After 500 years of schism, will the rift of the Reformation finally be healed?

Source: The Guardian

By Harriet Sherwood

Martin Luther’s burning of the Papal Bull excommunicating him in 1520 led to five centuries of religious division in Europe.
Martin Luther’s burning of the Papal Bull excommunicating him in 1520 led to five centuries of religious division in Europe. Photograph: Getty

simple act, it was the work of a few moments, but it triggered an epic era of political and religious convulsions that changed the shape of Europe. On 31 October 1517, a monk named Martin Luther walked to a church in the German town of Wittenberg and nailed a document – his 95 theses – to its wooden doors, lighting the fuse of the Reformation.

On Monday an ecumenical service led by Pope Francis at Lund cathedral in southern Sweden will herald a year of events running up to the 500th anniversary of the move that resulted in the greatest schism in western Christianity and a string of religious wars – and which has sectarian echoes today on the football terraces of northern Europe.

Christian leaders and congregations will spend the next 12 months consolidating moves towards greater cooperation and dialogue after centuries of division. In the first papal visit to Sweden in more than 25 years, Francis will lead prayers asking “forgiveness for divisions perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions”. On Tuesday, he will celebrate mass in Malmö before around 10,000 people.

In Germany, leaders of the Catholic and main Protestant churches have issued a joint text calling for a “healing of memories” of past divisions. An ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land aimed at highlighting common roots despite separation has just concluded.

The commemorations are the latest step in a slow rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant traditions – pursued by Francis, who has put ecumenicalism and healing past wounds at the heart of his papacy. The moves are not without controversy, however. “There are rightwing Roman Catholics who find the whole thing profoundly distasteful,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford and author of The Reformation: A History. “But they’re the sort of people who hate the present pope anyway.

“On the other side, you’ve got the remnants of high-temperature Protestantism. In Northern Ireland, for instance, you’ll have preachers saying how dreadful all this is.”

A recent document signed by dozens of Protestant evangelicals and entitled “Is the Reformation Over?” says that although cooperation between the two traditions should be encouraged in areas of common concern, “the issues that gave birth to the Reformation 500 years ago are still very much alive in the 21st century for the whole church”.

The meeting of Pope Francis and Archbishop Antje Jackelén in Sweden will underscore one of the big divides between their churches: the role of women.
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The meeting of Pope Francis and Archbishop Antje Jackelén in Sweden will underscore one of the big divides between their churches: the role of women. Photograph: AFP/Getty

According to historians, Luther never intended his 95 theses – which may or may not actually have been nailed to the church doors – to spark a revolution. “He started by wanting reform. He never planned to split away from the Latin church; that wasn’t where it began,” said Bishop William Kenney, the Catholic co-chair of the international dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, who will accompany the pope to Sweden.

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