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: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.