Where Are the Lutherans?

At the end of September Pope Benedict XVI stood in a chapel in Erfurt, Germany, where Martin Luther (while still a Catholic and an Augustinian) once lived and wrote. In very careful terms the Pope praised the leader of the Reformation for the “deep passion and driving force” of his beliefs.

Obviously Pope Benedict was subtly implying a contrast between the “passion” of Luther and the tepid nature of the faith exhibited by many Christians in the West today, both Catholic and Protestant. But such a contrast was surely lost on many, who were simply amazed that a Bishop of Rome would extol the Protestant reformer in any way. The Pope’s words were enough to garner headlines throughout the world, but they were only the beginning of the amazing statements made in Erfurt that day: the leader of the German Lutheran Church, Nikolaus Schneider, who was also present, actually told the pope, “It is time to take real steps for reconciliation.” 

When I was a boy the idea that the Pope might praise Martin Luther was simply beyond the realm of possibility, and the thought that a Protestant of any stripe, let alone a Lutheran, would propose reconciliation with Rome would have been considered a miracle of the first order. Yet at a time when the ecumenical movement seems to have largely dissipated, both have happened in a little German town, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Those who read The Priest magazine regularly may remember that last month I wrote about the new Anglican Ordinariate here and in England. I welcomed those Anglicans who are coming into the Catholic Church; the arrival of sincere Christians in search of the truth can only be of great benefit to us all. Now it seems as if new doors may begin to open between the Church and the Lutheran bodies that exist both here and in Europe. 

At many points throughout my life I have worked with devout Lutherans. I have found my relationship with them to be very rewarding, their commitment to Christ very real, and their sensibilities very close to those of Catholics. Pastor Bernard Ruffin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my good friend of many years, is such a person. He is committed to his church, yet so open to the Catholic Church that he has actually written an excellent biography of Padre Pio, entitled Padre Pio: The True Story. There is very little that divides this fine man from us, and I am sure he was greatly pleased by the words spoken by the Pope and the Lutheran leader in Erfurt. 

I met Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, many years ago when we were both involved in the civil rights movement. I always had the greatest respect and a strong feeling of kinship with this man who spent much of his life as a Lutheran pastor but his final years as a Catholic priest. For him, becoming a Catholic was not so much a break from the past as the result of a natural progression, the culmination of a religious journey. 

My friend and co-author, Pastor Terrence Weber, also of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is another case in point. His devotion to the Servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke, is so great that he has devoted many years and much effort to promoting the cause of canonization of Cardinal Cooke. In fact, he co-wrote with me Thy Will Be Done, the biography of the cardinal, and he even sits on the advisory board of the cause — its sole Protestant member. 

Perhaps the words spoken in Erfurt are already coming to fruition. In October I attended a Catholic Charities event in Florida. I was the guest speaker and was introduced by Pastor Ray Angerman, a Lutheran pastor who has done much good work for Catholic Charities. These are only a few examples; there are many more that clearly illustrate that many Lutherans are very comfortable with the Catholic Church.

I think many Catholics have become pessimistic over the last few years, seeing only destruction and a gradual and continual lessening of Christianity’s influence in the world. I have to admit that I am by nature a moderate pessimist, yet when I look carefully at today’s Church I see many signs of renewed life, of old wounds being healed. I think the Pope saw that too when he did what once was unthinkable and praised the leader of the Reformation. Whatever we think of Martin Luther, many of today’s Lutherans are closer to us than we may imagine. They stand at the very doors of the Church. And that is something that should give us all great joy. TP

FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.