Several weeks ago, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles asked if I would preach at his church's Reformation Sunday service, offering a Catholic perspective on Reformation. Below is the text of the reflection I prepared for that community's celebration which included variations on texts from the Roman Missal (e.g. the Collect for the Mass of Christian Unity, the Renewal of Baptismal Promises) as well as chant settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei chanted in Latin.
Sixty-one years after Martin Luther nailed his famed “Ninethy-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Wolfgang, the city’s patron, and the eve of All Saints’ Day, a man named Mark Roy was born in Sigmaringen, Germany. As a young man, Mark Roy earned degrees in philosophy, civil law, and canon (or Church) law. Mark Roy felt called to dedicate his life to the service of the Gospel and eventually began serving as a sort of itinerant preacher for the canton of Grisons. With only a Bible, prayer book, and cross, he traveled through the countryside teaching and preaching in the hopes of bringing his listeners closer to Christ and to one another.
On the 24th of April, 1622, while he was preaching a sermon on Ephesians 4:5, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism,” someone fired a musket at him… Since he was known to have been a gifted and engaging preacher, I don’t imagine it was because he was talking too long or that he had a bad style. Someone wanted to murder him because of what he was saying. As you might imagine, the people of the town he was visiting invited him to stay with them and seek a safe-haven. Mary Roy refused and continued on his way.
Later, that same day, he was intercepted by a group of soldiers who were part of the sect of those whom Mark Roy had angered by his preaching. After they demanded he renounce his faith and accept their views, they attacked him with swords. Another person had died in the name of Jesus.
So, what was it about Mark Roy that made him so offensive to the people of Grisons? Why was he considered dangerous? The simple answer is that he was Catholic. Mark Roy was a Franciscan friar, known by his religious name—Father Fidelis. He had been especially entrusted with a mission to reach out to the people of that part of Switzerland who had become followers of the teachings of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther.
|Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen|
Saint Fidelis’ death is just one example of countless acts of violence that occurred in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and there was too much violence, too much destruction, too much death because of misguided zeal and religious fanaticism—most of which was little more than thinly veiled political maneuvering. As with many realities of human life, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were a mix of good and bad ideas, visions, and values being put into action by real people, on both sides, who were shaped by cultural and political views that sometimes had little to do with the Gospel. When we look at everything that has happened within Christian history over the past 500 years, we realize that Paul’s words to the Romans are as true now as they were then: "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
As I reflected on Pastor Itto’s invitation to worship with all you here this morning, I realized something: I have never celebrated Reformation Day before. Why would I have? This is not a day that is celebrated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In my life and seminary formation, the Reformation was never something that was celebrated—it was actually something that was lamented.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that good came from the Reformation: broken and outdated systems were dismantled, programs for educating the clergy and teaching the Faith were strengthened, scandal and abuse within the Church were addressed head-on, the basic elements of the Faith were examined more closely, and the Church began to get back to basics. But, ultimately, the hoped for-reforms of religious leaders like Luther led to schism, to division within the Church.
But, here I am, a Roman Catholic, with you on “Reformation Sunday.” What can I say? What could I add to your celebration today?
To be honest, I’ve struggled with that question for several weeks. I know that, in a sense, this isn’t just a holiday (like Independence Day or Columbus Day) that celebrates one historical event. Reformation Day is a day to remember that the work of the Church isn’t finished. We are being continually called to renewal and to conversion as individual Christians and as local church communities. But, is this just a call for Protestants? Isn’t that call also extended to Roman Catholics, Eastern-Rite Christians, and the Orthodox? After all, Jesus only established one Body, the Church. However different our ways of engaging the truths of Faith might be, we are, each of us, still a member of the one Body of Christ.
So, what if today, rather than celebrating Reformation Day, we celebrated a day of prayer for healing and unity within the Church? What could it mean if, instead of celebrating the reality of division, we reached across denominational lines and actively engaged Christians of other perspectives and views, who pray differently than we do? What if we listened to how others interpret the Word of God and didn’t shy away from those whom we perceive as too conservative or too liberal? In my experience, churches try very hard to be people of hospitality for those who are outside of the Church, but we can be anything but hospitable and welcoming to one another.
I know that this open spirit is part of the reason Pastor Itto invited me to be with you today and I’m genuinely grateful for the chance to be here, to pray for and with you. With all that in mind, I want to echo the words of a recent statement made by Catholic and Lutheran leaders: “What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change.” How do we do that? What does that even mean?
Obviously, we can’t undo the past. We can’t unwrite histories of scandal, violence, animosity, and abuse. We can, however, begin to look at our histories and present realities through the eyes of faith. While all the good and bad words and deeds of past generations have brought us to this moment, here and now, the past does not have to define who we are and how we move forward. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Every saint has a past and ever sinner has a future.” I think this applies to churches, as well.
This time of year, in other parts of the country, it isn’t unusual to see flocks of Canada geese flying south for their winter’s migration. I imagine most of us here have seen tell-tale V-formation of these birds as they fly along.
This image inspired a young composer, Adam Guettel, to write: “We sail above the weather / We search the ocean floor. We rival our creation, still yearning for more. But can we fly together—a migratory V? How wonderful if that’s what God could see.” How wonderful, indeed.
Recently, I learned something about this “Migratory V.” Flying behind the formation is a single goose who glides from left to right, almost if she can’t quite decide where she wants to be. Well, this goose actually watches the others who are flying in formation to see if one of them is having a difficult time keeping pace with the others. If one of her companions begins to lag behind or fall away, this goose-in-the-rear makes her way to the tired goose and flies below them, adjusting air currents to help her companions lift their wings and fly. That part I knew… what I didn’t know was that once this happens, the other geese notice and begin to take turns helping their tired or weak companion moving forward with the rest of the group.
Now, if you’ve ever been around geese, especially Canada geese, you know they’re dirty, mean, surprisingly territorial, and not very bright… a lot like us, at times. But, they certainly have something to teach us about what we can do if we pay attention to one another and support one another.
How wonderful if that is what God could see here in the Church of the Master, in the ELCA, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and in local churches and religious groups throughout the world. How wonderful if God saw Catholics and Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, the UCC and Baptists, and all the rest of us Christians actively supporting one another, so that we could all move forward together, as one Body—for indeed, that is what we are. The world needs us to stand together to combat injustice and to proclaim the truth of God’s love. There is so much pain and need in the world—we have to be bigger than our theological disputes and historical prejudices.
In a few moments, in place of the Creed, Pastor Itto and I will lead you in renewing the promises of baptism. These words are based on the Apostle’s Creed and form is taken from the Roman Missal, the official liturgical book of the Roman Catholic Church. As you renew your own commitment to follow Christ, I encourage you to be mindful of those generations of women, men, and children, throughout the world, who have professed this same faith. Because, as Saint Fidelis reminded us in his last sermon, given on the day he died, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.”