By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 27, 2017
ROSWELL—Catholics and Lutherans prayed side by side in a series of recent gatherings five centuries after a German monk sparked the Protestant Reformation.
On Wednesday, Oct. 25, at St. Andrew Church, Roswell, close to 150 members of the parish and members of Cross of Life Lutheran Church, Roswell, came together for prayer and song.
Those gathered recognized the events that led to the split, with fervent hopes expressed for tighter bonds between the Christian churches.
The two communities view the Reformation through different lenses. The Lutheran Church marks the moment as the birth of the denomination. The Catholic Church commemorates the growing dialogue and mutual respect between the churches.
At the St. Andrew service, the focus was a jointly written prayer, “From Conflict to Communion,” in which Lutherans and Catholics tell together the history of the Reformation. In it the two faith traditions express regret over the pain of the division, but also give thanks for the theological insights shared.
The prayer service grew out a desire to show unity as the two churches commemorated the historical significance of the Reformation. At the start of the anniversary year, Pope Francis prayed at the Lutheran Lund cathedral. He joined the service with Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation.
“The reality is we have much more in common than we have differences,” said Father Dan Fleming, pastor of St. Andrew Church. “The good news is in the last 50 years the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, as well as other denominations, have come a long way in mutual dialogue. That is worth celebrating.”
Cross of Life Church’s Pastor Terri Stagner-Collier said the goal is to witness the Christian faith together. Divisions weaken the faith in the eyes of many.
“There is a strong emphasis to seek greater visible unity. We already have invisible unity, as the body of Christ,” she said.
Of course, the past includes “painful divisions” but the future leans toward greater unity, said Stagner-Collier. “The former dividing walls have come down. We’re closer now then we have ever been in history.”
The two churches are less than five miles apart. During the 2017 commemoration, the church leaders committed to pray together. The first joint event for the faith communities was in the spring for a meal and prayer at the Lutheran church.
At the October service at St. Andrew Church, the two ministers, in matching white robes and red stoles, walked side by side, led by a cross-carrying altar server.
The readings from the “From Conflict to Communion” reflected on thanksgiving and repentance, from common witness to commitment. A combined choir from the churches led the congregation in song. The Gospel reading at the service, from John 15, was about Jesus being the vine and his disciples being the branches.
The congregation made commitments to “five imperatives,” as five young people lit candles. The first commitment was “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity.”
The other imperative areas drawing believers of the faith traditions together are: witnessing the mercy of God in the world; rediscovering the power of the Gospel in our time; committing to seek visible unity; being transformed by the “encounter of the other.”
Commemoration opens possibilities
A number of married couples are religiously mixed. A 2015 survey found some 40 percent of marriages include spouses with different faith traditions, compared to 19 percent of marriages before 1960.
Hugh and Susan Hofer have navigated the division between Protestant and Catholic churches in their 42 years of marriage.
“It came up right away, when we got engaged,” said Hugh Hofer, 69, who is retired from a career in sales. He’s the Catholic spouse.
The compromises started when they had a wedding prayer service instead of a Mass because their guests would have been unable to share communion. A priest and a Presbyterian minister officiated the wedding at St. Jude Church, Sandy Springs.
Religious differences have not gone away.
“We support each other. There have been arguments, disagreements,” said Susan, who attends the Lutheran church and is active in a Bible study.
As promised at their wedding, the Hofers’ two children were raised Catholic.
“I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. We coexist,” he said
For the Hofers, being unable to share together in communion, despite being faithful Christian believers, has been a sore wound.
But the commemoration “opens up a lot of possibility,” Susan said. She said that division of Christians into denominations is a “tool of the devil” to weaken the church.
“What is important is our faith in Jesus Christ. I’d love to see a continuing dialogue,” she said.
Mark and Janie Langheim worship at St. Monica Church, Duluth. They wanted to attend because Janie grew up a Lutheran and then joined the Catholic Church.
She said the night was inspiring, especially seeing and hearing how conversations between the Catholic and Protestant churches have been ongoing for 50 years. She said despite facing what many see as insurmountable issues, theologians and church leaders continue to talk.
For Herman Rao, the night reinforced an image of the church that his Lutheran minister father taught him during his upbringing in India.
“I had never thought Catholics to be different from Lutherans,” he said.
The differences seem to him to be more of a question about hierarchy and administrative issues, not questions of faith, he said.
“When we are together, it is to share our faith and worship God. There is nothing else,” said Rao.
Events reflect a shared belief in Christ
The parish event was one of several held in the Catholic community in Atlanta this fall. On Thursday, Oct. 26, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory sat on a panel at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, which is affiliated with the Methodist Church, along with bishops from Protestant congregations. He also hosted a service Oct. 31 at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta with Lutheran Bishop H. Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be engaged in the ecumenical dialogue on many different levels,” said Archbishop Gregory at the Cathedral service. “Last year when Pope Francis met with the Lutherans in Sweden, he really sparked the interest to have a commemorative service this year.”
The Reformation traces its origin to Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The then Catholic priest and Augustinian monk protested the sale of indulgences, which individuals could use to get themselves or others out of purgatory after death, among other issues.
Religion scholars don’t believe Luther intended to split the church, but he was excommunicated in 1521. The rupture fostered bloody wars across Europe as more Protestant reformers broke from the church. And that is where the broken relationship between Christians stood for centuries.
A turning point between the Catholic Church and Protestants occurred at the Second Vatican Council. Among the 16 documents of the council was a decree released in 1964 on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council,” the document began.
Dialogue between the different traditions continued from that point. In 1999, Lutherans and Catholics came to an agreement on salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ, a key disagreement in the 500-year schism. In 2016, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden to hold a joint prayer service with the global Lutheran leader. The two pledged to work for a shared Eucharist.
Said Stagner-Collier, “The Christian witness for being united … is a powerful one. What is essential—belief in the trinity and salvation through Jesus Christ—we are in complete and total agreement about that. Our public witness is stronger when we focus on what brings us together, which is Christ.”