The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
2017 – Cycle A
Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18; Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40
31 October 1517 a fire was set ablaze by a controversial German Augustinian monk – priest, Martin Luther. This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of a theological firestorm that has imprinted both the Catholic Church and what came to be the Lutheran and Reform communities of Christianity. What set off the blaze? Martin asked questions. Call for reform that were being asked as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries!
The grace of time and distance offer their blessings. Martin Luther was vilified by the Catholic Church of the 16th century as a heretic, a “monster, a revolutionary, a drunkard, a violator of nuns”, “the prodigal son”, “the blemish of Germany”, the “filthy wretch of Epicurus” and the “corruptor of Europe”; with images on the social media of the day, the Gutenberg moveable type printing press, offering up appropriate visuals and Photoshoped pictures. Now, five hundred years later new books by Catholic and Lutheran authors alike are reevaluating Martin Luther. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, major pronouncements on the issues of faith, grace and salvation have moved us toward understanding and healing the divisions between Lutheran and Catholic Christians. Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have variously visited sites of Martin’s life, made personal contact with Lutheran Church leaders and all spoken with significance about Luther as a spiritual pilgrim, a doctor of theology, a man of profound religiosity with a positive impact on religion and European culture.
Let us be reminded that Martin and other Christians who are described as Protestants, Lutherans, Reformed, or Presbyterian are simple Catholics who questioned, argued, and disagreed over essential aspects of the Christian Faith. Faith, grace, good works, and salvation are no light matters. They are issues concerning eternal life. Like today’s political, civic and church climate, regretfully, no one in the 16th century was willing to listen, arrogance prevailed, anger was the tone, fake news was propagated and Jesus was left out of the discussion.
I am not here to canonize Martin Luther. I even think that the emphasis on Martin is a bit overemphasized. The firestorm was not about a troublesome Augustinian monk but about reforming the church in its institutions and in the understanding and proclamation of the Gospel; thus reforming Christian lives to carry out Christ’s mission to the world. The Church should never be in “maintenance” mode existing for her own sake but always in “mission” mode for the sake of the world.
This significant and crucial anniversary then should be marked less by the person of Martin Luther and more by the Latin dictum allegedly deriving from St. Augustine: “Ecclesia semper reformanda est”, “the church must always be reformed” or as I prefer “the church must always be reforming”.
The truth of the statement is that Martin Luther stands in a long line of Catholic reformers of the church’s institutions and Gospel preaching.
I call to mind for us:
- Saint Catherine of Siena who worked tirelessly to end the Great Western Schism when we scandalously had three popes claiming church allegiance. She brought about the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome and worked for the reform of the clergy and church administration.
- Speaking of church administration, some things never change as today Pope Francis continues that work to reform the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administration and bringing about transparency to all our works.
- Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic brought the preaching of the Gospel out of churches and monasteries and to where the people lived in the market places, public squares and fields.
- The Beguines, a woman’s lay movement in the Low Countries, was a spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.
- Saint Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in the 1960s. For what reason? Two similar quotes attributed to him mark the council’s purpose: “I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in” and more directly, “Throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” And who does not like a fresh spring breeze after months, in our case centuries, of a closed in winter?
- The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich and Saints Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Avila called for reform in their time and worked to bring it about.
- Saint Charles Borromeo carried out the reforms of the Council of Trent, the church’s inadequate response to Martin Luther that some proffer was not completed until the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council 400 years later! AND there is still work to be done for “the church must always be reforming…”
History has seen reforms in church music and liturgy, clergy and lay formation, spirituality and administration, the rise of lay movements and new religious orders of sisters, brothers and priests.
Pope Francis challenges us: “In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them” (Evangelii Gaudium, #43). “the church must always be reforming…”
There is one more revolutionary reformer I do not want to omit. Like Martin, he calls each member of the church to reform our lives, to accept the free gift of living in God’s grace by turning away from sin and by expressing our love of God through our love and forgiveness of neighbor. Like all reformers he too was vilified and rejected. I speak of the troublesome reformer, the Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus is who Martin struggled so deeply to love. Are you and I willing to enter into the struggle of reforming our lives in love through the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, personal prayer and charitable giving of time and monies, and reordering our priorities in our personal and family lives, placing Jesus at the center?
That is revolutionary reformation!