Many years ago, shortly after Germany’s reunification, I went on a 10-day trip with my colleagues from my theology department, following Luther’s footsteps. Inevitably, one of our stops took us to Wittenberg and the famous door of the Schlosskirche where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on October 31, 1517. It was quite moving to see this church, to walk up the steps and touch the door. There were no smart phones then, no Facebook… I think I didn’t even take a picture of the church or me standing in front of it and if I did, it would be buried somewhere in an old box. These days, I am reminiscent of that trip and of my visit to Wittenberg.
You probably heard it, this year marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and Wittenberg’s church has been at the center of the commemoration. Festivities and commemorative events have taken place all over the world; many Catholic voices have joined in. For the occasion, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity together with the Lutheran World Federation published a statement to acknowledge the important steps the ecumenical dialogue has made over the past 50 years. The document also celebrates “the fact that for the first time Lutherans and Catholics have seen the Reformation from an ecumenical perspective. This has allowed new insight into the events of the sixteenth century which led to our separation. We recognize that while the past cannot be changed, its influence upon us today can be transformed to become a stimulus for growing communion, and a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation.”
The Protestant Reformation was probably the most impactful event in the history of Western Christianity and irrevocably changed its course. And like any major historical moment, the Reformation and the figure of Martin Luther leave historians and theologians with some enigmas and some questions. Even, the accuracy of the nailing of the theses is disputed! Yet, many faith leaders, Protestant and Catholic alike, instead of celebrating or questioning the past, are calling for a commemoration of the Reformation that is oriented towards the future. What have we learned from the past? How can we expand the communion of Christian churches? How do we live our differences?
One of the prominent Protestant theologians, Karl Barth, is credited for coining in 1947 the Latin slogan, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda est,” which can be translated by “a church [once] reformed, is always to be reformed.” Often attributed to Luther himself and other reformers from the 16th century, Protestant denominations have claimed this motto as an inherent part of their heritage and identity. Debates over what it really means are common, but in the spirit of looking forward, I am intrigued by how this idea could be applied today for our ecclesial institutions and their future.
The main thing this motto suggests to me is that the Reformation is not only an event that we can pinpoint in the past, but it is an ongoing process. The emphasis is put on the process rather than the achievement and it ultimately reminds us that nothing is definitively reformed, but always being reformed. Can the same principle be applied to other contexts and experiences of our lives like transformation, conversion, renewal, discovery, etc.? How does that modify our understanding of growth and knowledge? Maybe then, truth is not so much a content, but a movement, a journey!
In their joined statement, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation speaks of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation being “a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation.” This bold statement expresses the desire to reclaim the commemoration of one of the most divisive episodes of Western history as a fertile ground for building unity!
In the same vein, on the exact day of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Vatican announced that it was issuing a new stamp in honor of Martin Luther and his friend Philip Melanchthon. Both of them are depicted kneeling at the cross, with Wittenberg in the background. Thanks to various printing tools and distribution channels, this image will travel near and far, very much like Luther’s 95 theses did 500 years ago. This is a new representation of the past, one that recognizes a common faith and piety. In a time of many divisions, an inspiring message sent across the world. May it reach us, so that we can join the movement!