Nearly 500 years ago, German monk Martin Luther was said to have nailed a list of questions and debate topics on Catholicism to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and changed the world.
Now as the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches in October 2017, local Catholic and Lutheran church leaders said they are celebrating their common ground and uniting to confront environmental problems. Their divisions, they said, are history.
“I would say 500 years ago we had a split and it’s about time for us to start the next chapter and figure out how we’re going to be Christians together on this planet,” said Bishop James Hazelwood in an interview Wednesday. He leads the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has about 66,000 members.
In a letter made public Thursday, Hazelwood and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, announced plans to mark the anniversary by pushing for unity and collaboration between the Christian denominations.
“Our common ground lies in the life-giving Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We share one baptism into Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior,” Hazelwood and O’Malley wrote. “As we proceed toward this observance, we give thanks for our mutual baptism into Christ Jesus and our irrevocable commitment to full visible unity.”
One way Hazelwood and O’Malley are encouraging Lutherans and Catholics to commemorate the Reformation is by reading Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change and the environment, “On Care for Our Common Home,” which was published in June.
The letter urges the faithful to read and discuss the encyclical in small groups. Service projects, academic and arts events, and a joint service are also being planned, the letter said.
There are about 1.8 million Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese.
Such calls for unity were unheard of until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s when the Catholic Church began speaking with Lutherans, said Richard Lennan, professor of systematic theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.
Then in 1999, the two churches signed a document agreeing that their followers are declared righteous by “faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part.”
The question was a dividing issue of the Reformation, as Luther believed Christ’s followers could reach salvation through faith and divine grace alone and objected to the church’s sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.
The agreement, Lennan said, was “spectacularly important” and gave Lutherans and Catholics a chance to set aside their differences.
“We are united on much more than what divides us and the 500th anniversary is showing us that,” said Vito Nicastro, associate director of the archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “The love that is at the heart of gospel is what we agree on and what we want to share.”
Lutherans proposed studying a papal document during the anniversary observation, Nicastro said. The choice is ironic, he said, given how Luther challenged the pope’s authority.
The repercussions of the Reformation had lasting effects, triggering wars and marking dividing lines during the colonial era as Protestant and Catholic countries brought their religious beliefs to their colonies, Lennan said.
But their reconciliation after so many years offers hope that warring nations, religious sects, and ethnic groups can reach agreements, he said.
“Hopefully that provides some kind of encouragement to the world that overcoming differences is possible,” Lennan said.
Reading Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change focuses Lutherans and Catholics on a timely issue affecting humanity, Hazelwood said.
“We are together in our separate denominations and we have this planet that we all inhabit,” he said. “How can we come together to reform how we live, not just Christians, but how do we as human beings live on this planet?”
A list of agreements and differences between Catholics and Lutherans was recently published in an ecumenical document titled “Declaration on the Way.” One remaining difference deals with how the two churches are structured.
On contemporary issues, some parts of the Lutheran church permit the ordination of women and same-sex marriage, though those developments are not thought to be linked to the Reformation, specialists said. The Catholic Church prohibits both practices.
Hazelwood said Luther did not set out to splinter the church and would support collaboration between Catholics and Lutherans.
“Luther would have probably wanted to sign the letter with the cardinal and I,” he said. “He was not focused on the division.”