Following Pope Francis, Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. mark the Reformation

The Rev. Kazimierz Bem greets worshippers leaving First Church in Marlborough, Mass., following an ecumenical prayer service on June 3 (Photo: First Church/Barbara Parente). The Rev. Kazimierz Bem greets worshippers leaving First Church in Marlborough, Mass., following an ecumenical prayer service on June 3 (Photo: First Church/Barbara Parente).

For three Christian communities in Marlborough, Mass., a day of ecumenical worship and community service has been 500 years in the making.

Last week, the congregations of three churches—two Protestant and one Catholic—marked the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, which is traced back to when Martin Luther published a list of 95 grievances against the Catholic Church.

Following Luther’s declaration, centuries of war ensued between Catholics and Protestants, but representatives from various Christian traditions are using the anniversary to focus on commonalities rather than division. Events have already taken place at the highest levels of Christendom, such as when Pope Francistraveled to Sweden last year to participate in a prayer service commemorating the start of the year-long anniversary, as well as in less visible locales, including the commemoration in Massachusetts.

The Rev. Kazimierz Bem, pastor of the Congregationalist First Church in Marlborough, a city of 40,000 about an hour west of Boston, told America that the event focused on what unites the three denominations. A shared Communion service was not possible, he explained, as Catholic guidelines restrict the participation of non-Catholics in the Eucharist. In a way, he said, this obstacle allowed the organizers to get at the heart of what unites Christians: baptism.

“We know what our traditions, we know what our differences are, but we also know what unites us.”

“We know what our traditions, we know what our differences are, but we also know what unites us,” Mr. Bem said. “We weren’t making any weird compromises about our faiths, which sometimes happens in bad ecumenism. While differences are substantial in certain places, we’re united in one baptism.”

The day began with about 60 members from each of the three churches gathering inside First Church for a renewal of their baptismal vows.

During the service, the Rev. Marc Bishop, a Catholic priest and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish, preached a message of unity.

“I tried to preach on the commonality of baptism, the understanding that we’re all called to pray for each other, we are called to share the message of Christ as prophets and use our gift and talents in service to one another,” Father Bishop told America.

This was the first time Father Bishop preached in a Protestant church and Mr. Bem noted it was just the second time a Catholic priest preached at First Marlborough since its founding in 1666. The first time was in the 1970s. “I guess that one time wore out any ecumenical fervor that existed,” he joked.

From left: the Rev. Kazmierz Bem, the Rev. Marc Bishop, and the Rev. Joseph Graumann (photo: First Church/Barbara Parente).
From left: the Rev. Kazmierz Bem, the Rev. Marc Bishop, and the Rev. Joseph Graumann (photo: First Church/Barbara Parente).

Father Bishop said Catholics and Protestants in the community already work together on various civic projects, whether in schools or shelters, but said their motivation for being involved, their faith, often goes unnoticed.

“A lot of [that volunteering] flows from their baptism,” he said. “This event let them look each other in the eye in a faith context and recognize each other.”

The event in Massachusetts was just one of many taking place throughout the United States. Similar prayer services were held earlier this year inWisconsin andNew Jersey, and more are scheduled to take place leading up to the date of the anniversary, Oct. 31. (The event in Marlborough was notable in that it included representatives from the Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as a Congregationalist, a situation that speaks to Mr. Bem’s focus on ecumenism.)

How Catholics and Protestants view these events marking the Reformation may differ slightly based on how they see the Reformation. The Protestant Mr. Bem, for example, said the day was a celebration, whereas Father Bishop, a Catholic, called it a commemoration.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church, said participating in the event was “a no brainer” and that he hoped it served as a “visible witness to the work we’ve done to help repair the brokenness of the church.”

As to whether the anniversary is a time to celebrate the birth of Protestantism or a time to mourn continued Christian division, Pastor Graumann suggested it could be both.

“Lutherans love paradox. We say that we’re both 100 percent saint and 100 percent sinner. In some ways this commemoration reflects that paradox,” he said. “We confess the brokenness in the church and we confess that the Reformation was certainly a time when our brokenness got the best of us. But we can then come together in hope, both forgiven in baptism and forgiven in Christ, to work together to witness to God’s love.”

Rob Campbell, an official with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is equipping local communities with resources to mark the anniversary. He said in addition to prayer and community service events, other initiatives marking the start of the Reformation are also in the works, including a Martin Luther-inspired hip-hop album and a piece of musical theater depicting the life of the reformer.

Just decades ago, Catholics and Protestants were all but forbidden from praying together and marriages between a Catholic and a Protestant were celebrated in secret.

Campbell said the ecumenical events show that Lutherans “want to have positive relationships, in this case, with Catholics in our communities.”

Just decades ago, Catholics and Protestants were all but forbidden from praying together and marriages between a Catholic and a Protestant were celebrated in secret.

Pope Francis embraces the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, during an ecumenical prayer service at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, Oct. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis embraces the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, during an ecumenical prayer service at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, Oct. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

But relations between Catholics and Lutherans have improved in recent decades, especially following declarations from the Second Vatican Council that prompted renewed interest in ecumenical dialogue. Last year, the E.L.C.A.ratified a document highlighting the many areas in which the two faiths agree. Elizabeth A. Eaton, who heads the E.L.C.A. body of bishops, said at the time, “Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity.”

During his visit to Sweden last year, Pope Francis said in a joint-statement with Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Lutheran World Federation, that the two churches would continue to work toward removing obstacles that prevent Catholics and Lutherans from sharing in the Eucharist.

Mr. Bem, who was born in Poland to a Catholic father and a non-religious mother, said that when he lived in Kuwait in the 1990s, he noticed that denominational differences among Christians were not as pronounced as they are in Europe and the United States.

“In certain contexts, while the differences aren’t unimportant, you’re viewed simply as Christians,” he said. “That was very interesting to me to observe that in some places Christians are lumped into one group, which means other people see similarities that we don’t.”

That insight prompted him to seek ways that Christians of varying stripes could work together on the local level in order to bring about “small, grassroots ecumenism.”

“There seems to have been an ecumenical winter and there was nothing happening on the local level,” Mr. Bem observed. “If the movement toward unity is going to go anywhere, it has to catch fire locally.”

The day continued with community service, as members of the three churches hosted a potluck lunch on the town green for the community, dubbed the “Feeding of the 500,” a play on Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the 500th anniversary. Afterwards, the leftover food was brought to local shelters. The event concluded with choirs from the three churches hosting a concert inside Immaculate Conception, which attracted about 150 people.

The three pastors said they have no immediate plans to work together on future events, but that they are open to the idea.

“At the very end,” Mr. Bem recalled, “I said to Father Marc, ‘We should do this more often than every 500 years.’”

Jack Springer
2 weeks 4 days ago

If Martin Luther were alive today he would not have participated. By participation you are saying that you agree with the doctrine of the other churches. Martin Luther was all about the Gospel. These acts of ecumenialism are just that ... acts. I would think RC's would be embarrassed to participate in a worship service where the other don't believe in the Real Presence in Holy Communion or the saving grace of Holy Baptism. Do RC's now believe in women priests? By participating you are saying you do -- that's why real confessional Lutherans do not participate. We believe the Bible.

Robert Lewis
2 weeks 4 days ago

Jack Springer, I agree with you because Biblical fundamentalism is traditionally a heresy of the Catholic and Apostolic Church--and so is "salvation by faith alone." These theological principles are what have led to the bad anthropology of the Enlightenment, as well as the amorality in modern economic theory and practice. Real Catholics should want nothing to do with these pernicious heresies, which have created "consumer capitalism" and brutally "individualist" styles of living, such as the divorce between body and soul in sexual morality. (And I say this as someone who supports Pope Francis's "liberalization" of the Catholic approach to marriage and outreach to the sexually "different, " but who also cannot tolerate Christian "conservative" ideology.)

Jack Springer
2 weeks 4 days ago

You probably aren't going to like this but Robert ... I'm not a RC, I'm a Lutheran, a confessional Lutheran who believes in the Real Presence in Holy Communion and the saving grace of Holy Baptism. American evangelicals or fundamentalists are usually not that at all -- they hold common beliefs against the Bible like millennialism, the rapture, and now increasingly 'wealth gospel'. Confessional Lutherans do not accept women as pastors or accept the homosexual lifestyle. Our basis is in the Bible and is outlined in the Lutheran Confessions.

Robert Lewis
2 weeks 3 days ago

Jack Springer, I DID recognise that you are a Lutheran; I "recognised" that you are a heretic who believes in "Salvation by Faith Alone," and believes that the Petrine Commission ("what you shall bind on earth, I will bind in heaven, and what you shall loose on earth I shall loose in heaven") does not mean what it plainly does. You also believe, along with your heresiarch, that divorce is permitted, because as Luther says (in his "Table Talk"), when "Christ gave us that injunction [against divorce, except for adultery, in the Gospel of Matthew], He had his tongue far in his cheek"--meaning, of course, that when the Savior gave us that prohibition He wished to give us an injunction that He knew we could not keep, on account of our "concupiscence," and would thereby be irrevocably convicted of our innate wickedness, and that we could be saved "by faith alone." And you are the people who gave us the serial monogamy of the divorce culture, but have the effrontery to rail against "gay marriage"--a phenomenon that is BASED on the Protestant concept of "companionate marriage," the notion of an eminently dissoluble marriage that is spelled out in the Protestant heretic John Milton's "Doctrine of Divorce." Like Milton, you folks are very selective in your Biblical fundamentalism.

Jack Springer
2 weeks 3 days ago

No reason to get nasty. RC's do not follow the Bible -- they include human reasoning (like American evangelicals), the Pope (who has placed himself on equal footing with God), they worship church recognized saints and pray to them ( nothing in the Bible about this either). Sorry Robert man is saved through faith in Jesus Christ -- nothing else -- good works don't save us. Do you have a website selling indulgences? It's not going to do anyone any good.

Patrick Murtha
1 week 2 days ago

Mr. Springer,

Let me briefly, if you please, clarify some things.

As a Roman Catholic, we hold that there are two sources of revelation: Sacred Scripture and Tradition. We read continuously in the Bible where the Christ Himself and His apostles consult Scripture to prove that Christ is God. "But continue thou in those things which thou has learned, and which have been committed to thee; and because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice that the many of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work." (2 Tim. 14-17). But Scripture alone does not contain all that Christ did or taught, as St. John writes, "But there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written." (John 21: 25). And Sacred Tradition contains the other part of revelation.

As for the pope, no Catholic believes, not even the pope himself, that he is not on equal footing with God. But he does have the authority that was granted to St. Peter, which is to "feed my sheep." (John 21: 17). This signifies that he has the authority to transmit and to guard the doctrine given by Christ. The primacy of Peter is also granted to Him when Christ names him "Peter," "and upon this rock I will build my Church." (Matt. 16:18) The pope cannot make up new doctrine. In fact, we read in Galatians, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be an anathema....For neither did I receive it of man, nor did I learn it; but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."

As for prayers to the saints, a distinction must be made between begging that intercession be made and worship. The Catholic does not worship the saints as one must worship God. He does beg the saints to pray to God for him. Note in the Catholic litany, the Catholic petitions to "Have mercy on us" (Miserere nobis!)--but only God can grant true mercy; to the saints the Catholic says, "Pray for us" (Ora pro nobis). And this coincides with Scripture, "And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints." (Rev. 5:8) Furthermore, we read in 1 Tim. 1-5, that St. Paul calls on the Christians to pray and intercede "for all men...for this good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus." If men should prayer for men, why should not the saints pray for men and why should not men beg the saints to pray for them? Does not Christ Himself accept the prayer of His mother on behalf of the wedding-host at Cana?

And finally, in the matter of good works, it should be explained that good works are the proof of love. For St. John writes, "My little children, let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth." (1 John 3:18). Does not St. James write, "What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And if a brother or sister be naked or want daily food: and one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith." (James 2: 14-18). When St. Paul calls for us to "cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light," does he not call us to leave off bad work and to take up good work in the good fight? And should we not imitate Christ, of whom St. Paul further says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works"? Again, I say, works are required for salvation because works prove faith and works prove love. Christ also calls on all men to good works when he says, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Matt. 16:24). And in the parable of the Good Samaritan, while the priest and the levite would claim to have the faith, is it not the Samaritan who is the better man because his faith is proved by his good works? And who is the neighbor? Christ Himself also says, "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 7:21)

Vince Killoran
2 weeks 2 days ago

It looks like Jack and Robert aren't getting together for a beer anytime soon.

As for ecumenicalism, "Bravo"! I like the local focus. "That they all may be one. . ."

Stuart Bintner
2 weeks 2 days ago

For a minute I was in a time warp. Echos from the sixteenth century reverberated loudly in my head. Johann Maier von Eck screamed in my ear. Then I woke up and realized that it was 2017 and that the Catholic Church has actually moved above and beyond that state of mind and approach.

Kathryn Johnson
1 week 6 days ago

This article well conveys the tone of these Reformation commemorations. The Common Prayer liturgy in Sweden on October 31, 2016, which inaugurated the anniversary year, expressed thanksgiving, repentance and commitment to common actions going forward. It was remarkable that Pope Francis was not only a "participant," or a guest, but actually the co-host for this day of common witness. The day would not have been possible without the 50 years of intense theological dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, which has articulated the significant theological agreement between them (on justification, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the significance of baptism, e.g.) and points to further work.

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