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Today, February 18, some Christian communities celebrate the feast of the great reformer Martin Luther. If we are to take Pope Benedict as our guide (Luther might warn us against this) even we Catholic Christians can consider it a day worth celebrating.

In a 2011 address to Lutheran leaders in Erfurt, Germany, Pope Benedict said that Catholics recognize in the beliefs of their Lutheran brothers “a truly shared faith, a longing for unity.” Benedict applauded Luther’s great Christocentric faith and his hatred for evil:

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching?

Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? . . .

No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

Benedict is able to applaud the unique insights of Luther because they are insights into a common “deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds”:

Now perhaps one might say: all well and good, but what has this to do with our ecumenical situation? Could this just be an attempt to talk our way past the urgent problems that are still waiting for practical progress, for concrete results?

I would respond by saying that the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task. It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds.

For me, the great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground, that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our inalienable, shared foundation.

Benedict spoke in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, where Luther defied his father’s wishes (it was a habit, it seems) and studied theology instead of law, where he celebrated his first mass, from which he set out on a pilgrimage to Rome  recently reenacted  by former  First Things  junior fellow Sarah Wilson and her husband Andrew. At the time, Matthew Milliner asked  if any Catholics would return the Wilsons’ heartfelt ecumenical gesture by traveling from Rome to Erfurt. Benedict is one Catholic Christian who has been very ready to do so.

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