In America, most of us have friendly relations with other Christians. We work on community projects and services together or have interfaith ministerial associations. We are grateful for how much we share in the Scriptures, beliefs, and values. But Christ wants more. He asks “that all may be one.” The work being done to achieve unity gives me hope.
Some months ago, a friend told me that her Lutheran parish had a study group preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 1517. I had to admit: the anniversary had not even occurred to me. Praying for unity was on my calendar. From January 18 to 25, we observe the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In 1908, Father Paul Wattson, an Episcopal priest, initiated what was then called the Church Unity Octave—eight days of prayer ending on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
A few years later, Father Wattson entered the Catholic Church and was ordained a priest. The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of ecumenism among Christians and also issued a “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (“Nostra Aetate”).
Although I had not been thinking about the anniversary of the Reformation, Catholic and Lutheran theologians had been busy. They’ve had formal dialogues since the Second Vatican Council. The major breakthrough came in 1999 with the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Lutherans and Catholics reached agreement on the doctrine that led to the Reformation.
Closer to Christ
Last October, in preparation for the 500th anniversary, a Lutheran and Catholic task force issued the “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.” In 2011, Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, suggested an update based on the dialogues and the ecumenical leadership of Pope Francis and General Secretary Martin Junge of the Lutheran World Federation. “Declaration on the Way” presents 32 statements of agreement drawn from the international and regional dialogues of the last 50 years.
This is a very encouraging development. According to Dr. Susan K. Wood, theology professor at Marquette University and dialogue member, the new document “does not claim the resolution of all the differences between the two Churches,” but the 32 statements of agreement do signal “that Catholics and Lutherans are indeed ‘on the way’ to full, visible unity.”
The consensus statements are substantial and precisely worded. For example: “Catholics and Lutherans agree that Eucharistic Communion, as sacramental participation in the glorified body and blood of Christ, is a pledge that our life in Christ will be eternal, our bodies will rise, and the present world is destined for transformation, in the hope of uniting us in communion with the saints of all ages now with Christ in heaven.”
What scholars have done and are doing is vital, but so are our individual efforts. Individually, we can become closer to Christ and grow in our knowledge and understanding of our faith. Together we can be Christ in action by working for justice and peace in our own communities and world. Prayer for unity is essential. We won’t achieve it by ourselves, but by praying and being open to Christ’s empowering grace. To be “on the way” is his blessing and gives us hope.