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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

Sorrow and joy: Marking the Reformation with honesty about the past

As Catholics and Lutherans prepare to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis said they should feel “pain for the division that still exists among us, but also joy for the brotherhood we have already rediscovered.”

The pope will travel to Lund, Sweden, on 31st October, to participate in an ecumenical prayer service launching a year of anniversary activities. Lutherans mark 31st October as Reformation Day, honouring Martin Luther, who was a Catholic priest in 1517 when he began the process that became the Protestant Reformation.

His 95 Theses were a list of topics on which, Luther believed, the Catholic Church needed to reform. Asserting that faith, not deeds, leads to salvation, many items on the list were triggered by the “selling” of indulgences, a practice the Council of Trent later banned.

The Catholic Church believes that Christ and the saints have accumulated a treasure of merits, which other believers – who are prayerful and repentant – can draw upon to reduce or erase the punishment they are due because of sins they have committed. Colloquially, an indulgence is described as a promise of reduced time in purgatory.

While making money from indulgences was a spark, the heart of the Reformation became different understandings of justification, or how people are made righteous in the eyes of God and saved. In 1999, after years of theological study, discussion and review, a joint declaration on justification was finalised and signed. It said Lutherans and Catholics agree that justification and salvation are totally free gifts of God and cannot be earned by performing good works, but rather must be reflected in good works.

Picture: A statue of Martin Luther is seen onstage as Pope Francis arrives for an audience with a pilgrimage of Catholics and Lutherans from Germany in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on 13th October. The pope will visit Sweden from 31st October to 1st November for commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters).