Half a millennium after the birth of the movement that saw much of western Europe torn by religious wars, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches are now contemplating taking communion together, Council of General Synod (CoGS) members and their counterparts in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) heard at a joint session of CoGS Saturday, November 14.
In a presentation on the commemoration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Rev. André Lavergne, assistant to the bishop, ecumenical and interfaith at ELCIC, said American Lutherans and Catholics took an extremely important step last month.
On October 30, the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops jointly issued a document entitled Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist. The document, Lavergne said, invites the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) to “create a process and timetable to address outstanding issues” between them. It also suggests there should be more opportunities for Lutherans and Catholics to receive Holy Communion together, he said.
The document itself states that “the possibility of occasional admission of members of our churches to Eucharistic communion with the other side (communicatio in sacris) could be offered more clearly and regulated more compassionately.”
Although baptized non-Roman Catholics are occasionally given communion by Catholic priests in certain circumstances, the practice is currently very rare.
“If that comes to fruition, we’ve reached a major, major milestone…I didn’t believe it until I’d read it myself,” Lavergne said.
“Who knows what tomorrow will bring, in a place where 500 years after the Reformation, Lutherans and Catholics are talking about communion together?”
It was on Oct. 31, 1517 that the monk Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses, a document highly critical of church practices, to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Many see the event as the touchstone of the Reformation.
The release of Declaration on the Way is only one of a number of signs of the increasing rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches in recent years, Lavergne said. Another very recent sign was a tweet last week from Pope Francis’s office on Martin Luther’s birthday, November 10, that used the Latin phrase “semper reformanda”-a clear allusion to the early Lutheran rallying cry, “Ecclesia semper reformanda est,” meaning “the church must always be reformed.”
“It delighted me enormously…to hear the Holy Father use the words,” Lavergne said. “That was not an accident-there are no such accidents,” he added with a smile.
Another important symbol, he said, is the fact that Lutherans and Roman Catholics are labelling the events planned for 2017 as a “commemoration” of the beginning of the Reformation, not a “celebration”-a choice of words that reflects the suffering caused by the schism.
The Reformation led, among other conflicts, to the Thirty Years’ War in Germany-a war so devastating it resulted in a significant reduction of Germany’s population over the years 1618-1648.
“What happened 498 years ago or thereabouts was a chasm, has been an open wound and still requires some salving,” Lavergne said.
The year 2017 will in fact mark another important anniversary, Lavergne said: the beginning of ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. Much of the credit for this dialogue, he said, must be given to the new spirit that swept the Roman Catholic church in the early 1960s, a spirit that led it to “open its windows and its doors to a world beyond itself, and invite conversation.”
The ELCIC commemoration “is very much built on the ecumenical dialogue proffered by the Vatican,” Lavergne said.
At the same session, members of CoGS and the ELCIC National Church Council heard Lavergne’s counterpart at General Synod, Archdeacon Bruce Myers, co-ordinator for ecumenical and interfaith relations, speak about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDI), a key agreement in Roman Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical talks. Released by the PCPCU and LWF in 1999, the document “was, and remains, a landmark theological agreement,” Myers said.
The essence of the document, he said, is that Lutherans and Catholics have now essentially reached a consensus on the basic ideas around the doctrine of justification-the idea at the heart of the entire schism.
“Put another way, the defining theological contention of the Reformation, which resulted in mutual condemnations, excommunications, executions and more than five centuries of formal separation between Catholics and Lutherans, had been resolved in fewer than three decades of peaceable dialogue in the 20th century,” Myers said.
Though it remains to be seen how much this joint declaration will be “received or acknowledged and lived in to, it is a remarkable milestone in history given how much divisiveness and bitterness resulted from Lutherans’ disagreement with Catholics on how we are justified before God,” Myers said. “They’re able to say that we were essentially saying the same thing about the doctrine of justification, how Christ effects our salvation-we were just somehow saying it in different ways but couldn’t hear or see that because of all of the other factors we were surrounded by,” he said.
JDDI was adopted by the World Methodist Council “as a theological statement consistent with their tradition and understanding of justification” in 2006, Myers said, and the Anglican Communion is also now contemplating a similar gesture. A decision will be made next year, he said, at the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting planned for Lusaka, Zambia, next year.
Lavergne also outlined a range of publications dealing with, and events planned for, the coming commemoration in 2017 by Lutherans worldwide. Highlights in Canada, he said, include the “Reformation Challenge” agreed on at ELCIC’s National Convention this past summer. The challenge calls on ELCIC to sponsor 500 refugees; provide 500 scholarships for Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy land schools; plant 500,000 trees; and give $500,000 to the LWF Endowment Fund-goals, he conceded, may perhaps not be achievable but are nonetheless admirable.
The Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission, he said, will also be planning a 2017 symposium in Waterloo, with the theme, “From Reformation to Reconciliation.” The anniversary will also be commemorated at ELCIC’s National Convention in 2017, he said.
On the following day, November 15, Myers presented CoGS with a resolution in support of the ACC proposal to sign on to JDDI at next year’s meeting in Lusaka. The resolution was passed.