Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. Actually, the Mass is retained among us and is celebrated with the greatest reverence. (Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV)
The liturgy is about to begin. The congregation stands as the processional cross leads the ministers down the center aisle. People bow as the cross passes. After the entrance rite is completed, the congregation sits to hear the Readings. All stand for the reading of the Holy Gospel. The Book is carried to the middle of the congregation led by a crucifix, candles and incense. All turn to face the Book. Later, during the Eucharistic Prayer, the presiding minister lifts the host and chalice while bells ring. At the benediction the people bless themselves with the sign of the cross.
On the same Sunday, in another worship space, the liturgy is also about to begin. The presiding minister comes out of the sacristy and greets the people. Following a brief call to confession and the announcement of God’s forgiveness, the congregation sings a hymn. When it is time for the sermon the preacher stands in the middle aisle and preaches a moving sermon about the grace of God. During Communion the congregation sings “Let Us Break Bread Together” from the hymnal as well as other songs.
Whose worship are we describing? Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Chicago Heights or Eucharist at the Lutheran Church of St. Luke in Chicago? Can you tell the difference between the two? Was it easy to recognize the Lutheran description first, the Roman Catholic second?
Of course, not all Lutheran worship resembles that of the Church of St. Luke, nor does all Roman Catholic worship look exactly like that at St. Agnes. And yet, while there may be some things which distinguish us from each other, there are many more things which we have in common. “You worship the same way we do. I knew almost all the words!” How often have Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors heard these or similar words spoken at ecumenical weddings or Sunday services.
Regarding worship, Martin Luther was quite “conservative.” That is, he believed that the Church should keep (conserve) everything that was of value which did not interfere with the clear proclamation of the Gospel. For Luther that meant following the fundamental pattern of worship and the liturgical calendar of seasons and scripture readings of his day. Certainly the Lutheran liturgy used the language of the people–the vernacular–but the words were translations from the Latin. Then in the 1960’s, Pope John XXIII opened some windows and soon Roman Catholics in the United States were celebrating the Mass in English. Suddenly, Lutherans who visited Catholic churches thought they were hearing the Lutheran liturgy in Roman Catholic churches! And Catholics visiting Lutheran churches were surprised at how similar the services were. We discovered we had something in common: the substantial structure of the liturgy. We recognized in one another’s worship a familiar “shape” in the way we gather around the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated. It shouldn’t have surprised us. Christians have gathered in this way, around the word, the baptismal bath, and the eucharistic meal, since the very beginning. “So those who welcomed (Peter’s) message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:41-42 NRSV). We were seeing, in our own time, the marks of the way Christians in the western catholic tradition have gathered.
What do we have in common already as we gather separately?
We receive people into our households of faith through water and the Word in Holy Baptism. We use the same formula for the actual baptism. As water is poured over the person, the minister says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Trusting in Jesus’ promises, we believe that through this washing sin is forgiven and people are made members of Christ’s body, the Church. We agree that baptism is a gift from God available to infants as well as older children and adults. We agree that candidates for baptism should have sponsors who are members of the Church and who make promises to help the newly baptized grow in the faith. Each of our traditions then provides for lifelong growth in faith through Christian education.
We also gather around the altar as at a table to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of blessing, the body and blood of Jesus Christ given for the forgiveness of sins and as food for our journey. We each believe that this eucharistic meal, like baptism, is a gift of grace. We may use different words and emphasize different parts of the Eucharist but we recognize the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of communion.
What can we do together?
We can begin at the beginning. We can recognize and celebrate our unity in Holy Baptism. We each agree that Baptism is a washing away of sin and an entrance into the one Body of Christ which is Christ’s Church. We each agree that Baptism is done with water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Without question we are able to recognize a baptized child of God in each other. Lutherans who become Roman Catholic are not rebaptized, nor are Roman Catholics who become Lutherans. At both Lutheran and Catholic baptisms it is possible for one of the sponsors to be a member of the other church. When Baptisms are celebrated at one of our churches clergy from the other church are welcome to participate through prayers or blessings.
