When the Rev. Dave Fulton, pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, thought about the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation, he wanted to mark it in a way that brought people together.
The Protestant Reformation, launched when monk Martin Luther spoke out against practices of the Catholic Church and was excommunicated, was a period of division. A hundred years later, Protestants and Catholics fought and killed each other in the Thirty Years War in Central Europe.
“My thinking from the beginning is that we need to be more concerned about the next 500 years than the last 500 years, and that the message of the Reformation is as relevant now as it was 500 years ago,” Fulton said. “The new Reformation needs to be a return to God who is the sovereign over creation and all human life. Luther’s message towards that is still valid.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, Catholics, Lutherans and other Protestants plan to pray together, remembering the Reformation while building unity.
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But the relationship between Protestants and Catholics is different today than it was 500 years ago, particularly when it comes to the doctrines of faith alone (“sola fide” in Latin) and whether the Bible is the sole source of religious authority (“sola scriptura”), two beliefs that helped characterize the Reformation.
A shrinking divide
In August, the Pew Research Center released a study that found U.S. Protestants today are not defined by Reformation-era controversies.
While U.S. Catholics mostly align with the teachings of the Catholic Church, nearly half of U.S. Protestants said that both good deeds and faith are needed to attain heaven – a historically Catholic belief.
The same split occurred when it came to whether the Bible is the sole source of religious authority. About half of U.S. Protestants said Christians should look to both the Bible and the church’s teachings and tradition – also a Catholic belief.
The survey also found that the majority of Protestants and Catholics said the two traditions are “more similar than they are different,” a far cry from when the Thirty Years War was ended by recognizing three separate Christian traditions – Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism – and transforming the geography of Europe.
One reason unity gatherings like the evening of prayer are still needed is to celebrate how that divide is already being bridged, Fulton says.
Although there is still “enormous diversity” even within Catholicism and Protestantism, the people behind the gathering realize that “in the depths we are one,” he said.
The Rev. David Lies, vicar-general for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, said he hopes people will be acquainted with one another during the prayer service and grow to understand their similarities. Perhaps that can be a way to overcome stereotypes, insecurities and unfortunate past exchanges.
“This is really going to be the Holy Spirit’s work,” Lies said. “This is what the Lord wants for his church.”
The prayer gathering will be at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A second gathering is being planned at a Lutheran church in January, near Epiphany.
Lies said Martin Luther likely didn’t envision an entire spit from the Catholic Church.
No one can lay claim to having caused the division, Lies said, but “we can try to lay claim to being the ones that healed the division that occurred.”
Using the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (the anniversary was Oct. 31) to further unity isn’t solely a local effort. Pope Francis and Bishop Mounib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a joint statement saying that Catholics and Lutherans pledged to pursue dialogue and remove obstacles to unity.
“Through dialogue and shared witness we are no longer strangers,” the statement read. “Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a member of the Lutheran World Federation, issued a similar statement upon a joint Lutheran-Catholic prayer gathering, saying people were “yearning for reconciliation.”
Listening for peace
Even if Catholics and Protestants consider each other more similar than different, divisions still exist.
The Rev. Mari Larson, pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church, said denominations have existed in silos.
“We’re each out to try to feed our people and take care of our people and we don’t work together very well,” Larson said. “That’s our 500-year history, probably the history throughout the Christian church, 2,000 years of history. … We have a good opportunity to say, ‘Let’s start something new.’”
It won’t just be Lutherans and Catholics at the prayer service Nov. 21. Episcopalians and United Methodists are involved in the planning, and anyone interested in bridging the divide between denominations is welcome.
The Rev. Gary Brooks, senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, said this is only a start.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for persons of all denominations to come together, listen to each other and find ways to create greater harmony in a time of great division in our country,” he said. “In some sense we mellow with time, and wouldn’t it be great if that mellowing could be a molding and shaping of a new era of cooperation and working together? I think that’s powerful.”
The prayer gathering, which is being called “Listening for Peace,” will incorporate hymns and reflections from Lutheran, Catholic and Episcopal traditions.
Leaders including Fulton and Lies have met regularly to plan and pray over the event.
Lies said he was impressed by Fulton’s desire to hold the event, and that he wanted to hold it in the Catholic cathedral.
“He (Fulton) had that kernel of an idea that in the world we’re living in that’s becoming more secularized and less Christian in some ways, we lose our power of witness as Christians the more separate we are,” Lies said. “If we can seek to overcome our differences and become more united, then we are a more plausible witness.”
“Listening for Peace,” an ecumenical prayer service, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 430 N. Broadway St.
Ecumenical prayer service
“Listening for Peace” will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 430 N. Broadway St.