Report on the Lutheran-Catholic Relations - 2004

Author: Fr Matthias Turk

Report on the Lutheran-Catholic Relations - 2004

Fr Matthias Türk
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Saints Serve as Models of Ecumenical Unity


Ecumenism is currently living in a situation of intense, but not yet full, unity. To the ecumenism of love and truth, which naturally holds its central importance, must be added the ecumenism of life.

This means that the communion to which we have arrived up to this moment by means of dialogue and mutual relationship must be translated into the real lives of each and every single person. It is about coming to a renewed ecumenical spirituality that is in a position to spiritually deepen mutual understanding.

This ecumenism of life already exists, not only in many religious communities and ecumenical groups, but also at the diocesan and parochial levels. Catholics and Lutherans have learned how important it is to enrich one another through prayer and the sharing of experiences. Only by basing ourselves upon a similar spiritual communion can we successfully face questions at the ecumenical level, such as the concept of Church, ecclesial ministry and sacramental life.

The theme that emphasizes the great differences between the various traditions, forms of Christian life and theological discussion and which is heavily filled with consequences for the members of the two communities, is actually pertinent to the "Nature and Responsibility of the Church", with special reference to the ecclesial ministry. In this situation, it is very important to remember the original impetus of the ecumenical movement and to draw from it a new spirit, of openness and willingness to true dialogue.

From the beginning, the ecumenical movement was inspired and nourished by spiritual ecumenism, which for many decades has been expressed in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This ecumenism of life — spiritual ecumenism — must absolutely permeate all levels from theology to pastoral ministry.

If ecumenical contacts could create more and wider "spaces for the meeting of unity in diversity", then it would open up a more vivid possibility of understanding and mutual exchange for all Christians. This is the experience of unity reconciled, a unity that enriches and allows Christians to anchor themselves firmly to the heart or foundation of their common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

After the official signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that took place at Augsburg in 1999 and following the great celebrations and ecumenical encounters that occurred during Jubilee Year 2000, relationships between Catholics and Lutherans have continued to develop. Even if it is not possible to annually place such great milestones on the road to full and visible unity, the anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration celebrated this year has thankfully allowed us to remember worldwide the consensus that was reached five years ago.

The following panorama of the more significant conferences and meetings that have taken place between Lutherans and Catholics demonstrates how important it is that the faithful gather together in prayer and liturgical celebration, in personal meetings and theological conferences, while always keeping in mind the common goal of the full and visible unity of the Church.

An examination of international Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue

The principal themes studied by the International Lutheran-Catholic Commission for Unity are those of apostolicity and the ordained ministry of the Church. Last year, the Commission continued the study of Biblical, historical, and theological contributions in order to deepen such questions.

The plenary assembly of the Lutheran World Federation of 2003 held at Winnipeg (a meeting at which even Cardinal Kasper took part as the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) was focused on the theme: "For the Healing of the World". In the ecumenical conferences great attention was given to the "Follow-up Program" of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Leaders of the World Lutheran Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity meet at least twice a year in conferences that alternately take place in Geneva and Rome. Discussions deal with present-day issues, the planning of the International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and ecumenical relations in general.

An expression of the good international relations between Lutherans and Catholics is, as always, the exchange of visits between the two Churches' high-levelled representatives.

The significance of the Regional Dialogues

In 2002 a Lutheran-Catholic Nordic Dialogue took place for the first time between Sweden and Finland. A commission of experts that on the Catholic side was led by Stockholm's Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney, and on the Lutheran side by Bishop Eero Huovinen of Helsinki, examined the following themes: justification in the life of the Church in the historical, pastoral and hermeneutic perspective; contacts between Lutherans and Catholics in Switzerland and in International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue; the role of the Church in the justification of men and women by God; continuity in the liturgy, spirituality, the sacramental life, ecclesiastical doctrine, the Magisterium, the communion of saints, religious communities, the diaconate and ecumenical relations. In the future, the new dialogue will take place twice a year.

