Catholics and Lutherans mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a joint service

vita-tree planting
Lutheran Bishop Terry Kee and Archbishop William Goh plant a tree together in a sign of unity. Photo: VITA Images

By Christopher Khoo

Lutherans and Catholics in Singapore commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a joint service at Jurong Christian Church on Oct 30.

The service, in English and Mandarin, was also attended by clergy and members of other Christian Churches.
Lutheran pastors and Catholic priests led the crowd in a time of prayer and reflection on the commonalities in both traditions and in prayers of repentance for the painful divisions that have existed between the two Churches for centuries.

On Oct 31, 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging certain practices in the Catholic Church then. This date is usually marked as the beginning of the Reformation which divided Christianity.

In their prayers, the Lutheran pastors noted that “Catholics and Lutherans have so much of the faith in common. We give thanks that we have a common baptism, we confess the same Creeds, and that we have journeyed together towards the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and beyond.”

The joint declaration was signed by the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in 1999. The declaration said the two Churches’ consensus on basic truths means that the doctrine of justification – how people are made just in the eyes of God and saved by Jesus Christ – is not a Church-dividing issue for Catholics and Lutherans even though differences between them remain in language, theological elaboration and emphasis surrounding those basic truths.

The Lutheran pastors also reflected that “our baptism calls us to a life of repentance. It is appropriate that we repent of the wrongs we have done to each other, the wrongs we share in our common history.”

They prayed that “as communities and as individuals, we repent of the ways we have despised one another, failed to listen to each other, and for the words we have used that hurt each other.”

joint blessing
Archbishop Goh and Bishop Kee blessing the crowd at Jurong Christian Church.

In his homily, Lutheran Bishop Terry Kee observed that Catholics and Lutherans have over the past 500 years focused on their differences rather than their commonalities.

“We forget that we all believe in the triune God,” he said. “With this service we are not saying that we are in full agreement with each other in everything, but we do recognise that there is more that unites us than that which divides us.”

Archbishop William Goh, in his homily, said that Catholics and Lutherans can learn from Luther’s experience of being justified by the mercy and grace of God.

“Firstly, we need to once again establish the primacy of grace above all things. Today, there is an emphasis on efforts, on achieving things on your own,” said Archbishop Goh.

“Primacy of grace means we are unworthy… we will never be good enough for God,” he said. However, God “has shown us His unconditional love and mercy”.

Archbishop Goh noted that Luther recognised his own helplessness and clung on to God. However, in today’s secular world, “people are saying they don’t need God”.

”This is our challenge: How do we proclaim Christ as the saviour to a world that does not need a saviour?” he asked. The proclamation of the Good News requires Christians to be able to show and lead people to the fullness of life, he said.

A choir sings during the service. 

Both bishops then led the crowd in making five commitments in growing in communion, lighting a candle after reciting each commitment. These are:

— Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.

— Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.

 Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly towards this goal.

 Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.

 Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Frs John-Paul Tan and Kenson Koh led the intercessory prayers, asking God to “heal painful memories, transform all complacency, indifference and ignorance [and] pour out a spirit of reconciliation.”

The service also saw both bishops blessing the crowd and planting a tree together in a sign of unity.

Part of the crowd comprising Catholics, Lutherans and Christians from other Churches.

Lutherans and Catholics said they found the service inspiring.

Ms Rosalind Phua from Queenstown Lutheran Church said she was happy with the emphasis on the commonalities in both Churches. She added that she has Catholic friends, and sometimes difficult situations arise over the differences between Lutherans and Catholics.

Carmelite Fr Ferdinand Purnomo said he felt the emphasis on repentance and explicit commitment to visible unity was important.

“I think it’s a positive step,” he said, adding that “I personally have the desire to see the full unity of not just Lutherans and Catholics but all Christians.” 

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