Prayer service marks ecumenical milestone

On Oct. 31, the day celebrated in their tradition as Reformation Day, Lutherans gathered with Catholics at Wayland’s St. Ann’s Church, for a service of evening prayer to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism and the fifth anniversary of the Joint Statement on the Doctrine of Justification signed by representatives from both communities.

Leading the service were Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley and Lutheran Bishop Margaret Payne of the Lutheran Synod of New England, who were joined by clergy and lay people from both traditions.

In its Decree on Ecumenism, the Church began to work towards a unity among Christians, and recognized that the divisions were harmful to the mission of spreading the Gospel, said the archbishop.

Archbishop O’Malley said, 40 years later, there was more remorse and more understanding between the two communities. “We have discovered more convergence than we had recognized.”

It was wonderful to welcome Lutherans into a Catholic church on Reformation Day, he said.

The archbishop commented that, today, there is only one true commandment remaining which is: Thou shalt not smoke. “In a world so secular, so alien, our two churches are called to work together and nearer the heart of Christ, who prays we might be one.”

The Joint Statement on the Doctrine of Justification was signed in Germany by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said Rev. Edward R. Dufresne, a member of the New England Council of Ecumenism, in his remarks.

In the walk-through before the signing ceremony, the plan was for both men to sign the statement, stand and shake hands, then return to their seats, Dufresne said.

But when the moment came, the two men instead embraced each other immediately after the signing, he said.

When Noko was asked why they embraced he said, “We could not help ourselves,” he said.

Dufresne asked what if we approach the dialogue between the two churches with the same attitude: “Because, we could not help ourselves.”

The statement resolved the theological divide between the denominations. Luther contended that salvation was possible through faith alone, whereas the Church maintained the necessity of performing good works.

The compromise acknowledged that salvation from grace alone in faith in Christ’s saving works, not from our own merit. When we receive the Holy Spirit, our hearts are renewed, and we are then equipped and called to perform new works.

In her remarks, Payne said in her duties she travels all over New England and that one dark night recently, she found herself alone on a Maine country road.

As she drove along the road, she passed flashing roadside messages, she said. The first read: Night Paving Tonight. The second read: Slow Down. The third read: Fines Doubled in Work Areas. Finally, when she reached the fourth, it read: Go Red Sox!

When the crowds laughter died down, Payne said she too had laughed out loud when she saw it. “And it was a reminder to me of the unity we share, when I was alone by myself on a dark road.”

What if we felt the same passion for ecumenism as we have for the Red Sox?, she asked.

In the 16th century, Christians, such as Martin Luther, were consumed by guilt and the burden of sin. In many ways, Luther was driven by the intensity of his own sin and failings, she said.

Today, there is not the same intensity for the burden of sin. Instead, in these times, Catholics and Lutherans must apply our common faith in partnership to help people who have no hope solve the problems they face.

A Catholic member of the ecumenical council, Father Marc Bergeron, of St. Anne Parish in Fall River, told the gathering that there was an important shared tradition that had not been brought up yet: the collection.

Bergeron, said he encouraged generosity because the proceeds from the service’s collection would be given to aid indigenous Christians in the Middle East.

He said he hoped that the worthy cause was sufficient motivation. “Because, I can’t offer you indulgences.”