The Reformation began, according to historians, on the eve of All Saints (Halloween) when Martin Luther posted an invitation to debate the indulgence issued by the Pope Leo X (1513-1521) to donors to the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The invitation to debate was formulated in Luther’s famous 95 theses which were said to have been posted on the door of All Saints Church at Wittenburg. The 500th is being commemorated rather than celebrated by mutual agreement of Lutherans and the Catholic Holy See, In a statement signed by Pope Francis and the president of the Lutheran World Federation and other Lutheran leaders in Lund, Sweden these leaders affirmed that the Reformation was both necessary and also caused by sins on both sides which divided Christendom in the sixteenth century
Where Are We Now?
Rather than emphasize the divisions that continue to exist between Christians today, the worldwide Lutheran organization and the Vatican are using this historical moment of commemoration to emphasize the ecumenical progress of the last fifty years since the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council and the great strides realized by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by grace received in faith signed by both ecclesial bodies on October 31, 1999 before the Second Millennium. This last declaration is known mostly by theologians and people who are active in the Lutheran and the Catholic Church. The document became possible when two important breakthroughs were achieved, a methodology of diversified consensus, and the declaration that the anathemas of both churches at the time of the Reformation no longer apply because of the teaching of Lutherans and Catholics today. This theological hermeneutic was developed by theologians world-wide and approved by the signing of the joint declaration after years of scholarly work.
The effect of these breakthroughs is not to change beliefs and practices of Lutherans or Catholics. It is rather to acknowledge the common faith that both churches hold together. The commonality of faith has simply stressed what Catholics and Lutherans hold together rather than the theologies and supporting understanding that led to misunderstandings in the past and must give way to a better and more proper understanding today.
The Lutheran and Catholic leadership agreed that the commemoration of the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary would begin in October of 2016 and be concluded in October of 2017. Pope Francis offered to begin the commemoration by a special liturgical service in Lund, Sweden and was joined by the Lutheran leadership there. The press gave wide coverage, but for most people the event was not understood in all its importance or consequence. Sweden was chosen because of the structure of the Lutheran Church in that country which has continued to emphasize the continuity of its episcopate (apostolic succession), i.e. that bishops have ordained bishops and priests as before the Reformation to our time. Lund was the site of the first General Convention of the World Council of Churches which was established after the Second World War in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. One of the important and influential statements of that Convention was that the Churches would agree to do everything together except what they must in conscience do separately – this is called the Lund principle.
While Pope John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI contributed greatly to the visible unity among Christians in spite of their historic divisions, Pope Francis has emphasized more dramatically the trajectory of the Second Vatican Council that praying and working for this visible unity is part of the mission of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. All Christians must work and pray for this reality because it is part of the Church’s mission.
The Joint Statement on the occasion of the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation signed at Lund on October 31, 2016 prayerfully states how Catholics and Lutherans have moved from conflict toward communion over the centuries. While the goal of full communion has not yet been reached, much progress was achieved. The substance of this progress is reflected in the following statements of the document signed at Lund in the following quotations:
We pray for the healing of our wounds and the memories that cloud our view of one another. We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present, especially that expressed in the name of religion. Today we hear God’s command to set aside all conflict. We recognize that we are freed by grace to move towards the communion to which God continually calls us.
As we move beyond those episodes in history that burden us, we pledge to witness together to God’s merciful grace, made visible in the crucified and risen Christ. Aware that the way we relate to one another shapes our witness to the Gospel, we commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism, as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us from attaining full unity. Christ desires that we be one, so that the world may believe (cf. John 17:21).
We pray to God for inspiration, encouragement and strength so that we may stand together in service, upholding human dignity and rights, especially for the poor, working for justice and rejecting all forms of violence. God summons us to be close to all those who yearn for dignity, justice, peace and reconciliation. Today in particular, we raise our voices for an end to the violence and extremism which affect so many countries and communities, and countless sisters and brothers in Christ. We urge Lutherans and Catholics to work together to welcome the stranger, to come to the aid of those forced to flee because of war and persecution, and to defend the rights of refugees and those who seek asylum.