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?