On June 17, 2013 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church through the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Ecumenical Relations approved plans for a joint celebration of the Reformation. From Conflict to Communion is the agreed statement that explains the goal and means to achieve the ecumenical celebration of the Reformation on its 500th anniversary on October 31, 2017. The document was awaited with high expectations and gratitude. It is another milestone along the road to full communion of Lutherans and Catholics which made a major leap forward with the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on October 31, 1999.
In 2006 the Methodist World Federation after some years of dialogue accepted the formulations of the JDDJ and expressed their agreement and understanding of a shared faith in the doctrine of justification as had been spelled out by the LWF-Catholic Dialogue. This declaration was pivotal in the movement from churches in a true but perfectible communion to full unity status. While there is still much to be done to remove remaining obstacles to that goal, the steady pace of prayer, shared charitable works for peace and humanitarian causes, together with theological dialogue, the way and the goal of unity in diversity is clearer and viewed as more achievable thanks to fifty years of effort in a favorable ecumenical climate.
I. The Joint Declaration of Justification
The dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Catholic Church took place in 1965-6 at the close of Vatican II, through a Working Group that discussed how the ecumenical work of implementation would proceed. The LWF was founded in 1947 and had almost twenty years of experience assisting the many Lutheran communions in preparing decisions and projects on a global scale. These included ecumenical relations with other churches and humanitarian assistance through Church World Service and other agencies of the LWF. In 1972 the LWF and the Secretariat for Christian Unity of the Vatican issued its first report, after five sessions, on The Gospel and the Church.
Subsequent studies suggested by the Malta Report of the Working Group included: The Eucharist (1978), Ways to Community (1980), The Ministry in the Church (1981), Facing Unity (1984), Church and Justification (1984). Between 1986 and 1999 extensive work was done on The Condemnations of the Reformation Era (1998) esp. in Germany, and “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1997-1998) especially in the United States.
The fifth anniversary of the JDDJ was marked in regional celebrations around the world. More importantly the impact of the document, its methodology, the acceptance of “reconciled diversity” at least as a concept, and justification by faith rather than works “as a given” formed the groundwork of future work by the bi-lateral Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue. It also was a landmark for other dialogues as well. The concept of justification “by faith alone/ sola gratia” was a key theological framework for the protestant reformation. Finding a common ground, a common understanding, and the articulation of a common faith, was a tremendous breakthrough.
The Joint Celebration 2017
How can Catholics and Lutherans celebrate the Protestant Reformation? For Catholics the Reformation represents a breakdown of Christendom as it had existed in Western Christianity almost from the beginning. Church and State were united in established churches. Monarchy reigned and one church was recognized as the established church. Spain and England continue to have established churches. In democratic societies, such established churches are disappearing.
The Reformation has survived in Protestant churches which have
become world-wide communions. There is obviously a sense of pride and jubilation for Protestants; there is also an awareness of the cost of this survival. An online press release quotes LWF Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, Rev. Dr. Kaisarman Hintikka, saying the publication From Conflict to Communion: “contributes to strengthening the commitment to work for the visible unity of the Church.”
After centuries of mistrust and prejudging between Lutheran and Catholics, we see this [publication]as a great opportunity to reflect together on the burdens of history, and to open more possibilities for witnessing together, not just as individual Christians but as Christian churches.’ Hintikka emphasized that writing together From Conflict to Communion has been possible because of the process of deepened mutual understanding between Lutherans and Catholics that led to the JDDJ.
The publication offers LWF member churches an opportunity to ‘learn not only about their own historical and theological roots but also about our relations with the Catholic church –why they have been on the one hand so challenging and on the other hand so important for us to reflect on.’”
Unitatis Redintegratio, the document on Christian unity of Vatican II, has indicated that the unity of the Church should be the concern of every Christian. It was the object of the priestly prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, on the night before he died. The primary responsibility for the reintegration of the church rests with the hierarchy and theologians in dialogue. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is at the heart of the ecumenical movement and guides our progress to the goal of being one in Christ and in God. The pace toward our goal gets more difficult as we climb higher toward it. It is difficult to keep a fast pace all the time. However we need to recognize that God is with us in our efforts, and he answers our prayers. Dialogue continues at a slow but steady pace. Milestones on the trail are reminders of our progress. We walk by faith and with joy and hope in our hearts.