Encouraging parish-based, Catholic-Lutheran dialogue

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

The Archdiocese of St. Louis will join with partners from the Lutheran community in marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, in 2017. The partnership recognizes strides in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue and ecumenical unity by the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In preparation for the anniversary, the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the archdiocese and a core group of Lutheran pastors are initiating parish-based, lay dialogues and greater unity of the churches. Catholic and Lutheran pastors and their representatives participating in the early stages of this movement met Dec.1 at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury.

Parishes in the archdiocese are urged to join with neighboring Lutheran churches for dialogue sessions in Lent and in the fall of next year. Resource materials are available for parishes to order. The sessions will allow people to get to know one another as neighbors and learn what connections they have. Following those conversations, the archdiocese will culminate the observance during its 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity event.

Benedictine Father Finbarr Dowling, a retired parish pastor and a longtime figure in the interfaith and ecumenical movement, said that "what happened in the past cannot be changed. But what is remembered and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, be changed."

Recent news events that have brought previously distant world leaders together shows that churches can get together, he noted. "Nostra Aetate," the Vatican document that addressed the relations of the Catholic Church with other religions, had a major impact, Father Dowling said.

Rev. Keith Holste of Christ Lutheran Church in Webster Groves and a member of the planning team, said that the invitation to conversation has revolved around how to make one faith of God, one church and a better church. Citing Pope Francis' call to get together, he said: "We need to get the people in our pews talking to one another."

Rev. Ron Neustadt, a retired pastor who serves on the board of Lutheran School of Theology in St. Louis, cited ecumenical dialogue and prayer services that already take place in neighborhoods. Joint service work is occurring frequently, he noted.

In a small-group discussion, the Rev. John Mann of Trinity Lutheran Church in Chesterfield said "we are way more interested in what we can do to change the world" than focusing on differences. "Talking is good. I hope it doesn't just stay at words," he added.

Phil Hutsler, a diaconate candidate from St. Norbert Parish in Florissant, said that an annual ecumenical service at the parish school includes participation from the pastors of all the churches attended by children in the school. It is a good step for children to learn about each other and their similarities, he said.

Suggestions for joint efforts included Bible study, other educational efforts and outreach to people in ecumenical marriages and to college students on secular campuses.

Rev. Karen Scherer, pastor of Unity Lutheran Church in Bel-Nor, said she's excited also about a new level of dialogues and hearing from parishioners. "Our commonalities outweigh the differences," Rev. Scherer said. "We'll be able to build bridges, to work together, to talk together, even to worship together, break down some walls."

Rev. Penney Holste of Christ Lutheran Church in Webster Groves noted that the impetus for the observance of the Reformation came from the archdiocese. "It's amazing to have the archdiocese reach out," she said. "It's what Christ would want."

What Pope Francis says

As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches, "Catholics and Lutherans can ask forgiveness for the harm they have caused one another and for their offenses committed in the sight of God," Pope Francis said.

Meeting with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and members of the Catholic-Lutheran international theological dialogue, Pope Francis said commemorations in 2017 of the beginning of the Reformation must take place in a spirit of dialogue and humility.

While the Reformation fractured Western Christianity, he said, for the past 50 years Catholics and Lutherans have been committed to dialogue in an effort to restore full unity.

"Together we can rejoice in the longing for unity which the Lord has awakened in our hearts, and which makes us look with hope to the future," Pope Francis said. "Patience, dialogue and mutual understanding" will be necessary as the two communities seek to overcome what separates them.

While theological dialogue is important, he said, the key to unity lies in prayer and trying to follow more closely the teachings of Jesus.

New document on Catholic-Lutheran relations

A new 120-page document marks the progress in Catholic-Lutheran relations over the past 50 years and maps the remaining steps needed to achieve full unity.

The "Declaration on the Way" was prepared by a joint task force of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has more than 3.7 million members in 9,300 congregations across the United States.

The document was inspired by a December 2011 speech by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and draws on the work of national and international Catholic-Lutheran dialogues since 1965, particularly on the topics of church, ministry and the Eucharist. It was intended to mark the 50th anniversary of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in 2015 and the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

"It's amazing to think that 500 years ago we were killing each other over" issues on which there is now consensus between the two communions, said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton.

Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore, the Catholic co-chairman of the task force, said Pope Francis on his recent U.S. visit and throughout his papacy has emphasized "a culture of dialogue" that is reflected in concrete form in the new declaration.

It concludes by asking the Lutheran World Federation, a global communion of 145 churches in 98 countries, and the Pontifical Council on Promoting Christian Unity to jointly "receive, affirm and create a process to implement" the 32 statements of agreement outlined in the declaration and to establish "a process and a timetable for addressing remaining issues on church, Eucharist and ministry."

In addition, the task force urged action and study at the local level between Lutheran congregations and Catholic parishes, as well as formal and informal cooperation among bishops of both denominations at the regional level.

An online version of "Declaration on the Way" and any recent developments can be found at this USCCB link: www.tinyurl.com/q8rptfn; and at this ECLA link: www.tinyurl.com/qa6wkn4.

— Catholic News Service

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