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Should Catholics Go to Reformation Events?

Matt Nelson

Earlier this year I teamed up with Archbishop Donald Bolen, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to facilitate an “ecumenical apologetics” workshop for members of our archdiocese. Also in attendance was a Lutheran scholar from a nearby university who was invited to give a short reply to our presentations. His reply was both charitable and eloquent and came with its own apologetical flavor—including a challenge to explain the anti-pope scandals of the Middle Ages. Despite our disagreements, the day ended congenially, and it provided a great opportunity for those in attendance to see the charity—and robustness—possible in ecumenical dialogue.

Also included in the Lutheran representative’s speech was an invitation to attend a special event marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I immediately began to consider what a Catholic’s intentions should be at a celebration of the Protestant Reformation. Since then several people have asked me—some on the brink of scandal—if Catholics, and especially Catholic clergy, should attend such events. My reply has been yes, and here are a few reasons why.

To Show Our Desire for Christian Unity

Our baptism has conferred upon us a duty to strive for Christian unification. In fact, the mandate to maintain (or reattain) unity among believers comes right from the top: in Jesus’ high-priestly prayer to the Father on the night of his arrest “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me” (John 17:23). In the same spirit, St. Paul frequently exhorted early Church communities to make communion with one another a first priority. He writes to the church in Philippi:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27).

We can know with certainty, therefore, that the Catholic Church’s ecumenical effort is grounded in God’s will; and however ironic it may seem, the upcoming Reformation celebrations may indeed provide opportunities for that effort. These events will provide occasions for Catholics and non-Catholics to get together in solidarity, discuss their common values and beliefs, and reflect upon the many positive ecumenical developments since the sixteenth century. The Archdiocese of Saskatoon in Canada puts it beautifully on its website:

This anniversary offers the Christian family a special opportunity to look back and reflect on the last 500 years of history in thanksgiving and in confession—recognizing our errors, seeking mutual forgiveness, and rejoicing in those efforts we have made toward mutual understanding and respect.

To Engage in Dialogue

Should Catholics celebrate the Reformation? Clearly, the answer is no. The Protestant Reformers were no champions of Church unity. Their teachings and actions bred Christian division and hatred toward the Church. This is not to say, however, that Catholics have no place at a Reformation anniversary commemoration. Catholics can join in the reflections, both as fellow Christians and as Catholic Christians, and add their own perspective on Reformation history to the discussions: admitting fault where fault is due as well as challenging anti-Catholic embellishments and myths that have become part of the Reformation narrative.

Such gatherings also give us an opportunity to introduce Protestants to the saints of the Reformation period, the faithful sons and daughters of the Church who worked for true spiritual and institutional renewal: figures such as Francis de Sales, Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, and Philip Neri.

To Get Educated

Finally, the upcoming Reformation celebrations will, in a public way, give us some notion of what Protestants today have to say about the Catholic Church. What might be said about Catholicism will undoubtedly vary from event to event; but for evangelization purposes, it is helpful to discover what a non-Catholic believes about the Church, historically or dogmatically, for the sake of future discourse.

This exposure will be especially valuable in determining starting points for future ecumenical efforts since effective, purposeful dialogue always begins with the questions: “Where do we agree—and where do we disagree?”

Getting to know where our separated brethren stand is of critical importance for the sake of realizing Christ’s will that we may be one. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council describe this responsibility in their decree on ecumenism:

We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background (Unitatis Redintegratio, 9).

And so it seems to be both fitting and prudent for Catholics to attend Reformation-anniversary events, not to celebrate the Protestant schism but to acknowledge our existing solidarity with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters and to initiate dialogue and build relationships with them for the future. Ultimately, our presence there may be for some the initial step in their return to full communion with the Faith.

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