebrations still to come.

Julien Hammond is the Ecumenical Officer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, an MDiv from Newman Theological College in Edmonton, and a  ThM from the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. In 2012 he was awarded an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree from St. Stephen’s College at the University of Alberta in recognition of his work in the fields of ecumenism and interreligious relations.