Can this broken family heal? Archbishop Aquila to attend 500th commemoration of Reformation

Aaron Lambert

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; a time for Catholics to remember the event that splintered Christendom into thousands of denominations and a time to work toward the unity that Christ desired for all Christians . Pope Francis has made Christian unity one of his priorities and now Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila is making strides to push forward, if even just a little bit.

On March 19, Archbishop Aquila will co-preside over a prayer service alongside Lutheran Bishop James Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The service will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver, marking an important milestone in local ecumenical relations between the Catholic and Lutheran churches.

Commemoration of a tragedy

Father Doug Grandon, parochial vicar of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver, was both an evangelical and Episcopalian pastor before he entered the Catholic Church and became a priest. He noted there’s an important distinction between celebrating the Reformation and commemorating it.

“Unlike some Protestant churches, we don’t celebrate the Reformation but we remember it as a whole series of tragic events,” Father Grandon told the Denver Catholic. “A proper look in the rearview mirror acknowledges that the Catholic Church is responsible for a great deal of that tragedy.”

The Church was plagued with massive corruption in those times, Father Grandon pointed out. Martin Luther took issue with the sale of plenary indulgences, which in part prompted his famous 95 Theses, but there were other significant problems as well: scandalous popes, poorly trained priests, and bishops not living in their dioceses .

“That doesn’t justify all the breakaway movements, but we can understand how people could lose faith in the Church,” Father Grandon remarked.

“…We don’t celebrate the Reformation but we remember it as a whole series of tragic events.”

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, began to implement a dramatic reformation of the Catholic Church that addressed many of these failed points. “It was too late to put the broken pieces back together,” Father Grandon lamented.

Today, the three most important divisions between the two churches lie in the issues of Papal authority, interpretation of Scripture and the nature of the Eucharist.

“Five hundred years later, we see this as a real tragedy,” said Father Grandon, “but we see the Holy Spirit working to give us hope once again that the Church could come back together. There have been fruitful dialogues between Lutheran representatives and Catholic leaders, and they have made various declarations about the tragedy of the 16th century.”

Divisive times, unitive measures

Though the churches still retain some points of contention and disagreement, much progress toward finding reconciliation has been made over the years. In 1999, the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was signed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, a document which stated that the two churches share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”

In 2015, Catholics and Lutherans once again acknowledged a path to unity through a joint declaration entitled “Declaration on the Way,” which outlined 32 important points where the two churches are in consensus.

Now, perhaps, more than ever, it is crucial for Catholics and Lutherans to continue to foster those points of agreement and unite as Christ intended for his Church. Scott Powell, director of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, believes this serves as a great opportunity for Catholics and Lutherans to remember that they belong to the same family under the headship of Christ, and that their family is broken.

“When we forget that our family is broken, we don’t see the need to want to reconcile it,” Powell said. “We do need to stand in solidarity with each other, and we need to acknowledge how this happened and how we can move forward because we are a broken family.”

Pope Francis and Archbishop Aquila are giving Catholics a “sorely needed example,” Powell said, of how to do that.

“When we forget that our family is broken, we don’t see the need to want to reconcile it. We do need to stand in solidarity with each other, and we need to acknowledge how this happened and how we can move forward because we are a broken family.”

“I think part of why Archbishop Aquila is doing this is he wants his flock to see their shepherd going and making an effort and being an example of trying to bring some level of reconciliation here,” Powell said. “We’re finding common ground, we’re not glossing over differences, but we’re actually standing in solidarity together, and that’s very, very good.”

It is also important, Powell added, that the Catholic Church reconcile with the Lutheran church in particular because all of the countless denominations of Christianity that exist today and were spawned by Luther’s split from the Catholic Church.

“It’s hard to bring reconciliation unless you can go back to the source of things,” Powell said. “The reason that we have so many thousands of [Christian] denominations, even in this country, is because of the split that happened with this particular group of people.”

A task of humility

If Catholics and Lutherans are to become unified once more, Father Grandon emphasized that dialogue must be engaged in with the “deepest kind of humility,” both individually and corporately.

“There is no room at all on the Catholic side for a kind of ‘Catholic triumphalism,’” he said. If we’re to experience progress in putting all of the various fragmented parts of the Christian church back together, there has to be immense humility on every side.”

Powell also stressed that when engaging in dialogue, “We have to be very honest about places of disagreement.” It also helps, he said, to build fellowship with people of different faiths, which allows for the freedom to disagree without it becoming a hostile argument.

At his Crucifixion, just before entering into his glory, Jesus Christ prayed to his Heavenly Father, “I pray for those who will believe in me […] that they may all be one […] that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:20-21). The commemoration of the Reformation is a chance for Christians to ask themselves: why are we not one?

COMING UP: Healing the Reformation’s wounds

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Five-hundred years have passed since the Reformation rippled through the Church, causing painful division and spurring changes. Sadly, even more divisions have occurred in that period. But the ecclesial and cultural landscape today is much different than it was then, and we must respond to Christ’s prayer that “we may all be one” (Jn 17:21) by speaking together about our faith, inspired by his Word and the Holy Spirit.

This necessity reminds me of Pope Francis’ passage in Evangelii Gaudium, where he observes that the “credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (EG, 244).

Pope Benedict XVI also remarked in a March 2007 message to the Lutheran Worldwide Federation on the need to pursue Christian unity. He said, “(W)e are called in common witness to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world suffering distress and seeking orientation at so many points. After all, ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’” (Rom 5:2b).

With this in mind, on March 19, I will be joining Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Jim Gonia for a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver. It will be an occasion for us to recognize that despite our differences, we are fellow pilgrims who are seeking the face of God.

We also recognize that overcoming historic divisions and healing wounds is difficult. It requires the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew this, which is why he prayed that his followers “may all be one,” just as he and the Father are one (Cf. Jn 17:21).

The noted spiritual writer, the late Carmelite Father Wilfrid Stinissen, described the Holy Spirit as “the great ecumenist.” He says this is because if we let the Holy Spirit “live in and through us, we grow in unity, whether we will it or not. It is his ‘charism to make all things one. He makes the Father and Son one God. He wants to make all denominations into one holy Church and all people into one body” (The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love, pages 10-11).

The reality is that there is much that Lutherans and Catholics have in common. Over the past 50 years our two churches have engaged in a theological dialogue that has found 32 points of agreement between us. Among the key areas of agreement are an acknowledgement of the apostolic nature of the Church, recognition of the divine origin of the ordained ministry and its necessity for the church, and a shared understanding of the Eucharistic presence.

Despite the prevailing cultural winds that would have us discard our belief in the truth and merely search for agreements that allow us to work together, our ongoing dialogue must continue to be grounded in our faith. It must be what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dynamic inspired by the Word of God, by the divine Truth who speaks to us in this word.”

It is my hope that as this dialogue continues, Catholics and Lutherans are able to set aside our suspicions and seek the face of God together. I also ask you to join me in praying for the full unity of all Christians and to seek out opportunities to carry out works of mercy together, building up the body of Christ.

The Commemoration Ceremony will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver on March 19, 2017 at 3 p.m.