It was exciting to see Pope Francis participating in a joint Lutheran-Catholic observance in Lund, Sweden. Representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed documents committing their Churches to work toward full communion. How far along the road to full communion are we?
Frank answers: In recent years popes have visited Lutheran lands and Churches, but this is the first time that there was a joint celebration between global representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. It anticipated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 and also fifty years of official Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical dialogue. The event was held in Lund, Sweden because that’s where the Lutheran World Federation was founded in 1947 to coordinate the relief efforts of the Lutheran Churches after World War II.
The 500th jubilee celebration of the Reformation in 2017 has provided the impetus for rekindling the desire for reconciliation between the Roman and Reformation Churches. Different anniversaries have had their emphases. The 300th anniversary in 1817 marked a return to Lutheran confessionalism after the age of Rationalism. The 400thth anniversary was downplayed because of the First World War. This is the first jubilee observance of the Reformation that will occur in the ecumenical era that began after World War II and gained momentum after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Top Lutheran theologians participated as observers at the Second Vatican Council along with Anglican, other Protestant, and Orthodox observers. The international dialogue between the Vatican Secretariat for Ecumenism and the Lutheran World Federation started in 1967. After five sessions, they came out with the Malta Report in 1972 in which it was clear they decided to take on in the ensuing years a whole range of issues: Scripture and tradition; admission to the Eucharist; justification by faith; church law; ordination. The high point of this international dialogue was the signing of the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. There have also been significant national dialogues, such as the one in the U.S.A., often covering the same topics. They are noteworthy for their high theological level.
The question asks about the journey to full communion. Discussion on Eucharist and ministry led to a new document in 1978 on “The Lord’s Supper.” Catholics and Lutherans agreed: celebration of the Eucharist doesn’t “repeat” the sacrifice of the cross or add to its salvific value. In the document, giving Communion under both kinds and preaching at every Mass was asked of Catholics, while a weekly celebration was asked of Lutherans. You wouldn’t think that would not be difficult to accomplish since the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council promotes biblical preaching at every Mass and the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, Article 24, affirms the celebration of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and festival. Most importantly, there is extensive agreement on the real presence of the body and blood of Christ under the signs of bread and wine.
But this doesn’t mean that we’re ready for full communion between our Churches. Full communion with the Catholic Church requires being in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the pope). This would require a lot of bending toward each other on the part of Churches. Moreover, the Lutheran World Federation is not a Church; it is a Communion of Churches—Churches in full communion with one another. Full communion with the Roman See would require separate actions by each of the one hundred or more member Churches of LWF, unless LWF found a way to do it en bloc on behalf of all its member Churches. And remember, not every Lutheran Church in the world is a member of LWF. In the U.S.A. only the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an LWF member.
The way I see it, smaller steps need to be taken. One might be to work toward agreed occasions for Eucharistic hospitality between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, such communion of Lutheran/Catholic married couples, or at joint retreats, or in connection with other special events.
Another step might be inviting Lutheran observers to participate in Catholic synods of bishops (probably Lutheran bishops), such as the recent synod on families. In turn, Catholic observers should be invited to participate in world assemblies of LWF.
A big step in the direction of unity would be Roman Catholic recognition of the Augsburg Confession as a profession of faith and of Martin Luther as a teacher of the Church. Lifting the papal bull of excommunication against Luther is something Pope Francis could do. The Roman Catholic Church would have to indicate what appropriate reciprocal Lutheran gestures would be. Certainly we could add Saint Pope John Paul II to the Lutheran calendar of commemorations; Saint Pope John XXIII is already in it in some Lutheran calendars of commemorations.
Of great important would be rekindling local Lutheran-Roman Catholic covenants and arranging for significant opportunities for local dialogue, local liturgy through common prayer services, and—in the spirit of Pope Francis—local diaconal work for the poor, especially in terms of parochial and diocesan/synodical charitable work. We should use this anniversary of the Reformation to establish concrete opportunities to move together into unity by what we can do together. We are certainly well past the time of defining ourselves over against each other.
Pastor Frank Senn
Image above post: Pope Francis in Lund, Sweden October 31, 2017. To the pope’s right is Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, President of the Lutheran World Federation. To the pope’s left is the Rev. Dr. Martin Junge of Chile, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. In the background is the Most Rev. Antje Jackelén, Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of the Lutheran Church of Sweden.