Attached to our parish bulletin this weekend is a statement from the Catholic and Lutheran churches on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It all began when Martin Luther, on the 31st October 1517, posted on the church door of Wittenberg his ninety-five theses about the abuses he saw in the church.
For the early part of my life my thinking was shaped by the teachings of the Counter-Reformation – the priorities articulated by the church as it reacted to the reformers. A key influence in the Catholic church of my upbringing was the teaching of the Council of Trent which sought to counter the reformist teaching of Luther, Calvin, the English reformers following Henry VIII. The Catholic reaction focused on the sacraments, the teaching authority of the Magisterium (papal and episcopal), the formation of priests etc. At the personal level I and many of my contemporaries came to see the heretical teachings of other churches as so opposed to what we believed the church of Jesus Christ should be. We believed and taught that the Catholic Church of Rome was the one, true church.
Vatican II changed all that! An enlightened understanding of the role of history, the central role of Scripture and the development of doctrine bore fruit in the efforts made to reach out to the other churches. Over the last fifty years many of us have come to appreciate the riches in other ecclesial communities. This has required great efforts to search for the truth together among the many hurts and misunderstandings that centuries of conflicts have contributed to.
I have been privileged over a number of years to participate in the national Roman Catholic – Lutheran dialogue. Through study, dialogue, and friendship I have reassessed the understanding I had of Protestants for much of my early life. Luther’s prophetic outburst about the church of his day has now been reassessed and valued in a new way. His translation of the bible opened the word of God to any person who could read. His core insight about justification by faith has now been accepted. To quote the words of the Statement: “Together we confess that it is solely by grace and through faith that we are justified and not through our own merits.” These, and many other teachings, have now evolved into a richer Catholic theology.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation offers us all an opportunity to thank God that through the conflicts, hatred, and misunderstandings of the past we are now standing at the beginning of a new era in which we must work for the unity of Christ’s church for which he prayed.