This year, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of that series of events we call the Reformation. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31, 1517, he had no intention of damaging the unity of the Church. He was interested in reforming the Church from within – an interest shared by many in Europe at the time. Luther, a university professor, was announcing an academic disputation to discuss and debate a number of questions about indulgences. He assumed that one or more professors would answer the call and that the public debate would be organized – just as it had been done in university life for over three centuries. Instead, the theses were published, using the latest technology of the time (the printing press). The theses “went viral,” and set into motion a series of events that went far beyond what anyone could have foreseen in 1517. A chain of missed opportunities, misunderstandings, blunders, and the intervention of opportunistic politicians changed this “academic disputation” into a fragmenting of the unity of the Church in Europe.
The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response to it (sometimes called the Counter-Reformation) dominated sixteenth-century Europe. Much of the legacy of that time remains with us now. How can we today get a handle on such a complex history? One good way to start is to read From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. This remarkable document, the fruit of years of dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is the first effort by Catholics and Lutherans to tell the history of the Reformation together. What is of even greater significance is that this document models a response to the question “Where do we go from here?”
So, where do we go from here? Or, what can we, as Christians, in our own day learn from this history? As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Here are three questions for reflection.
- Have we learned how to disagree?
As the authors of From Conflict to Communion noted, misunderstanding and a failure to disagree well were major contributors to the breakdown of Christian unity in Europe. This remains a contemporary concern. On September 24, 2017, the New York Times published an Opinion piece by Bret Stephens called “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” Stephens pointed out the value of disagreement to any society – it “enlarges our perspectives, energizes our progress, and gives hope and courage to oppressed peoples everywhere.” Disagreement, skillfully done, involves a true listening to one another and the willingness to let the other challenge and even change your perspective. The authors of From Conflict to Communion make similar points. What might the history of sixteenth-century Europe have been if such skilled disagreement was practiced? What might our own history today look like if we practiced it now?
- How do I find a gracious God?
This was the central question for Martin Luther and the driving force of his life. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI remarked how this made an impression on him, and he wondered who might even care about this question now. The deep need to find a gracious God implies a consciousness of sin, of the total inadequacy of merely human efforts to overcome sin and, therefore, of the necessity of a gracious God to grant salvation. In the contemporary West, where many are inclined to see human failures – even great evils – in purely psychological categories, and where many leaders refuse to take responsibility for any mistakes, this question seems totally irrelevant. Yet, from the point of view of anyone who is unflinchingly honest with themselves, it is the only question that matters.
- How important is unity for Christians today?
In the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, we find an insistence that Christians become and remain one. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr around the year 110, insisted that each Christian community he wrote to while on his way to his death “do nothing without the bishop,” since for Ignatius the bishop was the living symbol of the unity of the Church. The authors of From Conflict to Communion state that the most significant fruit of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue was the rediscovery of their basic unity in Christ and their common call to announce the good news of the mercy that God has shown us in Christ. To what extent are we, today, willing to put aside our individual wants or concerns – and to put aside the perspectives of the groups or parties to which we belong – for the sake of our fundamental unity in Christ? The Church does not belong to us, nor is it given purely for our individual sakes. We are saved and healed to the extent that we allow ourselves to be molded into the Body of Christ.
It is my hope that these questions will help all of us commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation in a manner that will help us grow into the unity of the Body of Christ, a unity that Christ Himself insisted upon. It is the Lord who builds His Church, and so, it is the Lord who will heal its divisions. May we not stand in the way but be willing to follow where the Lord leads us.
Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at www.theanchorite.net/.