SASKATOON — The commemoration of 500 years of the Reformation poses a spiritual and theological challenge to Christians, said Rev. Dirk G. Lange in a public lecture presented Jan. 26, part of the De Margerie Series on Christian Reconciliation and Unity in Saskatoon.
Originally from Winnipeg, Lange is an associate dean and professor of worship at Luther College in St. Paul, Minn. He is also project officer for the global Joint Commemoration of the Reformation being prepared by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and a Lutheran member of the International Joint Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Commission.
The Reformation was an event that affected the life of the church and the faith of millions, said Lange, tackling the question of how the past 500 years might be celebrated in 2017. “Can Catholics and Lutherans say and do anything together on this significant anniversary, and if so, what would it be?”
He reflected on the unique document from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, entitled From Conflict to Communion, which was prepared to mark the common commemoration of the Reformation anniversary in 2017.
The document includes sections on commemorating this anniversary in an ecumenical and global age, as well as on considering new perspectives related to Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Catholic response, and examining themes of Martin Luther’s theology in light of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues.
The document and the anniversary invite all the faithful on a spiritual and a theological journey, he said.
“It is meant to be read and studied by anyone in our parishes interested in understanding what Catholics and Lutherans can say to one another today, based on our history,” Lange said. “How do we understand what happened, from a perspective of unity?”
Lange pointed to five ecumenical imperatives that conclude “From Conflict to Communion,” citing the first all-encompassing imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity, and all that is held in common, rather than from a point of view of division, and that Catholics and Lutherans should “witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.”
The document concludes by affirming, “The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into community with the Lord.”
Lange also offered reflections on the events of the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation held Oct. 31, 2016, in Sweden to open a “year-long vigil” leading up to the 500th anniversary in October 2017.”
As one of the co-ordinators of that event, Lange expressed the hope that it might serve as a “symbol of what we wish to do together and how we wish to commemorate together,” while offering a model for other groups seeking to mark the anniversary.
Rather than a conference or a symposium, the event featured common prayer, Lange noted. “A liturgy launched this commemoration of the 500 years.”
Worship was jointly led by Pope Francis and the president of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib A. Younan, Lutheran bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land. The liturgy was held at the Lund Cathedral: built as a Catholic cathedral in the 12th century, it became a Lutheran cathedral after the Reformation in the 16th century.
“In this liturgy, both Lutherans and Catholics gave thanks for the gifts that the Reformation brought to the church, they lamented and repented of the division and the violence that ensued, and they committed themselves to a common witness and service.”
A larger public event at the Malmö Arena focusing on the commitment to common witness and service of Catholics and Lutherans in a world, wounded and broken by conflict.
“The origins of this joint commemoration lie in 50 years of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans,” Lange said. The celebration’s origins can also be traced back to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the World Lutheran Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999.
The Lutheran-Catholic dialogue continues to work on questions that remain to be answered, especially on questions of church, ministry, and eucharist, he said. “The next round of the joint commission is addressing the question, if we are one in baptism, why aren’t we one at the table?”
Lange also pointed to the ever-relevant question, “As people of faith, how does our witness today continually point to the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus?”
For instance, he pointed to “a deep, unnamed anxiety or anguish today, similar to the 16th century fear of punishment — the anguish of separation or isolation . . . a deep yearning for communion.”
Lange cited the emotional moment when a delegation from a small Catholic parish in the Swedish community processed into the cathedral as part of a liturgy the night before Pope Francis arrived at the joint commemoration event at Lund Cathedral in 2016. “Tears and emotion in the cathedral expressed this deep longing for reconciliation. In that moment, in that procession, we all glimpsed, felt, touched unity,” he said. “It was at that moment that I realized the wounds of separation are deep-seated in the hearts of people.”
This is true for the entire human family, he said, pointing to the Canadian documentary film Reserve 107, which highlights the same longing for reconciliation in a different context — among the Young Chippewayan First Nation, Lutherans and Mennonite communities just north of Saskatoon.
“Here we see in our own back yard, on Treaty 6 land, a journey that renders reconciliation real from the head to the heart, from paper to actual lives, from an idea into a communion. In that movement, something of the foundation, the root, the ground of our humanity, our inter-connectedness and the goodness of humanity is revealed. And when that goodness is revealed, something of God’s immeasurable goodness is also revealed to the world,” Lange said.
For 50 years, Catholics and Lutherans have been part of an intense dialogue, but with the commemoration of 500 years of the Reformation, dialogue gives way to liturgy, to prayer, to common witness and service, Lange said.
“The very fact that the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church are together commemorating, giving thanks, lamenting, and committing to joint witness and service is a huge symbolic gesture in itself,” he said.
“Reconciliation is a work that is never completed, it is not just a Catholic-Lutheran issue, it is one for all the faithful,” he said. “The common prayer becomes a call to us, a commitment. We enter the next 500 years in dialogue, yes, but in prayer and action together. We will struggle, we will fuss, we will admonish and console each other as we attempt to engage that ongoing reformation of the church, of our lives and our society.”
Held annually during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the De Margerie series is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, the Dubé Chair in Catholic Studies at St. Thomas More College, and the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.
Lange was also the guest preacher at the Jan. 29 closing celebration for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Saskatoon.