John Williams Reflects on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
October 31st 1517 – October 31st 2017
John Williams (far left of photo)
at All Saints' Church, Wittenberg, Germany
TODAY we remember that it is 500 years since the Protestant Reformation.
When we think of the Reformation in Britain it is more than likely that our first thoughts turn to Henry VIII. In mainland Europe however, the central character is Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, priest, theologian and university professor who used the conventional way to initiate debate by proposing ninety-five changes to the Catholic Church.
A friend recently asked me; “Do you think the Catholic Church has reformed enough now?” His question was prompted by the facts that October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and that he knew I had recently visited Wittenberg and the site where Luther famously nailed those ninety-five theses, the gesture that ignited the reform.
It is not insignificant that Luther chose this date and venue to make his protest. His major concern was the sale of indulgences. Hence, he focused on those feasts when the Church remembers the dead. October 31st is the vigil of the feast of All Saints on November 1st and November 2nd the feast of All Souls. (The church where he nailed his theses is ‘All Saints, Wittenberg’.)
One year ago in October 2016, at the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis called on Lutherans and Catholics to pray for Christian unity during the year leading to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This is part of what was said in a Joint Statement, and in the Pope’s homily:
From the Joint Statement:
Moving from conflict to communion
While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalised for political ends. Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demand of us a daily conversion, by which we cast off the historical disagreements and conflicts that impede the ministry of reconciliation. While the past cannot be changed, what is remembered and how it is remembered can be transformed. We pray for the healing of our wounds and of the memories that cloud our view of one another. We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present, especially that expressed in the name of religion. Today, we hear God’s command to set aside all conflict. We recognise that we are freed by grace to move towards the communion to which God continually calls us.
Our commitment to common witness
As we move beyond those episodes in history that burden us, we pledge to witness together to God’s merciful grace, made visible in the crucified and risen Christ. Aware that the way we relate to one another shapes our witness to the Gospel, we commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism, as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us from attaining full unity. Christ desires that we be one, so that the world may believe (cf. John 17:21).
Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ. We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.
Calling upon Catholics and Lutherans worldwide
We call upon all Lutheran and Catholic parishes and communities to be bold and creative, joyful and hopeful in their commitment to continue the great journey ahead of us. Rather than conflicts of the past, God’s gift of unity among us shall guide cooperation and deepen our solidarity. By drawing close in faith to Christ, by praying together, by listening to one another, by living Christ’s love in our relationships, we, Catholics and Lutherans, open ourselves to the power of the Triune God. Rooted in Christ and witnessing to him, we renew our determination to be faithful heralds of God’s boundless love for all humanity.
From Pope Francis’ homily:
Common Ecumenical Prayer
“Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). These words, spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, allow us to peer into the heart of Christ just before his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. We can feel his heart beating with love for us and his desire for the unity of all who believe in him. He tells us that he is the true vine and that we are the branches, that just as he is one with the Father, so we must be one with him if we wish to bear fruit.
Here in Lund, at this prayer service, we wish to manifest our shared desire to remain one with Christ, so that we may have life. We ask him, “Lord, help us by your grace to be more closely united to you and thus, together, to bear a more effective witness of faith, hope and love”. This is also a moment to thank God for the efforts of our many brothers and sisters from different ecclesial communities who refused to be resigned to division, but instead kept alive the hope of reconciliation among all who believe in the one Lord.
Link to the Vatican website:
Earlier this month Cardinal Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) said that Pope Francis’ co-celebration in Lund; ‘Was a strong ecumenical signal’. He added that his personal impression of what the anniversary events themselves would be changed; ‘… everything revolved around Luther but in the course of the anniversary year itself it was above all about what unites us all, namely the belief in Jesus Christ.’
There has been much media coverage of this forthcoming anniversary but I find myself challenged to consider what is required for the practical application of Christian unity.
Is it further debate on theological differences? Is it the shared personal experiences of prayer? Or is it the combined action on issues of justice and peace?
Whilst acknowledging the numerous branches of Protestantism and appreciating that there are few Lutheran communities in Britain, I have invited two friends to submit (in a maximum of 200 words) their thoughts on one issue that divides Catholics and Protestants, namely ‘the real presence’. Below, you will find what they have to say: