At first, rain threatened to spoil Reformation Day 1999, but by 9:00 a.m. the sun had dispelled the clouds and an unusually warm day enveloped the historic city of Augsburg, Germany, which would witness yet one more momentous event before sunset. Bells pealed from churches throughout the city announcing an event of great joy.
Those attending the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification first gathered that morning in the Roman Catholic Cathedral for a service described as a “statio,” a place of confession and baptismal remembrance prior to the procession to the Lutheran Church of St. Anna, the place of the actual signing ceremony. The Roman Catholic bishop of Augsburg and the Oberkirchenrat (superintendent) of Bavaria presided at the service of repentance, but all the while the glorious sounds of Palestrina’s Psalm 100, a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, set the tone for the day.
Then it was time for the procession through the city streets to St. Anna’s. I was expecting the usual outdoor procession, the kind so many of us have on the Sunday of the Passion when we have all we can do to keep 100 or so people together singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Not so in Augsburg. These were Germans hosting this historic event. Loudspeakers had been strung the length of the one-mile procession so the choirs from the Cathedral were able to lead the singing. Thousands lined the street and joined in alternating Lutheran chorales and Taize chants. There were tears in the eyes of so many. Positive ecumenical relations between Roman Catholics and Lutherans have existed for at best 15 years in this part of the world. To many this was a miracle happening in front of their eyes. The townspeople swelled the procession, led by an acolyte carrying a large silver crucifix, and many others were carrying banners, others swinging incense, still others ringing bells, adding to the festive solemnity of the day. The expected protestors never materialized. Instead, as we entered the church, a leaflet was thrust into our hands advocating the immediate sharing of Holy Communion between the two churches.
Upon arrival at St. Anna’s we were greeted by hundreds of people filling the streets, singing, and wanting see as much as possible. Later we learned thousands more had gathered inside and outside a huge tent on the city square plaza where a large projection screen surrounded by flowers provided a simulcast. Inside the church, ablaze with television lights for broadcast throughout Germany and on the Internet, more were awaiting the procession to arrive.
The service was extraordinarily beautiful, opening with two Bach preludes played on a stunning 16th century instrument. The choir sang a full range of music, including the familiar Zimbabwe “Alleluia” before the reading of the Gospel. Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, offered the first homily, an impressive treatise on the doctrine of justification. At the end of his remarks, Cardinal Cassidy announced that at the Angelus audience following Mass at St. Peter’s, the pope would endorse in the strongest terms what was being done in Augsburg. Lutheran World Federation president Christian Krause offered the second homily, a strong Lutheran statement on justification that was thoughtful and hopeful.
After several readings from the document, the actual signing ceremony began, accompanied by the strains of Maurice Durufle’s Variations (both organ and choral) on “Veni Creator.” Cardinal Cassidy and President Krause each signed two books, one in English, one in German. They were followed by LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko and Bishop Walter Kaspar, secretary of the Pontifical Council. Spontaneous applause erupted, drowning out the music. Tears flowed easily as the rest of the Lutherans signed. ELCA Presiding Bishop George Anderson was the last to sign. He admitted to us later the emotion of the moment made his signature almost illegible (not really true). Behind the signers sat some of the architects of the document: Eugene Brand, Harding Meyer, and Michael Root. The church’s ancient hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, was intoned, and to close the service, the great Lutheran chorale, “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” was sung. History had been made.
The significance of this event was celebrated in other ways during the three days that the official delegations visited the city of Augsburg. An opening reception on Friday evening was an opportunity to meet and greet people from around the world, many of whom have been our teachers on Lutheran and Roman Catholic systematic theology through their many writings.
Saturday morning provided an opportunity for the civic celebration of the signing of the Joint Declaration. (Keep in mind that in Bavaria, it is difficult to distinguish between sacred and secular events.) Invited guests were ushered into the baroque Golden Hall of Augsburg’s city hall for a series of lectures (very German!) by both secular and ecclesiastical authorities. In one of the great highlights of the weekend, the lectures were interspersed with various children’s musical groups performing music both ancient and modern, a sign of hope for the future of the Church and the world. The civic celebration was concluded with a lavish brunch (one of several splendid meals provided by the city during the three days we were in Augsburg) where wine and beer flowed freely (it was, after all, Oktoberfest time!).
Various tours of the city were offered to the official participants on Saturday afternoon. It’s hard to describe the emotion of being in the building where Martin Luther met with Cardinal Cajetan in 1518 to defend the theological principles of his 95 theses, or to stand on the place where the Augsburg Confession was read before the Imperial Diet in 1530, or to view the marvelous paintings depicting the history of the Reformation as well as the death and resurrection of Christ that adorn the [Lutheran] Church of the Holy Cross. In a city nearly leveled by allied bombing in World War II, history still reaches out to remind you of the importance this city has played on the world stage for hundreds of years.
Saturday concluded with solemn vespers in the Basilica of Saints Ulrich and Afra, a splendid baroque structure which has, adjacent to its grounds, a Lutheran parish dating from the same period. North American Lutherans felt at home as the sounds of Evening Prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship resounded throughout the crowded basilica. Two homilies, the first by General Secretary Noko and the second by Bishop Kaspar, pointed to the significance of the occasion as the culmination of decades of prayer and theological conversation.
Everyone in Augsburg was well aware that the signing of the “Joint Declaration” was a beginning rather than the culmination of the search for unity between our two churches. But the significance of this agreement is hard to overestimate, as can be seen by the many overtures Rome has made to the Lutheran community as the Jubilee year 2000 is celebrated. Everyone anticipates that a new sense of energy and urgency will unfold in both the international and the North American dialogues as the search for unity continues. It was a profound privilege for me to accompany Presiding Bishop Anderson to this historic event, as it is for me to serve as the Lutheran staff person to the North American Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. At this moment in history we can only echo the words of the hymn of praise sung in Augsburg: “You are God; we praise you. You are the Lord; we acclaim you. All creation worships you!”