There’s nothing like being ejected from the bosom of family, parish, and church college into the orbit of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to give a young Lutheran a run for her money. During my tenure at First Things he paid me the compliment of trying to make a Catholic out of me. I thanked him by discovering I had a call to the ordained ministry and heading for seminary. It was a memorable fifteen months.
Years have passed, Fr. Neuhaus has gone on to his heavenly reward, and I’ve passed through the crucible of parish ministry into the hopeful-but-not-optimistic vocation of an ecumenist. I think I first got an inkling of this calling when RJN informed me that I was a peacemaker. I took umbrage; I suppose I fancied myself more a fighter than a lover. I was wrong and he was right, at least on that point.
And so it happens that, more than a decade after that early experience of something like Lutheran-Catholic ecumenism, my old motto “here I stand” has developed into “here I walk.” But literally, not figuratively. I’m walking from Erfurt, Germany, where an earnest young Augustinian friar named Martin Luther tried to get right with God, to Rome—500 years after said friar made the same journey himself.
2010 isn’t only the anniversary of Luther’s walk but also of the ecumenical movement itself, turning 100 this year. The linking of two is at the heart of this pilgrimage. Insiders are prone to say that we are in the doldrums of an “ecumenical winter” and have been for twenty-five years.
But this same quarter-century has seen, in the Lutheran domain alone, the growth of altar-and-pulpit fellowship in the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe through the Leuenberg Agreement, the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Catholic Church, and the apology of Lutherans for sixteenth century persecutions of Anabaptists, met with a full declaration of forgiveness from the Mennonite community.
If there’s any stagnation going on, it’s probably because ecumenism has become a victim of its own success. The bitter polemics and mutual distrust that were common on both official and local levels a century ago are all but gone. Two “Christian civil wars” (as the two World Wars are sometimes called), fresh encounters in the mission field, and joint service projects have made friends of Christians across all kinds of boundaries.
But this friendliness has also reduced the urgency once felt in divided Christendom. And a Western culture increasingly relativistic and fairly well obsessed with tolerance has a hard time seeing what, exactly, the point of faith-and-order type discussions could possibly be.
So, taking our cues from the renewed Protestant fervor for pilgrimages, and noting the parallel communication revolutions of the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries, my husband Andrew and I figured there was nothing for it but to stage an ecumenical stunt, walk a thousand miles, and blog as we go.
One piece of this is to give more attention to the “reception” side of ecumenism. Reception is a central ecumenical concept but it gets talked about more than it gets done. Doctrinal dialogues happen in small and specialized gatherings of experts, but their conclusions, however absolutely spot-on correct, are of little value if not taken up into the lives of the churches at all levels.
Popular polemics on either side still declare that Catholics teach unabashed works-righteousness and that Lutherans are nothing but “Catholic lite,” dispensing with the annoyingly difficult parts of Christian faith. Sometimes it seems like fifty years of bilateral dialogue never happened. But then it would be cruel to inflict the vast majority of ecumenical documents on the unsuspecting faithful, since most such documents bury a fascinating story under an avalanche of verbiage. We’re hoping that blog-length forays into this great hidden wealth will awaken fresh interest and a taste for more.
And then of course there’s the matter of Luther himself. He remains an obstacle between us. For Catholics, even if he is not, à la his first defaming biographer Cochlaeus, a randy monk with psychological problems ready to destroy the church and take civilization down with it, he is still a standing rebuke and an excommunicated heretic. For Lutherans, however much he failed his own best insights in demonizing his opponents, Luther is and remains a beloved teacher and spiritual guide.
Here again a half-century of bilateral dialogue—preceded by another half-century of appreciative Catholic research on Luther, beginning with Joseph Lortz and presently embodied by Otto Hermann Pesch and Jared Wicks—has approached a new and common view of Luther, best characterized by the dialogue statement on the 500th anniversary of his birth, Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ. Walking his footsteps from a time when he was not yet a reformer but on the way to being one, we hope to stake out the parameters of an ecumenical Luther, one loved soberly, forgiven in his failures, and heard attentively when he speaks the gospel we believe in common.
John Paul II in his Ut unum sint reaffirmed Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism in calling prayer the “soul of the ecumenical movement.” Prayer is the soul of a pilgrimage, too, and so it is with ours. We invite those who can’t join us on foot to undertake 70 days of prayer during the duration of our journey, meditating on passages of Scripture that speak to the unity and disunity of the church.
Medieval pilgrimages focused on penance. John Paul II also spoke of the necessity of a contrite heart in Ut unum sint: “[T]here is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side,’ of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption.”
It is in this spirit of prayer and repentance that we’re following Luther in our pilgrimage from Erfurt to Rome, there to visit the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul: apostles famous for their dispute but even more for the willing sacrifice of their lives for their one Lord Jesus Christ.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of the journal Lutheran Forum. She will be writing on the walk at Here I Walk.
The Community of Protestant Churches in Europe and the Community’s Leuenberg Agreement.
The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justication.
The Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission’s statement Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ.
John Paul II’s Ut unum sint.
The Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio.
Richard John Neuhaus’s Waking Up to Springtime and A Closed Question and Ecumenism Now.
Avery Dulles’s Ecumenism Without Illusions, Postmodern Ecumenism, and Saving Ecumenism From Itself.