Protestants and Catholics alike commemorated the Protestant Reformation Tuesday with a historic move of reconciliation between the divergent churches that is 500 years in the making.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation marks the day in 1517, held to be Oct. 31, when common tradition holds that Augustinian monk Martin Luther submitted his 95 Theses to the University of Wittenburg in Germany by nailing them to the door of a cathedral, thus sparking the beginnings of the Protestant church. Luther intended for the Reformation to bring reforms to the Catholic church instead of a church schism, but as the ultimate legacy of the Reformation was the inexorable divide of the Western church, popular belief holds that the Reformation’s ultimate goal was to break from Catholicism.
“I think Lutherans would want to say, very clearly, that the goal of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t separation, it was reform, and separation came later,” Kathryn Johnson, director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told Crux Now. “It’s a side effect that we’ve lived with, and become overly comfortable with, for the last 500 years.”
The relationship between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches remained tense over the following hundreds of years in a period Sister Susan K. Wood of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas described as an “ecumenical winter,” especially between Catholics and Lutherans. The cry for unity from both Catholics and Protestants, however, has ushered in an ecumenical spring, according to Wood.
“I think it’s affecting people because every diocese is having some kind of commemoration together and it’s putting ecumenism (increasing understanding between Christian denominations) back on the map in a way that it wasn’t before for ordinary folks,” Wood told Crux.
Pope Francis also made a gesture of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian church, and said that the two church traditions are “no longer … adversaries, after long centuries of estrangement and conflict,” according to Christian Today.
“For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harboring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs,” Francis added in his statement for the Presbyterian church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury held a special service in Westminster Abbey to commemorate not only the Protestant Reformation, but also the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification — a statement clarifying the method of salvation through Christ to which the Lutheran church and the Catholic Church jointly agreed in 1999, paving the way for Tuesday’s showings of further reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic theology.
Both Wood and Johnson acknowledged a multitude of influences that have moved Protestant and Catholic churches closer to reconciliation over the last 50 years, starting with a shared ancient history and truly gaining steam with the liturgical reforms that the Second Vatican Council introduced to the Catholic Church from 1962 to 1965.
“We’ve been involved in a ‘spiritual ecumenism’ of reconciliation,” Wood told Crux. “We’ve learned new humility as a Church. We’re less triumphalistic than we used to be, hopefully, and these are all reasons, I think, why we’ve changed in our attitudes towards other Christians.”
Johnson told Crux that the Lutheran church took a similar path of development and maturation over the roughly 50 years since Vatican II.
“This was mirrored in Lutheran attitudes, because Vatican II was also an important event for Lutherans in changing the tone of our relationship with Catholics,” Johnson said. “Without that, we would not have had these fifty years of dialogue, which, at national levels in places such as the United States and Germany and Scandinavian countries and even Brazil, as well as at international levels, have changed the way in which we present ourselves to each other.”
Johnson said that every Lutheran synod, to her knowledge, held a joint commemoration of the Reformation with neighboring Catholic churches in the spirit of reconciliation. That show of intentional embrace between Protestants and Catholics fuel both Johnson’s and Wood’s hopes that the ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants will continue to deepen, and perhaps bring about the more positive intent of the Reformation: unification in reform.
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