Finding unity on the anniversary of the Reformation

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Just prior to his suffering and death, Jesus offers this simple prayer to his Father: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20)

This passage is taken from the Farewell Discourse of Jesus which takes place during the Last Supper.

Most people would agree that the last words of a person about to die are important. In one of his final gestures, Jesus prays that his disciples be one.

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of biblical theology, posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The door functioned as a bulletin board for announcements for the church and university.

The more formal title for this document is the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences and the propositions it contained were intended to be debated in a formal setting like a university. This was a typical academic practice of the Late Medieval Period.

Luther was protesting the abuses he witnessed in the church’s practice regarding indulgences. An indulgence is the remission granted by the church of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.

Martin Luther was reacting to the sacrilegious practice of certain clerics of his time who sold indulgences and used the money in order to fund church building projects. It was a corrupt practice and was contrary to the consistent teaching of the church’s canon law which rejects simony (the buying or selling of what is spiritual in return for what is temporal).

He was justified in reacting so strongly to this practice; however, he did not stop there. In only a few years Luther moved from wanting to reform certain practices in the church to rejecting many foundational teachings of the Catholic faith.

What began in Wittenberg 500 years ago had significant repercussions for the unity of the Christian church where there are now an estimated 9,000 Protestant denominations (World Christian Encyclopedia, Volume 2).

A hopeful sign in the midst of this division is the ecumenical movement. For the Catholic church this began in earnest with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Restoration of Christian unity was one of the principal concerns of the council.

Unitatis Redintegratio is the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism. In the opening paragraph it states that division in the Christian church, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

More recently, the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued a joint statement to conclude the common ecumenical Commemoration of the Reformation (Oct. 31, 2017). The document states, “We, Lutherans and Catholics, are profoundly grateful for the ecumenical journey that we have travelled together during the last 50 years. This pilgrimage, sustained by our common prayer, worship and ecumenical dialogue, has resulted in the removal of prejudices, the increase of mutual understanding and the identification of decisive theological agreements. In the face of so many blessings along the way, we raise our hearts in praise of the Triune God for the mercy we receive.”

For the last four years I have had the privilege of being part of a Roman Catholic/Lutheran Church Canada Dialogue. This is a local gathering of theologians from both churches and it provides a forum for open and honest discussion. We come to know each other and develop friendships. This is a small example of how we work toward unity.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Christians join with Jesus in praying, “that we may all be one.”

Most Reverend Gerard Bergie is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines