Five hundred years after German theologian Martin Luther published a diatribe against some of the practices of the Catholic Church, Catholics and Lutherans marked the historic anniversary with a strong display of unity.
Pope Francis’ Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, a global network of Lutheran churches, issued a joint statement on Oct. 31, expressing thanks for the “spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation.”
“Likewise, we begged forgiveness for our failures and for the ways in which Christians have wounded the Body of the Lord and offended each other during the five hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation until today,” the statement read.
The global Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation, and other Protestant denominations have been preparing for the Reformation anniversary over the past year, beginning with a common prayer service in Sweden on Oct. 31, 2016 attended by Pope Francis and the LWF’s then-President, Bishop Munib A. Younan.
In the statement, both groups reiterated a desire to achieve greater unity ― including the ability to celebrate the Eucharist together, despite theological differences about the nature of this sacred Christian ritual.
“We recognize that while the past cannot be changed, its influence upon us today can be transformed to become a stimulus for growing communion, and a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation,” the statement read. “Again, it has become clear that what we have in common is far more than that which still divides us.
The Protestant Reformation is traditionally believed to have begun in 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church ― although some historians have disputed the historical accuracy of that story.
Nevertheless, Luther’s provocative theological musings ― particularly his critique of indulgences and his insistence that salvation was granted by faith and grace alone ― would have lasting effects on Christianity and on Europe.
Copies of the 95 Theses were distributed throughout Germany. Luther was later excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the movement he helped spark soon resulted in the splintering of the church, and the birth of Protestantism.
Luther’s life story is marred by the virulently anti-Semitic writings he completed near the end of his life ― views that were later used by the Nazis to justify their persecution of Jewish people.
On Tuesday, German politicians and leaders gathered in Wittenberg to attend church services and a ceremony at city hall. Wittenberg’s city center has been transformed into a medieval-era town, complete with performers and visitors dressed in period attire.