|Pope Francis greets Archbishop|
of Uppsala and Primate of the
Church of Sweden, Antje Jakelen
It wasn’t that long ago that a delegation from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined an invitation to meet Pope John Paul II when the Vatican insisted that one of the bishops in the delegation be excluded from the papal meeting because she is a woman. It was the Vatican stance that such a meeting would undermine the Church’s opposition to women’s ordination. Last May Pope Francis met with Antje Jackelén, the Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of Sweden—and a woman. This was supposedly the first time a Pope had met—at least officially—with a woman bishop. The Pope was somewhat circumspect in addressing Archbishop Jackelén, never using the title “Archbishop.” She was “esteemed Madame Jackelén,” or “Dear Dr. Jackelén,” or “esteemed sister.” (The use of “sister” is telling as the Pope traditionally refers to his fellow bishops as “brother,” but I am not sure we should read very much into that choice of terms.)
Well the Pope took another small step forward last week when he received an ecumenical delegation from the Finnish Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church of Finland in which he said “I thank the Lutheran Bishop of Helsinki, Irja Askola, for her kind greeting on your behalf.” This is no sign that the Catholic Church is—at any time soon—going to drop its opposition to the ordination of women but it is a sign that the Church is prepared to face the ecumenical realities of divergent opinions on this (and other) key principles of both doctrine and discipline.
Ecumenism has grown much more complicated in the fifty+ years since Vatican II and Unitatis Reintegratio. Fifty years ago Christians could have spoken with one voice, at least officially, on subjects such as same-sex marriage, abortion, transgendering, and extra-marital sex. Fifty years ago most Protestant denominations did not—and were not contemplating to—ordain women to the ministries of Word and Sacrament. (The Methodist Church is one of the exceptions having approved the ordination of women in the mid 1950’s—and there having been ordinations of women among certain Methodist groups even in the late 19th century.)
Dialogue means an openness to change. It also presents an opportunity for witness. There are many among the Krazies who live in mortal terror of ecumenical dialogue because it means that there may be yet more changes in our Catholic way of doing things. Ecumenical dialogue will have to face the issue of the ordination of women before we can (officially) have sacramental sharing. Honest dialogue will require that all participants come with open minds and discerning spirits. Dialogue could present us with sound arguments to rethink our position on any number of issues. This isn’t compromise—Truth cannot be compromised—but we may come to new and fuller appreciations of the Truth. Why are people so afraid that they may not possess Truth in all its fullness? None of us has the fullness of Truth. The depths of the Mystery of God have yet to be fully explored. Nor will they ever be. We cannot stand paralyzed in fear when we are only a few steps into what is an eternal journey. Bishop Kallistos Ware put it well when wrote of the Hesychast Fathers
Perfection is to be seen not in static but in dynamic terms: the blessed never reach a point where their pilgrimage comes to an end, but through all eternity they continue to advance further and further into the love of God.
When we understand that God did not create us to be a graduate school of dogma but a people who journey together into the Mystery of God the fear of what lies ahead dissipates. This requires not only some drastic rethinking on our part, but some conversion of our hearts. But then isn’t the conversion of our hearts what Christian faith is all about?
Speaking of Lutherans and the need to rethink things: the Reverend Doctor Martin Junge, Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last week issued a “Common Prayer” to prepare for the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation which will occur in 2017. (Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517 calling for a theological debate on what he—and others—saw as serious flaws in Catholic doctrine and practice.) It is truly a remarkable sign of change that the Holy See is prepared to view the Reformation not as a tragedy (though in so many ways it was) or a rebellion (which it also was, all rebellions not being bad things) but as an event in the history of the Church that has positive as well as negative aspects. Along with the krazies, I have no doubt that Gregory XVI and Pius X and Pius XI and dozen of other popes would be scratching their heads and wondering just what malaria from the malodorous Tiber had affected and infected the brains of current Vatican officials that they were preparing to commemorate the Protestant Reformation. But again, I think this is the benefit of honest dialogue. We can come to an honest appreciation of the Reformation. Yes, it divided Western Christendom and yes it caused strife at every level of society and even warfare. But God brings forth Grace in every situation no matter how sinful. The Reformation shocked Catholic Europe into Reformations of its own and gave us great saints like Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales and Teresa of Avila. It made us face into the complicit tolerance of the gross immorality of prelates and priests and princes and set impeccable standards of behavior. (You know, I think we could use another one of these reformations.) It gave us seminaries and catechisms. It reformed convents and monasteries. It reformed the Liturgy and cleaned out a multitude of superstitious practices that had crept into Catholic devotionalism. It gave us the Jesuits and the Discalced Carmelites and the observant Franciscans. It put the bible into the language (and the hands) of the faithful.
And it didn’t do bad for our Protestant brothers and sisters either. As for us, it was also for them a mixed blessing. There was much that was good that was lost. But it created the great hymnody of the West, beginning with Luther’s own hymns. It set standards of moral rectitude and reinforced the family as the basic unit of the Church (and thus of society). It introduced people to the Word of God in scripture. It strengthened the idea of the community of the faithful which in turn led to the emergence of democratic ideas and institutions. It too gave us some masterful spiritual writers such as Lancelot Andrews, George Herbert, the poet John Donne, Jakob Böhme, and Martin Luther himself whose devotional writings are well worth looking at. Protestant spirituality can be seen in such remarkable texts as John Winthrop’s famous sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists: “A City Upon A Hill” or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Much sound spirituality (as well as even more florid piety) can be found in Protestant hymnody. The hymns of Charles Wesley are especially to be commended and many are used in Catholic worship since Vatican II—and a few even before.
We Christians must build a common future. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin in a very different situation: we must stand together or assuredly we shall hang separately. It is very urgent that we face the threats of secularism and religious extremism with one faith, one determination, and one voice—the voice of Christ in the Gospel. The tragedy of the Reformation is not that it happened, it is that false disciples want to perpetuate the hatred and strife the Reformation caused and block the Grace that God wishes to bestow on us through our shared history.