Dialogue: Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, beginning an argument concerning practices in the Roman Catholic Church and touching off what became the Protestant Reformation.

Creighton magazine asked the Rev. H. Ashley Hall, PhD, an associate professor of theology at Creighton and ecumenical officer for the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Eileen Burke-Sullivan, STD, MChrSp’84, a Catholic and Creighton’s vice provost for Mission and Ministry, to talk about what commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation looks like, especially at Catholic Creighton, where the second-largest reported religious denomination is Lutheran.

CREIGHTON MAGAZINE: How is Creighton putting some of the principles of From Conflict to Communion (latest report from the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity) into practice on campus?

AH: We are hopeful we can do four ecumenical services this academic year at St. John’s — two in the fall, two in the spring. We are trying as best we can to embody what church leaders on both sides agreed to in From Conflict to Communion. Sitting together, praying together, reading Scripture together is where we can find the common ground we share.

EB-S: We are restoring the opportunities on both sides to engage the Spirit and celebrate what we share. We may not be at a juncture where we’re ready to share the Eucharist, but simply being with one another, we are in a position to understand one another.

CREIGHTON MAGAZINE: It seems the Catholic and Protestant traditions have benefited in different ways from a continued interest in the Reformation. With both claiming millennia of tradition, are there still ways the denominations are being “reformed”?

EB-S: I can’t believe that God intended anything on this earth to be unchanging. We are living human beings. We experience constant individual changes and the whole body of human beings changes. Change is a movement toward wisdom, insight, love and grace that God alone possesses. As human beings, we are constantly, I hope, changing toward that. We can either mark this date and be sad that we’re not further along, or we can mark it with joy that we are still on the journey together.

AH: The Reformation is a story we tell together. Some people just hear about these ecumenical pronouncements and think, “Oh, it’s just Pope Francis being liberal or the ELCA being liberal,” and either overestimating or underestimating what’s been accomplished. The real change taking place and that we can call attention to is that we can pray together, do service together and articulate common agreement on some core issues. We weren’t able to do that in the 1950s and 1960s.

CREIGHTON MAGAZINE: What are the implications of this effort at ecumenism?

EB-S: We have bigger issues in this country and the world — racism, gender biases, other religious biases among people in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities. Work on this dialogue is critically important. If we can’t harvest this fruit, how can we begin to solve the many other, bigger problems dividing our nation and our world? We’re simply not as virulent toward one another as we were 500 years ago. I think we’ve seen that there was right on all sides and wrong on all sides. We’ve been willing to adjure the wrongness and seek the rightness. We have been able to get into hard conversations and find ways in those conversations to get to the “and” of engaging the Spirit, rather than “either/or.”

AH: I recently returned from the Luther Congress in Wittenberg, an academic and clerical conference attracting scholars from around the globe. The perspectives delivered in the seminar went toward the idea that to be Lutheran is to be ecumenical. The Lutheran church doesn’t claim to be something separate or other-than, but claims that in its essence, it’s part of the one true, catholic church. The other noteworthy trend in Luther scholarship is an emphasis on Luther and the continuity of tradition. That’s not to say that Lutherans have been Roman Catholics all along, but it does cause us to question this certainty that we’ve drawn: that Luther started the Reformation as an alternative to being Catholic. I think now we’re seeing Luther presented an alternative way of being Catholic.