Thanks to astonishing ecumenical advances, Catholics can recognise – and even give thanks for – the witness of Martin Luther

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.

It was Pope St John Paul II who spoke of an “exchange of gifts” as the fruit of ecumenical dialogue, and Pope Francis has identified the rediscovery of Scripture in the life of the Church as one of the gifts received from our Protestant colleagues. In an atmosphere where caricatures have been demolished and neuralgic terms revisited, the Catholic bishops of Germany have felt able to acknowledge some element of celebration to these events: not in any sense of the division of Christendom and rejection of the Catholic Church, but recognising in Martin Luther a “Gospel witness and teacher of the faith”.

For their part, Lutherans, according to the official prayer for commemoration of the Reformation, have agreed that in recalling “the events that led to the foundation of their churches, [they] do not wish to do so without their Catholic fellow Christians”.

Yet we would be wrong to ignore the disunity of past centuries, and our relations can only be honest if we acknowledge the pain and hurt that we have caused each other. Rightly, Pope Francis and his Lutheran hosts in Sweden will express repentance for the divisions and hostilities caused by the Reformation and reaction to it.

But as Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has pointed out, such collaboration can only be successful if it is grounded in a deeper relationship, one that places Christ firmly at the centre of our lives as Christians.

Modern ecumenism understands that it is when we are closest to Christ that we are closest to each other, so this anniversary is a call to Catholics and Lutherans alike to be more attentive to the Gospel. In this way the anniversary can be a stepping stone to future unity, rather than a rehearsing of past hurts. Another aspect of the service that Pope Francis will attend in Sweden will be thanksgiving for 50 years of ecumenical dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.

There is no doubt that this anniversary presents a challenge to Catholics. Catholics cannot celebrate the Reformation, but our commemoration can be more than a bland acknowledgment of a historical anniversary. In the larger horizon of life in Christ and the unity for which he prayed, we may recognise – and even give thanks for – the contribution and witness of Martin Luther.

This article first appeared in the October 28 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here