The 500 years of animosity between the Catholics and Lutherans were washed away for an hour, when Bishop Richard J. Malone joined Bishop John Macholz for an evening prayer service.
The service, known in Catholic circles as vespers, took place at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Buffalo on March 26, with both Bishop Malone and Bishop Macholz, Lutheran bishop of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, addressing the mixed-faith congregation.
During the 16th century, Martin Luther posted his "95 Theses," criticizing the selling of indulgences and promoting changes to theology, setting off the Protestant Reformation that separated the Lutherans and Roman Catholics for five centuries. Ecumenical dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics began in the mid-1960s, and continues today.
"What a blessing that we can come together this day, Lutherans and Roman Catholics, to pray," said Bishop Malone in thanking the nearly full church for attending.
"What we're doing today, as we all know, has not always been possible. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a great deal of acrimony between us. Then we, our ancestors really, mostly just went our separate ways. The image of the vine and branches in St. John's Gospel was really not in control in many ways of our thinking, of our acting, almost as if our two traditions were two vines or that if it were one vine, which of course we know is Christ, that some of the branches were missing."
The bishop pointed out that during World War II, Christians began to realize that they might have been able to withstand the Nazi regime more effectively if they had been more united.
"The Second Vatican Council came along and gave the first impetus to ecumenical dialogue, which, thanks be to God's grace, has continued steadily over these past 50 years," he continued.
In 1999, the "Common Declaration on Justification on Faith" helped the dialogue, jointly written by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican.
"Its central declaration is this, 'In faith, we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sends His Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ Himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.' This all seems quite straightforward to all of us now, almost as the young people would say 'a no brainer.' But you know what a sore point that was.
"Why couldn't it be straightforward in the 16th century? Just one of several problems in those days, of course, was that as the polemics intensified, the desire to find solutions to disagreements waned," the bishop pointed out.
The bishop admits there are still issues that divide the two denominations.
"We go forward, I think, with an ever deepening confidence in God's graceful mercy to be sure that we got it," he said.
Bishop Malone admitted to have Lutheran DNA, which drew huge laughter from the crowd. His maternal grandfather, a lifelong Lutheran, came to the U.S. from Sweden in the late 1800s.
Bishop Macholz took to the podium and told of his personal experiences of being a Lutheran growing up in the very Catholic city of Bristol, Conn. He grew up in attending a Lutheran school while riding a bus that also stopped at seven Catholic schools.
"I was the only child on that school bus not wearing a uniform," he said, adding, he wanted a uniform, but not the meatless Fridays and Holy Days of Obligation.
His mother had told him not to date a Catholic girl, because if it led to marriage there would be problems.
"I remember the fear in those days. Yet, somehow since those years to this very day, we have uncovered a broad spans of conversation that brought about incredible changes in the relationship between our two communities that brings us to this day," he said.
The service, which included prayers of intercession, the Lord's Prayer and benediction, included members of both the Lutheran and Catholic communities, and a joint choir.
"I thought it was wonderful, really good, said Gary Szakmary, from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, following the service. "I found myself thinking toward the end, 'I can't wait for the day when you have people of all different faiths and denominations including Muslims, Christians and Jews, who can get together from time to time to have a joint worship service.' I think that would be awesome."