Growing up Catholic, I was not a fan of Martin Luther or the Reformation. Reformers attacked my beloved church and removed millions of people from the Kingdom of God as I imagined it.
As a seminary student, I began to see Luther and the Reformation differently. Luther, a 16th century Catholic monk and priest who saw firsthand and up-close the corruption that had eaten into the church like flesh-eating bacteria, gained greatly in my esteem.
And I have to ask, would Luther initiate a Reformation as a member of today’s Catholic church? Judging by what the extent to which the Catholic Church has reformed itself and Luther’s own words late in life, I doubt it.
It’s interesting how people who are considered geniuses and great personalities in history often come to see their work differently in old age.
Last Thoughts of My Patron Saint
I often think about what are reported to have been among the last thoughts of my patron saint, Thomas Aquinas, considered to be among history’s greatest thinkers. He wrote innovative works on philosophy and theology, including his crowning achievement, the Summa Theologica, still studied by many theology students.
It’s a massive, several-volume work about how we know God, the place of humans in God’s plan, about Jesus and the sacraments. He never finished it because after some kind of revelation toward the end of his life, he said that by comparison, all he had written was “so much straw.”
In his lifetime, Martin Luther saw his own movement breaking apart and was saddened that it had divided Germany along religious lines. It would do so in much of Europe, and the divisions have multiplied and last to this day.
It would have been nice had he and subsequent reformers been able to right the wrongs without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but that didn’t happen and possibly couldn’t have happened given the church and secular politics of the time.
But like Aquinas, Luther had misgivings about his life’s work. He didn’t repent about having tried to reform the church but he seemed to be less than pleased with what replaced it.
“The world is the world,” he lamented. “If I had to start over with the gospel, I would do it differently. I would let the vulgar crowd stay under the pope and privately give relief to those who are anxious and full of despair.
“It behooves the preacher to know the world better than I did when I was a monk,” wrote Luther near death, quoted in the book, “Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer” by Scott Hendrix. “Back then I thought the world was so upright that people would rush forward as soon as they heard the gospel. What happened, however, was the contrary.”
So now we are left with a divided Christianity, which is a barrier for some people who are searching for God.
Happily, the divisions are narrowing. Pope Francis recently traveled to Sweden to help celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironically, Francis is a member of the Jesuit order, one of whose main missions after its founding in 1540 – 23 years after Luther began his reformation – was to fight Luther’s ideas.
But the Associated Press reported that “Francis and the Lutheran federation president, Bishop Munib Younan, drew sustained applause at the end of (a service) when they signed a joint declaration pledging to improve relations through dialogue while working together to heal conflicts, welcome refugees and care for the planet.
Together at the Table?
The aim of a separate dialogue among Catholic and Lutheran theologians is to bring Catholics and Lutherans together at the Eucharistic table.
“We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” Francis said. “We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge.”
Differences in how Christians interpret Jesus’ teachings shouldn’t surprise us. They occurred while Jesus was still alive and were evident among his earliest followers. Disagreement appears to be part of the human condition.
It shouldn’t be a barrier for people searching for God. According to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, God loves all of us and invites us to love him/her in return. With prayer and discernment, we have to decide the best way to do so.