By Dan Russo | Witness Editor
February 19, 2015
DUBUQUE — The beginning of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans in the Dubuque Archdiocese came about spontaneously many years ago before any formal events initiated by international church leaders, according to Father Thomas O’Meara, OP.
“About fifty years ago, in the autumn of 1961, a seminarian at Wartburg (Lutheran Seminary) in Dubuque, Iowa walked over to Aquinas institute, a Catholic seminary in Dubuque run by Catholic Dominican friars,” recalled the priest during a presentation at Loras College Feb. 12.
“Although this walk was a journey of less than a mile, Jerry Folk passed that afternoon through four centuries,” said Father O’Meara. “He introduced himself to Dominican students raking leaves; I was among them. (He) announced he wanted to take a course at the Catholic seminary. We were dismayed. Jerry’s request was impossible. It was unthinkable that a Protestant would take a class at a Roman Catholic seminary — unthinkable in the United States, the Western hemisphere and perhaps the world. That afternoon the young seminarian also mentioned to us a strange term that we had never heard. Something called ‘ecumenism.’”
Father O’Meara, a priest who was educated at the Aquinas Institute in Dubuque and later taught there for 13 years, was one of the keynote speakers at a two-day celebration on the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” a pivotal document signed 15 years ago by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. It outlines the common ground both denominations have on an issue that was the crux of the theological split that occurred during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
Father O’Meara’s talk, “Times of Change: 1515-2015 Wittenberg, Rome, Dubuque,” kicked off a celebration of the declaration. The priest taught theology at Notre Dame University for over a decade and is an expert on ecumenism. Although Catholics and Lutherans still have many theological differences, Father O’Meara discussed how the joint declaration was widely seen to have been a healing moment for both churches in the wake of centuries of tensions and divisions. The event, sponsored by Loras, the Archdiocese of Dubuque and Wartburg Seminary, commemorated the signing of the declaration on Oct. 31, 1999. It also coincided with the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation and the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. Folk, now a pastor in the Lutheran Church, has maintained a friendship with Father O’Meara since they met that fateful day in 1961 and was in the audience.
“I think it’s important to remember these things,” said Pastor Folk. “We have to build on the past and move into the future. In the long run, it’s not about the church. It’s about what the church does for the world. We have the means of reconciling all things in Christ.”
The Joint Declaration anniversary celebration began with a joint prayer service in Christ the King Chapel on Loras’ campus. Father O’Meara’s talk afterwards in the alumni ballroom drew about 150 people, including current Catholic and Lutheran seminarians. O’Meara and some of the other veterans of ecumenical dialogue discussed its history and expressed the desire to “pass the torch to younger generations.”
“I was a young sister when ecumenical dialogue first began taking place,” said Sister Pat Conlan, RSM. “Every church is suffering because of a lack of youth. How can we reach them? You’ve got to go to the people. That’s what Pope Francis is saying. You can’t let fear be a barrier.”
After Father O’Meara’s talk, students continued prayer and dialogue in the chapel. The next day, Feb. 13, the celebration continued at Wartburg. The festivities opened with two talks by Winston Persaud, a Lutheran theology professor at the seminary, and Janine Idziak, a Catholic philosophy professor at Loras. The experts compared and contrasted Lutheran and Catholic perspectives on Justification.
In a nutshell, “justification” is the way in which God, through his grace, saves humanity from sin. In Western Christianity, a disagreement on this and several other issues erupted about 1515 when Martin Luther, a Catholic monk at the time, released his 95 theses in Wittenburg, Germany, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Eventually, the Catholic Church responded to the issues brought up during the reformation at the Council of Trent. For centuries, the two churches had differing views on justification, with the debate centering on the roles of “faith” and “good works” in salvation. Theologians from both sides eventually determined they had more in common than was once believed on this issue.
“In faith together, we hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God,” states the joint declaration. “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.”
The full text of the joint declaration encompasses thousands of words and deep theological concepts. Both professors explained its points in detail. After a joint prayer service and small group dialogues, they both returned to answer questions. One involved how the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans is relevant to discussions with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“I don’t see Catholic/Lutheran collaboration as in any way precluding Catholic collaboration with other denominations,” answered Idziak. “For example … the Methodists have officially signed on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. There are other Christian denominations that are discussing it as well. I think we can take as an example the prayer of intercessions we had this morning at the Liturgy of the Hours, which we also used yesterday evening. It was in fact put together by the Benedictines at the university in Collegeville. I saw in that prayer of intercession an acknowledgement of different charisms that you find in different Christian denominations in terms of different insights and emphasis that they have had. We can learn from each other, in terms of our various charisms, to enrich us all.”
Later in the discussion Persaud added that the fruits of the theological dialogue must be applied to the average person.
“Lutherans characteristically point out that doctrine is not equal to the Gospel, he said. “We don’t just get to doctrine and say we’ve arrived at the Gospel. The Gospel must be proclaimed. There’s something different as a result of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is a far more accessible text. It’s so steeped in the language of ‘justification.’ One of the things we need to do, whether Catholic or Lutheran or Orthodox, is to find a way to bring the Gospel in language that connects to the lives of the people.”
Participants in the celebration ate a meal together to conclude.
“I thought the presentations were interesting,” said Wartburg seminarian Karen Ressel. “I feel that we are all called to unity as Christians and through that unity, we can bring the Gospel to the broader world. This (gathering) is one of the steps we take to make that happen. I really appreciate the witness of those who have been doing this for decades.”