Catholic participation in Refo500 as fruit of ecumenical approach

Last Tuesday Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke at a press conference to signal the start of Refo500, a series of activities leading up to 2017 and the celebration of 500 years of Reformation. Msgr. de Korte is a member of the project group of the Catholic Society for Ecumenism that participates in Refo500 on behalf of the Catholic Church.

I shared my thought about the Catholic participation in Refo500 in an earlier post and in his address, Msgr. de Korte raises some similar points concerning the importance of not ignoring the things that still separate us and, at the same time, of working with those things we share. Another interesting point raised below is the ‘smell of home’, of Christianity as a cultural and social mark.

Refo500 and the ecumenism discussed here is sometimes particularly Dutch. The bishop’s references to ‘Gristus’ and ‘Kristus’, for example, refer to the particular pronunciation in Dutch of the name of Christ: most Protestant use the throaty [x] sound, whereas Catholic use the Latin version [k]. They’re minute differences that carry a raft of social and cultural connotations.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

In the past half century a lot has happened in ecumenism. The old walls between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians have been increasingly demolished. Yesterday’s papists and heretics have today become brothers and sisters in the one Lord. Personally I see this development as the work of God’s Spirit.

Of course there still are theological differences. Personally I think that many differences are concentrated around the topics of ‘sacramentality’ and especially around the concept of de Church, the sacrament, holy orders and Mary.

Besides theological differences the differences in the ‘smell of home’ are equally important for the average parishioner or the average community member. Our subcultures often still encourage mutual alienation. When a Protestant Christian speaks of ‘Gristus’ instead of ‘Kristus’ a Catholic senses a major distance. Likewise, Catholic usage of ‘Our Lord’ will be difficult for many Protestants.

It is not appropriate to deny or ignore all this. But we realise more and more our calling to search for unity. Only so do we answer the Lord’s desire that all His followers be one (cf. John 17). In th past half century we preferred to emphasise those things that Rome and the Reformation share instead of the things that still divide us. As a common heritage I mention Holy Scripture and the bond with God via the Scriptures; the Ten Commandments; the relationship with Jesus Christ, in Whom God revealed Himself in the fullness of time; the confessions of faith of the early Church; the confession of the Triune God and the theological and spiritual heritage of the first 1,500 years of the Church.

I consider the Catholic participation in Refo500 as fruit of the ecumenical movement. 500 years ago Roman Catholics and Protestant were often violently and irredeemably opposed. We even both used violence in name of our faith. But luckily we can now look back on the origins of Reformation in a more irenic atmosphere.

Historian and theologians from different traditions try to get a new and less biased  viewed on the time of the Reformation. En route to the Luther year in 2017, I hope to see many new historical and theological publications. In that way we can work on what Pope John Paul called “the purification of memory”.

But hopefully Refo500 won’t be just for historians and theologians. A clear view on the past can help every Christian in furthering ecumenical dialogue. In the Netherlands we live in a secular culture of the majority. Confessional Christians have become a minority. This further increases the importance of the ecumenical meeting between Christian of different backgrounds. Only when we continue to overcome our mutual divisions can we give a believable witness of Christ and His Gospel. We are facing the challenge to show that living in friendship with Christ make a real difference.

Msgr. Dr. G.J.N. De Korte

Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

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The above words were spoken at a press conference intended to promote Refo500, so they are naturally rather general and focussed on cooperation. I am personally quite interested to see how the Catholic identity becomes visible in the events. There are plans, it seems, for an exhibition about the Council of Trent, called in response to the Reformation and still very influential in the modern Church. That would be a very good element to include for the sake of creating a complete picture.

Catholic involvement in the Reformation?

The title is a bit deceptive, I know, but it has some relevance. Nederlands Dagblad reports that the Catholic Church in the Netherlands will officially take part in the commemmoration of 500 years of Reformation. The program titled Refo500 builds up towards 2017, when it is 500 years since Martin Luther  published his Ninety-five Theses. Since then, of course, the various (and increasingly numerous) Protestant church communities have gone their own way.

Much can be said about the Reformation from a Catholic point of view and the question may be asked of how useful it is to partake in an event that seemingly celebrates the fact that a significant number of Christians are no longer part of the one Church. What possible merit could their be in a Catholic acknowledgement of the Reformation as a good thing (because that is the point of celebrating, of course)?

Speaking for the Catholic Society for Ecumenism, Mr. Geert van Dartel says, “We think it is important that this commemoration is not one-sided, from a reformed standpoint. […] The Reformation was a process of action and reaction.”

He has a point. The Reformation directly led to the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, which was a major impulse for the Church, and its influence is still visible. However, the Counter-Reformation, as the name implies, was very much anti-Reformation.

Karla Apperloo of Refo500: “We did not describe the term ‘Reformation’ when it comes to content. That allows space for a Catholic partner to also shine a light on the Catholic Reformation.”

Let’s hope that this space will be used for more than a mere focus on how much we have in common. That is important, of course, and the commonalities between the Church and church communities must be the basis for future ecumenism, but the differences can’t be ignored. The simple fact is that the gap between the Catholic Church and the Protestant church communities is bigger than that among any two Protestant communities. A focus on the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Catholic identity, at least from the Catholic parties, will do more for ecumenism then a celebration of mutual friendship.

The Society for Ecumenism als states that: “The divisive meaning of the great theological questions from the 16th century […] have been superseded by faith.”

And that is a bit worrying, because it seems to indicate that faith alone is left, and that all the problems and divisions are gone. But they are not. The understanding of what makes a Church is radically different between Catholics and Protestants.

I noticed that myself during the conference of Christian student groups in Groningen, a few weeks ago. The various Protestant groups seemed to consider their brands of Christianity to be mere ‘tastes’  or ‘preferences’: it doesn’t really matter what sort of Christian you are , as long as it suits you. That approach makes the individual believer, and not God, the arbitrator of what faith  and church are: they establish the church and decide what it should be. The Catholic sense of what the Church is is the total opposite: The Church has been instituted by Christ, and so He has the final power of decision. We are workers in His vineyard, but we can’t decide what His Church must be or do. The Holy Spirit does so through His people, but the initiative always lies with Him. The foundations of the Church have been given, not made by us. The Church is therefore much more than a taste of preference. It asks us to join Christ on His terms. It requires a certain level of faith and trust that through God we will find true freedom and life.

The differences are there, even in as summarised a version of the problem as mine above. We may share the same faith in Christ, but that does not mean we are all the same. In order to be the same, we must first now what ‘the same’ means.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a detour from the Refo500 events. Let’s hope and pray that a Catholic presence will make a difference. 500 years of Reformation is long enough. Time for the experiment to be over.