On October 31, 1517 in the university city of Wittenberg, Germany, theology professor Martin Luther presents 95 theses on indulgences “out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it.” This date marks the beginning of the Protestant Reform and the division within the Christian Church of the West.
500 years have passed and that moment in history is no longer considered simply a dark moment. On the contrary, we now celebrate this anniversary with 50 years’ experience of theological dialogue among Lutherans and Catholics. On October 21, 2013 a delegation from the Lutheran World Federation was received by the Pope, to whom they handed over the latest results of that theological dialogue with the meaningful title: From Conflict to Communion. The Lutheran-Catholic Interpretation of the Reform in 2017. The Holy Father underscored the commitment to progress in spiritual ecumenism that constitutes “the soul of our journey towards full communion,” and “it permits us to have a foretaste of some of that fruit already now, even though imperfectly.”
How can we transmit this necessary something for a life with God, for which it is worthwhile to struggle and fight? How can we transmit to our contemporaries the traditions that they might be the supports of an intense Christian life, without digging ourselves into new trenches? These are some of the questions posed by the document From Conflict to Communion. We begin with Heike Vesper, Lutheran focolarina from Germany, now residing in Italy where she works with Centro Uno, the Focolare Movement’s secretariat for ecumenism.
“For 35 years I have been living the spirituality of unitytogether with Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran friends. This has brought me into contact with other Churches and their life with God. It’s been extraordinarily enriching. I am surprised by the greatness of God and the action of the Holy Spirit that my Church alone could never fully express. I was around twenty years old and had known the Focolare Movement for several years when I felt that God was calling me to give witness to the unity that was possible, precisely in the diversity that went along with community. Despite the fears and differences I saw with respect to Catholics, I felt the courage to respond to God’s call and entered the focolare community in Leipzig. The experience of these twenty years was exactly what the Pope underscored on October 21st when he met with Lutherans: “In the measure to which we humbly draw near in spirit to the Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are sure to draw nearer to one another also; and to the measure in which we invoke from the Lord the gift of unity, he will surely take us by the hand and be our Guide.”
There were also difficulties, perplexity concerning some forms of Catholic traditions that were unfamiliar to me. As I began again, I always felt that I had to look at what we had in common and I often discovered this in the most unexpected places. This would encourage me and allow me to be guided by Jesus, by Jesus in the midst [see Mt 18:20].
The first of Luther’s 95 thesis on indulgences states: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17 ), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This means being able to forgive. God continually gives me a new chance, because on the Cross, Jesus also takes on all of my failures and those of every person. That’s my penance: being able to forget, to be reconciled!
The document From Conflict to Communion concludes with 5 ecumenical imperitives that invite Catholics and Lutherans to reflect on prospectives of unity, to give visibility to the Body of Christ. This confirms my experience in the Focolare Movement:
- The first imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.”
- “The second imperative: “Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.”
- The third imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.”
- “The fourth imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans jointly should rediscover the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.”
- “The fifth imperative: Lutherans and Catholics should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.”
Drawing closer to the Word of God I’d like to be able to experience and affirm with Martin Luther: “Then I felt literally reborn and brought through the thrown-open gate of Heaven itself. The entire Scripture suddenly acquired a new face for me. Later I read The Spirit and the letter by St. Augustine, where, against every hope, I discovered he also interpreted God’s justice in a similar way, as the justice with which God clothes us when he justifies.”