GREEN BAY — As Lutherans and Roman Catholics observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the two church communities continue progress in dialogue that may one day lead to Christian unity.
One important step in this process took place locally, during the East Central Synod of Wisconsin’s annual assembly, held May 19 and 20 at the KI Convention Center. The ECSW, similar to a diocese, is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Bishop Gerald Mansholt, who oversees the ministry of the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, invited Bishop David Ricken to participate in the assembly’s opening prayer service. Following a blessing of the assembly by both bishops, Bishop Ricken read from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, “The Vine and the Branches.” He was then introduced to the assembly by Bishop Mansholt.
“Bishop Ricken, we welcome you and we are so pleased that you are able to be with us today,” said Bishop Mansholt. “I am so grateful, that after more than 50 years of dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, we live in a day when we can enjoy some of the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit, who continues to bring us closer into the reality of the gift of unity that God gives us in the body of Christ.”
Bishop Mansholt explained that, in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, “this is the first time that Lutherans and Roman Catholics together are observing the Reformation anniversary. For that reason, we are so delighted, Bishop Ricken, that you are with us today.”
The significance of the day was not lost on Bishop Ricken. “I almost feel like I’m in a dream somehow,” he told the assembly. “Someday, I’ll wake up and — what a wonderful dream — and hopefully (this is) a vision for the future. Who knows what the Holy Spirit’s going to do among us.”
Bishop Ricken, who met Bishop Mansholt at his 2014 installation, said the two religious leaders are becoming good friends. “What a gift that is,” he said. “It’s beautiful that we’ve been able to take this journey of the 500th commemoration and turn it into something really beautiful and positive, because of the journey our church is on together.”
The Gospel reading, in which Jesus states that he is the vine and his father is the vine grower who “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,” offers a powerful testament to the work of Christian unity, said Bishop Ricken.
“Certainly, we have distinctions and differences, but we shouldn’t allow those to dictate and help us to break (the) true love and respect we have in one another,” he said.
“In fact, we are the branches that have to be snipped off of the vine (if) we are not producing fruit, if we are not producing and giving love to all of those around us,” he said.
“I think, in this time of commemoration, we can recognize all of the common things we do and believe that are almost exactly the same, if not exactly the same,” he said. “We have far more to rejoice in, far more elements of unity and signs of unity than we do of separation … and it only took us 500 years to get here.”
Bishop Ricken acknowledged that a rift does exist between the two churches.
“It’s a rift that does need healing,” he said. “But we won’t solve it on our own power. We have to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, on his cross, and all that he suffers for, even today, through the paschal mystery. Think of the terrible pain that our separation and all of the separations in Christianity cause to the heart of Jesus.”
Bishop Ricken announced that a common celebration between the two churches will take place at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Green Bay in October.
“I’m hoping that we can feature all of those people who are in mixed marriages — one Catholic partner, one Lutheran partner,” he said. “I think people who are in this situation can teach us, as churches, what it means to live together, to keep things the main thing, to continue to love one another despite our differences of faith or the way we practice following the Gospel.
“I’m hoping that can be a source of healing for our marriages and families,” he added. “In a way that will be a model, perhaps, for how we can grow into greater relationships of healing and truly be one body in Christ — all branches connected to the vine, in service and beauty and joy and truth, committed to the love of the Father.”
Bishop Ricken’s address at the ECSW assembly, is posted on the above YouTube page. His address begins about minute 53.