Other regional dialogues, such as the one in the United States (on the theme of the Church as a salvific community: her structure and ministers) and the one in Germany (on the themes: ecclesial community from a Protestant and Catholic perspective; ecumenical efforts to arrive at a common understanding of apostolic succession; episkope in the service of the Church's apostolicity; exegetical investigation on the apostolate and apostolicity) also contribute to advancing dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics.

One of the documents published in 2000 by the bilateral working group of the Bishops' Conference of Germany and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany, entitled "Communio Sanctorum", was recognized by the Catholic side as a fundamental contribution to the promotion of ecumenism in regard to the following questions: "The Doctrine of Sacred Scripture", "Concept and Number of the Sacraments", "Relationship between the Priesthood of All Believers and the Ecclesial Ministry", "The Petrine Ministry", "Mariology", and other ecclesial themes such as "the joint action of the various 'moments of witness' (Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium and Sensus Fidelium) in the investigation and proclamation of the Gospel" and "the community of saints after death".

The document also has great importance outside Germany (it was translated into Italian and English), because for the first time from an ecumenical viewpoint it successfully deals with fundamental questions pertaining to the concepts of Church and faith.

It has always seemed clear that the central theme in almost all contemporary dialogues, after a distinct consensus was reached on the question of justification, turns on the concept of Church and ecclesial ministry.

Important examples of ecumenical spirituality

For the Lutheran Christians of Scandinavia, the commemorations of saints like Bridget (Sweden), Henrik (Finland) and Olav (Norway) hold great importance; they are precious opportunities for an ecumenical encounter because they recall the common example of witnesses to the faith. The saints can be a model of unity for Lutherans and Catholics and a great example of healthy ecumenism, as demonstrated by the numerous celebrations and ecumenical meetings with the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches that took place last year.

Among the more significant events was the touching ecumenical celebration organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio on 1 February 2003 in Rome's Basilica of St Bartholomew in order commemorate the Lutheran Pastor Paul Schneider, who was killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Those attending on this occasion included Cardinal Walter Kasper, Dr Ismael Noko, Secretary General of the Lutheran World ; Federation; Nikolaus Schneider, head at the time of the Church of Rhineland, and other ecumenical representatives of Roman parishes.

This testimony, as the Holy Father has said, "speaks louder than the things which divide us" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n. 37).

In the Encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II speaks of a community united in the witness to faith, a community that goes beyond the institutional boundaries of the various churches and emphasizes that the saints are our common patrimony (cf. n. 84). They make the Church believable, convincing and attractive.

If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians (Tertullian), then we can be sure that the blood shed by many witnesses of the divided Church will become the seed of unity for these churches.


From the theological point of view, the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans has known significant developments, having realized a first fundamental advance, then a normalization of relations and, in more recent times, an important consensus on fundamental issues concerning the doctrine of justification with regards to relative themes for the understanding of the concept of Church and ecclesial ministry.

On the one hand, Lutherans continue to request "Eucharistic hospitality" of the Catholic Church. On the other, there is the necessity to further clarify the question of ecclesial ministry. Within the Lutheran World Federation there are diverging positions that are expressed, for example, at the levels of ecclesiology and ministerial theology, in ecumenical agreements such as those of Leuenberg and Porvoo.

Ecumenism continues to develop on the spiritual level, a dimension that will need to be profoundly deepened. To do this, it is necessary to let go of many still-existing prejudices.

In spiritual ecumenism, every community attempts above all to understand the language and ecclesial life of the other and to share the richness of their own tradition with the other. Such an ecumenism of life must play its role to thus bring it about so that there are no "uncontrolled ecumenical developments"; that is, haphazard pastoral and theological actions and developments not adhering to reality. At the same time it must respond to false interpretations and indifference towards ecumenism.

This finds its true and profound reason for existence in the effort to live in a growing unity of common faith in Christ our Lord, together with our ecumenical partners.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 March 2004, page 11

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