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Christianity: Reformation Day Looks Ahead

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On Oct. 29, Reformation Sunday, members of ten Protestant churches in Albert Lea, Minn., will proceed in a motorcade to the Roman Catholic Benedictine Abbey of St. John’s at Collegeville. There, leaders of the churches will hand over the proceeds of a special collection as a contribution toward completing a new Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s. The Protestant donors and Catholics will then celebrate a joint worship service in the abbey church.

Once an occasion for Protestants to recall the glories of their heritage and the un-Christian follies of Romanism, Reformation Sunday is becoming an ecumenical event that looks to the future rather than the past. Across the world, this year’s celebration—marking the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses at Wittenberg—is being shared in by Catholics as well as Protestants. For both branches of Western Christianity, the great Reformer is increasingly seen not as a symbol of past schism but as a potential focus for unity to come. “Rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant churches can come,” says Lutheran Theologian Jürgen Winterhager of Berlin, “not despite but through the Reformation.”

Profound Thinker. In the U.S., almost every major Protestant commemoration of the Reformation will have Catholic observers on hand. In some cases, Catholics are organizing ceremonies of their own. Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Madison, Wis., for example, will have an afternoon service commemorating the birth of Protestantism at which the guest speaker will be Lutheran Theologian Bruce Wrightsman. Last week’s issue of the Jesuit weekly America had a portrait of Luther on its cover; inside, an article notes that it is now the consensus of Catholic theologians that “Luther was a profoundly spiritual thinker who was driven to revolt by worldly and incompetent Popes.” In Europe, Catholic theologians will be among the handful of observers allowed by the East German government to attend Reformation Week ceremonies at Wittenberg.

Nowhere is ecumenical enthusiasm for Reformation Day greater than in The Netherlands. There, Catholic, Protestant and even Jewish scholars have participated in preparing a televised series of documentaries on Luther and his ideas, and this week there will be a major interfaith symposium at the Lutheran church attached to Amsterdam’s Municipal University. Also in Amsterdam, Jesuit Theologian Pieter van Kilsdonk will celebrate the anniversary by presiding over a combined prayer service for Protestants and Catholics in a college chapel dedicated to St. Ignatius Loyola—a patron saint of the Counter-Reformation.

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