We can confess together our belief in the one God using the words handed down to us. The words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are the core of our common faith confessed by each of our churches at liturgy. The words of the Athanasian Creed are held by both of our churches as a true confession of our faith in the Triune God. At those times when we gather together to pray for unity we would be able to confess together our common faith proclaimed in the words of these creeds. We could also sit down together and study what these creeds mean for our lives as faithful children of the One God.
We can pray together to the one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We may indeed have divisions which keep us in separate church bodies. But on regular occasions we could meet together and ask the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into the unity for which our Lord prayed. Both of our churches observe similar liturgical calendars. The church year provides many opportunities for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to worship together outside of Holy Communion. Opportunities can be developed for parishes and congregations to join for prayer such as during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, during Lent, and on the Eve of Pentecost. There are congregations that are physically near to each other who could gather in one central place for the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday and then process to their respective church buildings. We can also join in worship at each others churches. On those occasions like weddings and funerals or when we visit another church with friends, we can actively participate in the singing, the prayers, and the confession of the creeds. We are separated, but as Vatican II so clearly proclaimed, we are separated brothers and sisters in Christ. As such it is appropriate to come before our God together in prayer.
We have the common daily prayer of the Church, inherited from our common ancestors: Morning Prayer (Matins), Evening Prayer (Vespers), and Prayer at the Close of the Day (Compline). We share many of the rituals and practices of liturgy. We kneel to humble ourselves before our God. We make the sign of the cross on ourselves in remembrance of our baptism. We sing many of the same songs of the ancient church and of modern composers. In our hymn books, we sing the texts of both Roman Catholic and Lutheran composers.
Of course, when we look at our practices we realize that within each of our churches there is a wide variety of traditions and spiritualities. Neither of our churches is a monolith. In the realization of the diversity within our two communions, we may find it easier to understand and deal with the diversity between our communions.
What can’t we do together?
What we cannot do is gather together around the table of the Lord and share the eucharistic meal. This is not because we don’t like or trust one another. It is because we continue to have disagreements on one crucial issue that is important to each of us, an issue that is too important to pretend doesn’t exist. This issue is the ordained ministry. We agree that the Church was given the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacraments by our Lord Jesus. Having ordained ministers is not an option for either of our Churches. We are, however, not in agreement about what the fullness of this ordained ministry is. This does not mean that Lutheran pastors and Roman Catholic priests can never join in common worship services at each other’s churches. Roman Catholic priests are able, with the permission of their bishop, to read Scripture, lead prayer, give a blessing, and even preach in Lutheran churches that invite them to do so. Even Pope John Paul II has preached at a Lutheran church in Rome. Lutheran pastors can do the same things in Roman Catholic churches that invite them to do so.
Some would like to say that our differences really don’t matter. “Why don’t we just ignore our differences and get together?” That sounds so easy. It even sounds like it might be the right thing to do. But to do this trivializes our most important possessions, the gifts of God in word and sacraments. We need to hold these dear, to treat them as the great treasures they are. If we do not agree regarding some teaching or practice then we need to talk about our differences and not simply pretend they don’t matter. If the treasures of the faith are as important for our lives as we believe they are, then in those areas where we disagree we must find out first why we disagree and engage in the sometimes difficult work of searching for our common ground.
There are some in both churches who say that we should be able to commune at each other’s altars. However, each of our churches understands something different about unity at the eucharistic meal. ELCA teaching emphasizes that the Eucharist is a source of unity. Therefore, all baptized Christians are welcome to receive the sacrament at ELCA altars. The Catholic church emphasizes that sharing the Eucharist is a sign of unity, therefore, only those whose church bodies are in union with the Roman Catholic church may commune at Catholic altars. This is one of those areas where we must accept each other’s understanding and work together to arrive at a new consensus.
The Church of Jesus Christ will continue forever because it has Christ’s promise and Christ’s presence. We are brothers and sisters in Christ even though we are separated. We can and do work together in many areas to minister to the needs of the world as Christ has called us to do. And we can even continue to worship separately and remain faithful Christian brothers and sisters. What we cannot do is simply accept the divisions between our two Churches. We are united into one Christ; there is one Baptism, one faith, one God and Father of us all. (Ephesians 4:5) We are bound, therefore, to one another by Christ. We have an obligation to our Lord to continue to talk to one another and to be open to the movement of the Spirit to bring us together.