Stranger Than Fiction: Pope Francis to Commemorate the Reformation

On Monday, October 31, Pope Francis will commemorate the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, beginning a year-long series of events with the Lutheran World Federation to demonstrate ecumenical Christian unity between the two churches. The meeting will happen in Lund, Sweden, where the Lutheran World Federation was founded.

“This major event, which is highly symbolic — the pope going to commemorate the Reformation for the first time, that speaks volumes,” Father John Crossin, executive director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told PJ Media in an interview Thursday.

Crossin emphasized that the event is a commemoration, not a celebration, “because it’s a little tricky celebrating a conflict.” Nevertheless, he said the event symbolizes the tremendous progress that the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches have made in establishing dialogue and reconciliation since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. After that council, Catholics and Lutherans established a dialogue group between the two faiths.

The year-long commemoration of the Reformation, set to begin Monday, represents the flowering of that dialogue, and a new understanding of the man who drove a wedge between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches 500 years ago.

Crossin explained that recent developments in historical research have enabled Catholics and Lutherans to agree that Martin Luther intended not to divide the church but to reform it. “His idea was not to leave the church, it was to reform the church,” the USCCB spokesman declared.

“In those days, there was some miscommunication,” Crossin added. He insisted that modern Catholics are “not condemning our predecessors,” but he suggested, “Maybe they couldn’t see clearly then.”

Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1521, but Crossin quoted Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch on the matter. “Well, your excommunication ends when you die. You can’t revoke it, because it’s already over.” He noted that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI said positive things about the founder of the Lutheran Church.

“Luther was a man trying to come to know God, and in that sense he was a very religious man,” Crossin explained. He argued that when Luther posted the 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517 (now celebrated/commemorated as Reformation Day), “he was trying to provoke a debate. The 95 Theses were put up on the church door to have a disputation, like they had in universities those days.” Luther wanted this disputation “because he was an academic,” but it never happened because “it got tied up in all the human factors.”

The Lutheran and Catholic Churches published a document preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, which presented “five ecumenical imperatives” for the two churches. The third edition of this document was published in 2013, and it laid the groundwork for Monday’s events and the year-long commemoration.

What do Catholics and Lutherans agree on? Read the five imperatives on the next page. 

1. Begin from unity, not division.

“Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced,” the document stated. While the two churches have defined themselves against one another historically — especially on key issues such as the pope and communion — coming together requires an emphasis on common ground.

2. Let yourselves be transformed.

“Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of the faith.” This imperative echoes Romans 12:2, where Paul encourages the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The document insisted that dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans has taught both sides a great deal, and has led them to “appreciate the fact that communion among them can have different forms and degrees.” The document also referred to Jesus’s prayer to the Father in John 17:21, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This is a key scripture for ecumenism, the movement of uniting the disparate denominations of Christianity.

3. Seek visible unity.

“Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.” By presenting a public witness of the unity of the church — even among churches with a long and painful history of antagonism — Lutherans and Catholics aim to prevent the “rereading of tradition from falling back into the old confessional oppositions.”

4. Rediscover the power of the gospel.

“Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.” This imperative focuses both churches on the needs of the world outside the church. By demonstrating unity and a Christ-like care for the needs of others, the two churches can have a stronger witness to preach the gospel to unbelievers.

5. Proclaim mercy and serve others.

“Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.” This last imperative focuses on the mercy of God, and encourages both churches to serve others and one another in a spirit of forgiveness and of the unmerited love God shows to His church.

“The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into community with the Lord,” the document concluded.

Next Page: Catholics and Lutherans agree on justification?! And a joint event with Anglicans.

This powerful statement of unity between two churches which have been at loggerheads for nearly 500 years is truly inspiring, but perhaps even more inspiring is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, where Catholics agreed to the statement “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.”

This doctrine was one of the many Luther presented as being in contrast to the Catholic Church, and it is truly inspiring to see that they have adopted it.

Crossin, the USCCB spokesman, also noted that Catholics “recognize Lutheran baptisms, and that’s a big thing.” Also, “if a baptized Lutheran and a baptized Catholic are married, we recognized that as the sacrament of marriage.” While Lutherans only recognize two sacraments (baptism and holy communion), Catholics recognize five more (marriage, holy orders, confirmation, reconciliation, and anointing of the sick).

Even on holy communion there might be reason to hope for eventual agreement, Crossin argued. “Luther’s understanding of the Eucharist was not that much different than the Catholic understanding at root,” he told PJ Media. “We’ve been working on reducing the differences and recognizing some commonalities.”

In the past fifty years, Catholics haven’t just been reaching out to Lutherans, however. Crossin noted that there has been significant convergence with Orthodox Christians and Anglicans as well.

On October 5 (this Anglican’s birthday), Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby issued a Common Declaration in Rome. In that document, the two church leaders said that the differences between their churches “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find in each other’s traditions.”

The leaders issued the declaration at a service of Vespers in the Church of Saint Gregory on the Caelian Hill in Rome, where in 595 A.D., Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury in 597, and he is considered the true founder of the Anglican Church.

At that service, 19 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops were commissioned by the pope and the archbishop to be “sent out” in mission together.

“Fourteen centuries ago Pope Gregory sent the servant of God, Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his companions, from this holy place, to preach the joyful message of the Word of God,” Francis declared. “Today we send you, dear brothers, servants of God, with this same joyful message of his everlasting kingdom.”

Next Page: What to expect from the Reformation event on Monday.

At the Reformation commemoration on Monday in Sweden, there will be two primary events. There Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation and head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, will join Pope Francis to lead an international prayer service in the cathedral in Lund.

Versions of the prayer service have been drafted in many languages, including English, and some of the music was written especially for this year, Crossin told PJ Media. The Common Prayer liturgical guide can be downloaded as a .pdf here. “Our office and our Lutheran friends recommend it,” Crossin said.

After the event at the cathedral (which can only hold a small number of people), Pope Francis and Dr. Younan will preside over a public witness event in the nearby city of Malmö. Then, on All Saints Day (Tuesday), Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Malmö for Sweden’s tiny Catholic community.

Crossin predicted that there would be approximately 10,000 people at the public witness event, which “is more about our working together to aid the needy.” He noted that “we already work together, Lutherans and Catholics, internationally, loving the neighbor. But I understand this will be even more collaboration.”

When asked if he thinks eventually all Christian denominations will be able to unite as one Church under Jesus Christ, Crossin gave his personal opinion (not the official position of the Catholic Church or the USCCB) that it might very well happen. “We’re closer to that than we were 50 years ago,” he said.

“Ecumenism will succeed and bring all Christian denominations together,” he said. But it might take a very long time.

The Lutheran World Federation, the Vatican, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did not return requests for comment.