Catholics and Lutherans at 500: Ecclesia semper reformanda by James Frederick Brown

On October 31, 2016, Reformation Day, a two-part event in Lund and Malmö, Sweden, calling together both Roman Catholics and Lutherans, signalled the beginning of a year-long global commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Podcasts of both the Common Prayer service at St. Lawrence Cathedral, Lund, and the subsequent gathering, Together in Hope in the Malmö Arena, are posted at and

It is easy to underestimate the significance of this occasion against the backdrop of at least 450 years of schism. The Lutheran Reformation itself redrew the map of Christendom, not only for the medieval world, but for all the generations that have followed. To contemplate reconciliation at this late date is unbelievable for people acquainted with the long history of Christian denominationalism and Protestant-Catholic sectarianism. The Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, however, set a new course for Catholics and Lutherans, a course whose chief feature was a commitment to ecumenical dialogue. The mandate of the dialogue partners has been to re-examine the points of departure of the two churches, to revisit their shared history in its socio-political context, and to sift through the doctrines and beliefs of Catholics and Lutherans for convergence and agreement.

Without question, this work of repairing disunity in the church is long overdue. And Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation is merely the beginning of a much broader initiative needed to include those churches founded by reformers other than Martin Luther. The success of the 50-year Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, however, provides hope for this further work. What has been accomplished through the current process has changed the focus from the conflicted past Lutherans and Catholics have experienced to the promise of full reconciliation in the present, and then a shared future in both proclamation and mission.

In preparation for the October 31, 2016 gathering in Sweden, the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity published From Conflict to Communion (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt GmbH, Leipzig and Bonifatius GmbH, Paderborn, 2013), a proclamation constructively addressing the past issues dividing the two churches and weighing this division against the strength of present agreement in doctrine and beliefs. The book, printed in several languages, will be used as the foundation for all the 500th anniversary events planned for 2016-2017, including the Twelfth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation to be held in Windhoek, Namibia, May 10-16, 2017.

From Conflict to Communion was not born in a vacuum. The Roman Catholic / Lutheran Joint Commission was established in 1964, followed by the Commission on Unity in 1967. The Commission on Unity, working over a period of 39 years, published nine common statements for the two churches to study and reflect upon, covering high level concerns around how both regard central things like the Eucharist and Ministry in the Church, as well as hands-on practical concerns such as how and when Lutheran-Roman Catholic fellowship can take place. And the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, a watershed document in the relationship of the two churches, opened the door for the new Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and the eventual publishing of From Conflict to Communion. (The Joint Declaration is posted on line at )

The content of the Common Prayer service in Lund was heralded in the invitation to participants and guests. In their letter, Pastor Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote “In joy, we will celebrate the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; we will express repentance for confessional wars that allowed theological disputes to lead to human suffering and disunity of the body of Christ; and we will commit ourselves to bearing witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.” The three worship leaders, Pope Francis, Martin Junge, and Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, spoke in detail on each of these topics.

At the heart of the cathedral liturgy was the affirmation of five ecumenical imperatives set forth by the two churches to guide the shared ecumenical journey ahead. Alternating, Catholic and Lutheran bishops read the five imperatives as children and youth from both communions walked from font to chancel to light five large symbolic candles. With all five candles burning brightly, Bishop Helga Haugland Byfulgien, Vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation, read the text of a Joint Statement which was then signed by Pope Francis and Bishop Younan.

The Five Imperatives

  • 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.
  • Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  • 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.
  • Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  • Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

The Joint Statement

“With this joint statement, we express joyful gratitude and thanks to God for this moment of common prayer in the Cathedral of Lund as we begin this year of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Fifty years of sustained and fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans have helped us to overcome many differences and have deepened our mutual understanding and trust. At the same time, we have drawn closer to one another through joint service to our neighbours, often in circumstances of suffering and persecution. Through dialogue and shared witness, we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is much greater than what divides us. In response to the Five Imperatives, we pledge to witness together to God’s merciful grace, made visible in the crucified and risen Christ. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ. Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one Table as the concrete expression of full unity. We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours. Now we call upon all Catholic and Lutheran parishes and communities to be bold and creative, to be joyful and hopeful in their commitment to continue the great journey ahead of us.”

At the Together in Hope event at the Malmö Arena, a Declaration of Intent was signed between Caritas Internationalis, the international aid organization of the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran World Federation World Service. Caritas Secretary General Michel Roy and LWFWS Director Maria Immonen acknowledged much of the cooperative work the two organizations already share in the field. The Declaration of Intent signalled their intent to cooperate to a greater extent and to be more systematic in their efforts. Through Pope Francis and Bishop Younan, the two churches also pledged their united support for climate justice, economic and social justice, justice for children, and justice for refugees.

On Reformation Sunday 2016, I had the privilege of preaching on the significance of the commemoration taking place in Sweden the following day. As had so many in that congregation, I have experienced first-hand the negative effects of the separation of Protestants and Catholics. With them, I could marvel at and rejoice in the progress celebrated in the Lund and Malmö liturgies. The readings for Reformation (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:31-36) spoke of the grace of God as it had been known among the ancient Hebrew people, as Jesus proclaimed it to an unwilling audience of religious people who were convinced that they were right and he was wrong, and as it was discovered by St. Paul looking deeply into the meaning of Jesus Christ, his birth, life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection. To this Lutheran congregation I said, “Surely this grace is ours too, and we can claim it, even in the few signs of hope we have glimpsed through the last 50 years of ecumenical dialogue – a church that is reforming and being reformed by the proclamation of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.“

My prayer is that we may all find inspiration in the spirit of ecumenism that has resurfaced during this quincentenary year; that we may strive to become the unity that Christ prayed for; and that this present landmark in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue may be a foretaste of abundant blessings for the whole Christian community.


James Frederick Brown is a pastor of the Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, a member of the Liturgy Canada executive, and the Lutheran cross-appointment for the Liturgy Task Force of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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