In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity on the night before he died. In particular, he prayed, “so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17: 21).
I am reminded of this passage as we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s work, which highlighted abuses he saw in the church of his time, helped launch the Reformation and led to a split between Catholics and Lutherans that remains to this day. Sadly, too often in the time since then, both sides have wasted much energy focusing on our differences, rather than emphasizing what we share in common. These mutual condemnations have not served us well and have only caused further division in the Body of Christ.
Thankfully, the past 50 years have represented a shift in the attitudes of Catholics and Lutherans towards each other. Perhaps the best evidence of this progress is the groundbreaking Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed in 1999.
In this document, church leaders on both sides agreed on the basic principles of how God saves humans, an issue that up to that point had been a cause for division since the time of the Reformation. This achievement and others of its kind provide a hopeful witness of what God can accomplish when we are led by the Holy Spirit to seek areas of unity.
While great progress has been made in this time, both sides recognize further work that needs to be done. We must acknowledge that there are differences that keep Catholics and Lutherans from full communion.
Yet, as we approach this anniversary, I believe we have an opportunity to listen to how the Holy Spirit is drawing us together. In particular, I believe that now is a time to focus less on the differences and more on what we share in common. Let us use this anniversary as an opportunity to repent of past sins and seek opportunities to restore unity among all Christians.
To that end, I want to highlight a couple upcoming events. On Sunday, Oct. 29, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay will host a joint event of the Diocese of Green Bay and the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, which is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This event will include a prayer service, as well as a workshop for ecumenical marriages between Catholics and Lutherans. What better way to learn the importance of dialogue and mutual respect than to listen to the experiences of these couples!
A second event will take place in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Oct. 31, when I will join the Catholic bishops of Wisconsin in a joint prayer service with the Lutheran Bishops of Wisconsin.
These events give me great hope as they highlight the wonderful progress being made to promote unity in the church. They also serve as a beautiful model for Christians and non-Christians about the importance of remembering what we share in common instead of only pointing to what divides us.
I encourage all Catholics to use this opportunity to reach out and get to know your Lutheran neighbors, find ways to recognize what we share in common, and grow closer to Christ. Above all, I ask that you join me in the prayer of Our Lord Jesus, “that we all may be one.”