by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
October 31 of this year marks the 500th anniversary of what is commonly acknowledged as the event that launched the Protestant Reformation.
It is the date that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses upon the door of the chapel of Wittenburg Castle that questioned what he considered scandalous practices within the church.
On Sept. 29, I participated with Bishop James Johnston of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in a joint Catholic-Lutheran prayerful commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Bishop Johnston co-presided with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bishop Roger Gustafson at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri. I was honored to be the Catholic homilist for the commemoration service.
In my homily, I noted that our efforts for Christian unity (ecumenism) must be anchored in truth and honesty. Ecumenical dialogue should never be about watering down — or worse yet — denying what one believes in order to appease or not offend others.
Thus, I stated the obvious — that Catholics do not celebrate the reformation. It is impossible for us to celebrate an event that resulted in the tragic fracturing of the body of Christ.
We can and must, however, prayerfully commemorate what was indeed a tremendously significant event in the history of Christianity. Indeed, it is an event of such importance and magnitude that we dare not ignore it, lest we forget the lessons to be learned and repeat the mistakes that Catholics made.
Pope John Paul II in the preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 acknowledged the sins of members of the church, particularly against the unity of Christians.
History makes clear that the personal sins and failures of those within the church created a need for reform and a toxic environment that resulted in the divisions that began in the 16th century and have geometrically multiplied in the ensuing years.
It can be too easy and convenient to confess the sins of others in the past, while ignoring the very different cultural and historical prism through which we evaluate their choices.
However, the events of the 16th century remind us of what happens when the ordained ministers of the church fail to strive to live lives of integrity, the entire body of Christ suffers. It is not difficult to recognize parallel circumstances in our own time.
When the ordained clergy of any age fail to strive to imitate the selfless love of Jesus, we become obstacles that block the ability of others to see the truth and beauty of the Christian Gospel. When church leaders become more devoted to material comfort, seeking the pleasures of the flesh and grasping for power, people are rightfully scandalized and distrusting — not just of the individual clerics, but of the church’s authority and even the truth of the Gospel.
Pope Francis in Sweden almost a year ago in a similar commemorative service invited Catholics and Lutherans to observe the anniversary of the reformation with what he termed “a renewed spirit and in the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize that much more unites us than separates us.”
The Holy Father described the journey to strive for Christian unity as itself a gift. Pope Francis challenged Christians “in a spirit of fellowship to direct our gaze to the one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis invited both Catholics and Lutherans to confess and lament before Christ that we “have wounded the visible unity of the church.”
The Holy Father observed: “Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalized for political ends. Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demand of us daily conversion, by which we can 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 wounds and the memories that cloud our view of one another.”
Indeed, there is much we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. The beautiful personal relationship with Jesus cultivated through the prayerful daily reading of the Bible is something we would do well to emulate. Many Protestant Christians are shining examples of holiness and of the compassion and love that flows from an intimate friendship with Jesus.
In the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Our Lord prayed not only for the first disciples, but for those who would believe in him because of their testimony. In other words, Jesus was interceding for us.
Jesus prayed: “I pray not only for them (the original disciples), but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you; that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17: 20-21).
Sadly, in reaction to some of the scandalous behavior of some Catholic leaders, many found Luther’s critique and that of other Protestant leaders to be attractive and alluring. Of course, Luther and the other leading voices in Protestantism were also flawed human beings. The unfolding of the fragmentation of Christianity resulting from the Protestant revolt had as much to do with egos and political ambitions as theological disputes.
The principle that Luther introduced — namely, if you disagree with the articulation of the church’s teaching or a church discipline, you simply divide and begin your own church — was a recipe for chaos. Indeed, we see immediately within the Protestant movement there were divisions. Denying the authority of the successor of St. Peter essentially made every individual their own pope.
We can see clearly now, 500 years later, that the principle that the Bible alone was the only true magisterial authority has led to thousands of contradictory interpretations of the Scriptures. This is why we see some of the ecclesial communities that are the successors of Luther hold moral teachings that are clearly in conflict with Our Lord’s own teaching as recorded in the Scriptures.
We all need to pray for Christian unity and, as much as possible, to work for the reunification of the church. In an increasingly aggressive secularized culture, Christians must strive to recognize points of unity that can serve as starting places for rebuilding the unity of the body of Christ. Our disunity remains a scandal and impairs the very credibility of the Gospel of Jesus.
We must implore the Holy Spirit to reveal to us a pathway to become one again, so that the world will be compelled to believe in Jesus.