In October 2012, the Catholic bishops of Germany received an invitation that left them stumped. German Protestants had asked them to join in the jubilee celebrations of the Reformation in 2017, specifically in the events leading up to the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the act considered to have launched the Reformation.
Not surprisingly, the bishops were cautious. “It depends on the character of the events planned,” said their spokesman, Bishop Gerhard Feige. “Catholic Christians consider the division of the Western Church as a tragedy – and do not think they can celebrate this merrily.”
Clearly, a great deal of discussion about the character of those events has taken place in the meantime. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference, and Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the German Protestant churches, have marked the anniversary by leading an ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and will hold a Lent service dedicated to healing memories. Moreover, Pope Francis is travelling to Sweden to take part in a service marking the beginning of preparations for the jubilee.
For many Catholics, the anniversary of the Reformation will be a matter of great sorrow. It is hard to see how any Catholic could celebrate an event which ruptured Western Christendom and rejected many teachings of the Church, and indeed this magazine has termed any prospect of a joint celebration a “naïve initiative”.
Yet this anniversary takes place in a new era in relations between Catholics and Lutherans, an ecumenical engagement inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council which allows each side to see the Reformation in a way that does not deny, but rather transcends, old polemics. This new encounter culminated in the 1999 “Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, officially received by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, which expressed a common understanding of one of the hotly contested causes of the Reformation.
Certainly, the involvement of Catholics in the anniversary presents a challenge for both sides, and calls for a fresh approach to our Reformation legacy. “From Conflict to Communion” is the aptly titled document issued in 2013 by the official Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, outlining a common approach to the forthcoming anniversary of Luther. There are, traditionally, strongly partisan interpretations of the movement Luther started. For Catholics, “Reformation” means “division”, whereas for Protestants it means “rediscovery of the Scriptures”. Both points of view need to be taken seriously by each side.
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