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: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

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“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327