Lutherans and Catholics mark growing unity with historic prayer service

Service draws bishops, laity to common prayer observing 500th anniversary of the reformation

Roxanne King

The service of common prayer that gathered two bishops, some 50 clergy and more than 400 Lutheran and Catholic laity at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village March 19 was both beautiful and momentous.

“As Lutherans and Catholics, we are making history—history of a good kind,” Lutheran Bishop James Gonia told the congregation, drawing applause.

The liturgy, which was presided by Bishop Gonia and Catholic Archbishop Samuel Aquila, marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which historians trace back to German monk Martin Luther, and focused on the ecumenical dialogue and healing that has taken place between the two churches the last 50 years.

Countless numbers of such services are taking place across the country and around the world, noted Bishop Gonia.

“We gather to commemorate in remembrance, in thanksgiving and confession, and in common witness and commitment,” Archbishop Aquila said at the start of the liturgy.

At a similar service in the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund, Sweden, last October, Pope Francis prayed “that together we may bring [God’s] word to the world, which so greatly needs his tender love and mercy.”

The local service included soaring hymns led by choristers from both churches, intercessory prayers in a variety of languages, a commitment to the aims of the 2013 Lutheran-Roman Catholic document “From Conflict to Communion,” the Our Father prayer, and a reading from the Gospel of John on the vine and the branches.

In the Gospel reading (Jn 15:1-5), Christ stresses the importance of Divine Grace in uniting the Christian to Christ.

“The only one who can bring union among the Christian churches is Christ,” Archbishop Aquila said in his homily. “Open your heart to him who is our Lord and who unites us here today. May we come to know the truth of his words: ‘Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.’

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, CO - MARCH 19: Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (L) and Bishop James Gonia (R) embrace following the Lutheran Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church on March 19, 2017, in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/for Denver Catholic)

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, CO – MARCH 19: Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (L) and Bishop James Gonia (R) embrace following the Lutheran Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church on March 19, 2017, in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/for Denver Catholic)

In his sermon, Bishop Gonia said that as he looked over the congregation he couldn’t tell who was Lutheran and who was Catholic.

“Today, we remember in joy and thanksgiving the truth of our unity and our connectivity as two particular branches of this one [Christian] vine—branches we have named Lutheran and Catholic,” he said. “After centuries of division and rhetoric that was anything but Christ-like, in these past 50 years in particular, our two church bodies have made incredible strides toward recognizing the one life we share in Jesus.”

Although his own father converted from Catholicism to his mother’s Lutheranism, his dad’s family remained Catholic, Bishop Gonia said. Speaking to the experience of many, he added that the growing unity between the two churches is made more profound by the realization that it offers “healing and hope for a new day for our very families.”

“It is my fervent hope and prayer that this unique moment in our life becomes our way of life as Christ’s church for the sake of the One in whom we abide,” he said. “For the sake of the One who so patiently and lovingly abides in us.”

Shirley Vargo, who worships at Trinity Lutheran Church in Boulder, was among those attending the prayer service. Vargo told the Denver Catholic she grew up attending Lutheran schools but ultimately graduated from a Catholic college.

“I’m delighted at how over the years Catholics and Lutherans have come together; it brings such joy to my heart,” she said. “I wanted to contribute to that witnessing to each other.”

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, CO - MARCH 19: Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (CL) and Bishop James Gonia (CR) bless the congregation while attended by Fr. Scott Bailey (L) and Reverend Brigette Weier (R) during the Lutheran Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church on March 19, 2017, in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/for Denver Catholic)

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, CO – MARCH 19: Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (CL) and Bishop James Gonia (CR) bless the congregation while attended by Fr. Scott Bailey (L) and Reverend Brigette Weier (R) during the Lutheran Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church on March 19, 2017, in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/for Denver Catholic)

Cathy Grue, a recent transplant from Great Britain, is a Catholic who is active with ecumenism through the Focolare movement.

“This is the first time I’ve been to an ecumenical service here in Denver,” she said. “I was very moved. You felt a genuine relationship of mutual love between the churches. That’s what really matters. The theologians will work out the rest of our unity, but there has to be mutual love and it was really there between the two bishops.”

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.