In observance of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, marking the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be holding an evening prayer service, at 4 p.m., Sunday, March 26, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Main Street in Buffalo.
Bishop Richard J. Malone and Bishop John S. Macholz, Lutheran bishop of the Upstate New York Synod, will commemorate the ways in which Catholics and Lutherans have come together in recent years, as well as their many similarities, while acknowledging church-dividing issues that still exist.
Last month, two Catholic priests, Father Francis X. "Butch" Mazur and Father Peter Drilling, and Lutheran Minister the Rev. Lee Miller spoke about the event. Rev. Miller noted that the Catholic diocese had approached him regarding the possibility of hosting a combined event between the churches, which he cited as an emotional moment for him.
"It will be vespers, or what we now call evening prayer. Both churches call it evening prayer, but the more technical name is vespers," Father Drilling explained. "Our Roman Catholic bishop, Bishop Malone, and the local bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are both going to preside."
The service will feature a combined choir between St. Joseph's Cathedral in Buffalo and Holy Trinity Lutheran. People of all Christian denominations are invited to attend this event, the collaboration of a committee Father Mazur, as diocesan ecumenical and interreligious officer, formed in preparation. It also includes pastors Daniel Hoffman and Tim Madsen, both of the ELCA, and Father Gabriel Scarfia, OFM, who is representing Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.
Father Drilling noted that the event will be fostering a spirit of hope for the future. "We want to pay attention to Jesus' prayer in the 17th chapter of St. John's Gospel, that all of His followers may be one, as He and God the Father are one," Father Drilling said, emphasizing that this does not mean the churches and their different rites must become exactly the same.
"Luther never intended for there to be a group of people called Lutherans, never asked for people to be named after him. He was Catholic, and wanted to be part of the Roman Catholic Church, which for him, was the only church of the West at the time," Rev. Miller said, noting Philip Melanchthon, a theologian and leader of the Reformation in Germany, founded Lutheranism.
Additionally, there will be a study day on Friday, May 19, at Christ the King Seminary, led by Dr. Susan Wood, SCL, Ph.D., who is well-known in Catholic and Lutheran circles and recently spoke at an event promoting Christian unity. It will be open to clergy and laypeople of any denomination.
In the years leading up to the anniversary, both the American Catholic Church and the ELCA have recognized that they have more than unites them than divides them. In 2015, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the ELCA jointly issued "Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist," with 32 statements of agreement that unite Catholics and Lutherans.
However, Lutherans and Catholics differ significantly on important aspects of fidelity to the Christian faith. "Declaration on the Way" expresses the disagreements as well, suggesting what needs to be prayed about and discussed further. For example, the churches have differing interpretations of the meaning of ordination and different ways of understanding the sacraments, and therefore a different assessment of the number of sacraments. The ELCA allows clergy to marry and has permitted the ordination of women for over 45 years. The current presiding bishop is Elizabeth A. Eaton. The ECLA is the largest American Lutheran group, with about 3.67 million baptized members, and formed in 1988 by merging what were formerly three separate Lutheran groups.
When Luther published his 95 theses, his primary concern focused on the Catholic Church's practice at the time of granting indulgences to people. "He wasn't against indulgences as such, but against having to pay for them," Father Drilling said. "Unfortunately, this got in the way of the priest who was very strongly preaching this way of gaining an indulgence."
"We certainly agree in how God shows up in sacraments. Lutherans will keep to two and will respect the sacraments of our brothers and sisters, but God shows up in those places," Rev. Miller said. "We certainly agree in places, and part of the third piece of what we are doing together is doing some social ministry together, social services." In many instances, Lutherans work with Catholic social programs, since Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service provide similar services.
The joint observance and the publication of "Declaration on the Way," along with an international Lutheran-Catholic document, "From Conflict to Communion," will not be the first time Catholic and Lutheran churches have come together. In 1999, the World Lutheran Federation, headquartered in Germany, and the Vatican issued a "Common Declaration on Justification by Faith," and the Diocese of Buffalo, together with local representatives of the ELCA, held a celebration of the monumental achievement at SS. Peter & Paul Church in Williamsville.