Pope Francis visited Sweden this past Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. He met with Lutheran leaders at a time in which all Christians must be attentive to the sad reality of division among Christians and eager to encourage the unity which Jesus intends.
On Oct. 31, 1517, the Augustinian monk and Scripture professor Martin Luther, of Wittenburg, Germany, sent 95 “theses” or debate topics to the Archbishop of Mainz. He may also have nailed a copy of these theses to a church door. There is no evidence that any debates on these topics actually took place. The date Oct. 31, 1517, is considered the beginning of what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which led to great brokenness within Western Christianity, as many felt compelled to leave the Catholic Church.
Next Oct. 31, of course, will be the 500th anniversary of Luther’s publication of the theses. Christians all over the world recognize the grave injury borne by Christians as so many of us have been estranged from one another. Various commemorations will mark this 500th anniversary.
Luther saw fit to invite theological discussion and disputation because of his own experience of a troubled conscience. In spite of our Catholic teaching that salvation is freely bestowed upon the faithful through the loving act of Jesus in laying down his life and rising victorious, Luther found himself preoccupied with such matters as whether he had confessed all his sins correctly. He reflected on his own troubled spirit, and wondered about believers less theologically educated than himself.
Specifically, he worried that the mass of believers, focused on anxieties about their deceased relatives and their burden of temporal punishment due to their sins, would view a relationship with God only in terms of oppressive spiritual bookkeeping.
Luther himself was able to reach a sense of freedom and peace in his study of the Scriptures. In particular, the letters of St. Paul clarified for him the fact that salvation is the free gift of God to sinners.
When one studies the history of the Reformation, as I did in the company of some Lutheran pastors many years ago, one can see that great efforts were made by Catholic officials to come to some understanding between official teaching and the concerns raised by Luther. If we think that we, in the present day, handle communications poorly, it is important for us to imagine Europe 500 years ago, and all the difficulties involved in communicating, necessarily by mail and messengers. Between Germany and Italy there was a physical barrier called the Alps. We think of how hard it was to coordinate meetings, and of how weather and road conditions kept people from meeting and possibly coming to an understanding.
In the Springfield area, we are looking forward to some events by which we will acknowledge our grief at Christian disunity, while also noting steps toward greater unity (such as the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 1999) and dedicating ourselves to support one another in our common Christian faith. I hope soon to report on some concrete plans. I would be interested in hearing from people elsewhere in our diocese on joint efforts by which we will open our hearts to the grace of God which brings unity.