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Remembering 31 October 1517

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses, and there’s no denying that they achieved a significance that he scarcely imagined.  Meant to be an academic exercise, they in fact became the spark that lit a fire that became a conflagration.

This year marked the 500th anniversary of that act, and people were not entirely sure how to mark the occasion.  Some celebrated;  some noted it with regret;  while a few dismissed its significance altogether.  Not surprisingly, some lionized Luther, though one op-ed piece in The Minneapolis Star Tribune went over the top when it gave the theologian credit for having ushered in the scientific revolution, modern capitalism, and constitutional democracy.  Luther, no doubt, would have been as surprised as I by this list.

What did not surprise me in the least was the brevity of the celebration.  By November 1st we’d all gone back to our cell phones and our hourly doses of politics, which is kind of sad.  It’s sad because we scarcely took the time to ponder the change that’s taken place to heal some of the wounds that have divided western Christians for so long.

IMG_2382I grew up in a part of the country where Catholics constituted 3% of the population, Episcopalians 2%, and Lutherans 1%.  I’m rather embarrassed now to admit that many of our fellow citizens thought that we three churches were going to hell together, but that’s not an unfair characterization.  As a result, we Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans became good neighbors to each other, long before it became fashionable.

I expected to find uniformly warm relations between Catholics and Lutherans when I moved to Minnesota, but I was surprised to find pockets of mistrust.  Still running around were some Catholics and Lutherans who were absolutely convinced that it was a big sin to step into each others’ churches.  Had I been naive to assume so much overlap between the two churches?  Perhaps.  But I was equally convinced that the differences were no longer canyon-sized, as a few believed.

A lot has happened in Minnesota and elsewhere to heal some of the rifts that opened in 1517, and most of it has occurred in the last fifty or sixty years.  So it’s important to realize what some Christian communities have accomplished in that time, even if it doesn’t make the evening news.  It’s a tribute to the vision and hard work of countless individuals, some of whom took a little heat as they labored to make our religious landscape a little more Christian.

Lots of people deserve recognition for their efforts, but for the moment I want to cite the monks of Saint John’s who forged our own particular contribution.  Since the 1940s they have accomplished things that certainly would have raised the eyebrows of our 19th-century confreres, but the latter had their mission and we have ours.

IMG_2388The litany of achievement is long, and I can’t include each and every detail.  Still, it’s worth noting that for decades we have welcomed Lutheran and other pastors who have come to teach and preach from our pulpit in the Abbey church.  Second, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Collegeville Institute, which invites visiting scholars for a semester or year-long resdence to pursue research on ecumenical topics.  On another front, individual monks and faculty at Saint John’s University have participated in Vatican-sponsored dialogues with Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches.  We’ve leased land to the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, which has allowed it to build the Episcopal House of Prayer, a retreat center on the Abbey grounds.  And daily we welcome all sorts of individuals and church groups to join us in praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the Abbey church.

As for me, I’ve ridden on the coat tails of all this work, and I’ve been privileged to speak and preach in many churches where I would have been unwelcome a hundred years ago.  These continue to be gratifying experiences, as I learn from others and they learn from me.

In that regard, I will always recall when, many years ago, I spoke at a Lutheran church in Minneapolis.  One listener asked whether I thought that Lutherans and Catholics would ever become one Church.  Of course the assumption running through the minds of many was that the Catholics would be the footdraggers, and it would never happen.  My answer came swiftly, supplied by the Holy Spirit.  “Yes, I do think we will unite, and I can tell you exactly when.  Catholics and Lutherans will unite exactly one month after the ELCA and the Missouri Synod Lutherans unite.”  Appreciative laughter erupted.

IMG_2353The task of reaching out in faith to one another is never done, which is a good thing.  It means that you and I have lots of important work left to do.  On the other hand, it’s important to be grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before us in faith and reached out to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

October 31st was as good a day as any to make note of all that.  On the one hand, we can regret many of the things that happened after 1517.  On the other hand, there is cause for genuine celebration for what people have done in the last two generations.  It’s a sign that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our midst — quietly and patiently.  For that reason I have no doubt that, come 31 October 2117, we’ll have even more to show for the work of the Holy Spirit among us.

IMG_2380Notes

+This past week I flew to Arizona.  Due to my back troubles last winter, I’d not been there in nearly a year, and my absence coincided with a week of cold weather at home.  One highlight of the trip was a stop at the mission of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  It was built in the 1790s, and the major surprise to me was a fresco of what the docent termed Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, located in the dome above the nave.  Nicknamed the White Dove, the mission stands out dramatically on the desert landscape.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate the mission, founded by the Jesuits and now staffed by Franciscans.  You can click on the photos to enlarge them, and in particular it’s worth taking a look at the fresco of Mary with the sheep.

+In recognition of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library has staged an exhibit of 16th-century books relating to the Reformation.  Among them is the very first book that the monks of Saint John’s entered into the holdings of the University library.  It has the accession number “1”, and it is a German translation of the Bible, printed in Cologne in 1572.  It was among the books that the monks brought with them when they came to Minnesota in 1856.

+On 11 November our football team bested Concordia in a game hosted at Saint John’s.  One observer wryly noted that in commemoration of the Reformation Saint John’s outscored every Lutheran opponent on the schedule this season.  To which I would add that we aspired to do the same with every Catholic opponent as well.  So there was nothing personal or confessional about this.

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