The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)
2016 – Cycle C
Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
31 October 1517 – a spark was struck in Wittenberg, Saxony that set ablaze a fire that has divided the Western Church to this day. For laying open the disputed issues of the selling of indulgences, that is, buying absolution for the dead; for revealing the clerical abuses of the selling of sacred offices and spiritual things, for the unethical charging of interest and for unmasking the Church’s internal corruption up to its highest ranks; the Augustinian monk Martin Luther was not applauded but rather slandered.
Papal documents called Luther a “heretic,” “a slave of depraved mind,” “a monster, a demagogue, a revolutionary, a drunkard, and a violator of nuns.” The Jesuits slandered him as the “blemish of Germany” and the “corruptor of Europe”. The calumny continued down to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; historians calling Luther a “sick man with inferior character,” and a theological ignoramus with a decadent morality. He is addressed rhetorically, “Luther, there is no ounce of godliness in you.”
When you have no intelligent counter argument on an issue or worse, when you are unwilling to listen to another point of view or a thoughtful challenge to the status quo; fear causes people to go on the defensive. It is easier to attack a person than deal with the issue at hand. We all have skeletons in our closets and when you want to find gossip on someone it is always easy. And if you can’t find something, you manufacture a fiction. And the worst attacks are those of sexual immorality and mental instability. Have we not been witnesses to this type of slander in election seasons? Did we not witness Catholic bishops blaming the media during the uncovering of the sexual scandal rather than look at the conduct of some of their priests or their own incompetence and self-preservation? We all do it in various ways. It is expedient. It was easier to attack Martin Luther than to listen to his argumentation and rethink many aspects of 16th century Catholicism.
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The smoke from the fires of the 16th century have dispersed and though we look over the ruins of 500 years of violence, scandal, slander and separation, the historical distance allows us new clarity.
As the 1950s game show, “To Tell the Truth” ended each episode, we might ask, “Will the real Martin Luther, please stand up?”
Since World War II and particularly the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, a Catholic reassessment of Martin Luther has sought a fairer, more objective and balanced view of the Catholic priest and monk who so desired God and a reformed and holier Church.
To continue the denigration of Martin would be an injustice and a self-imposed blindness in the search for truth. Scholars and recent popes, namely, John Paul II and Benedict XVI offer us new interpretations of Luther. John Paul II refers to Luther as a pilgrim; as a person who seeks a response to their questions. Doesn’t that describe each of us? Do we not all have questions that we want answered? Especially those ultimate questions about life, God, humanity, our purpose in the universe, death, grace.
As a university professor and theologian, Martin went through the proper channels to have his voice heard. He sent his theological inquiries – the Ninety-five Theses – to bishops and superiors hoping to hear from them a fair response and judgment on the issue of indulgences; the issue of God’s grace in our lives. The German pope, Benedict, put it concisely, “What constantly exercised [Martin] was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life. ‘How do I receive the grace of God?’: this question struck him in the heart…” For most Christians, theology is an academic pursuit of experts, clergy, theologians, and professors. Theology is the struggle to understand ourselves; the struggle with God and like the wrestling match between Jacob and the “angel of the Lord” [See Genesis 32:22-32] is to be entered into by every Christian. This was at the heart of Luther’s life and one of the lessons he teaches all Christians. Thus Pope Benedict challenges us, “‘How do I receive the grace of God?’… who is actually concerned about this today…The question no longer troubles us.” [Benedict XVI, 2011, Erfurt] This question was the driving force in Martin’s life.
Martin was a person authentically seeking the God of grace; drawn and fascinated by our God who came to save us in Jesus Christ. Thus Martin realized the need for conversion. Conversion begins with each of us recognizing and admitting our faults and sins. Conversion calls for personal honesty which opens us to receive the grace of God in our lives. What was in your heart when we prayed the words:
I confess, [I admit, I witness] to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault,…
Yes, “through my fault”; taking full responsibility for ourselves and not blaming anyone else as Adam and Eve did in the garden [See Genesis 3:9-13].
Martin challenges us to take our faith seriously.
I am not out to canonize Martin but to place before us a believer like ourselves. And like us he was a product of his time, the 15th–16th century. He was not perfect and had his share of limitations and defects. He had the cultural and theological blinders on of the period and times he lived and Martin saw the truth only partially through a glass darkly. All of these aspects can be said of us, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council and present day theologians: we are the products of our time, we have our limitations and we see truth partially.
As we reflect on Martin Luther, we gather at a midpoint in history this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We have just commemorated in 2012-15 the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council which brought the Catholic Church into the ecumenical age of dialogue and understanding and we are approaching in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. At this juncture of anniversaries when the Catholic Martin Luther’s life is being reassessed, might this be a time:
- to lift the 1521 excommunication of Martin Luther by Pope Leo X;
- to look at the issue of intercommunion between Catholics and Lutherans. This was suggested in a response by Pope Francis to a Lutheran woman’s question of taking Communion with her Catholic husband at Mass.
- and finally, to take seriously the international Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Signed in 1999 in Augsburg, Germany this theological statement agreed to by both the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church assents to a common understanding of the central issues raised by Martin Luther. The major obstacles of the Reformation have been overcome.
Therefore. when do Lutherans and Catholics look at each other and see sisters and brothers who though once argued bitterly among ourselves, may now, at the command of Christ, put aside this scandal to the Gospel and become one? It is what Jesus prayed for the night before he died, “that they may be one Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” [John 17:21]
[Phrases and ideas taken from the article “Martin Luther through Catholic Eyes Before and After Vatican II” by Rev. Ramil Marcos, Ecumenical Trends, January 2016]