This is the time of year when students begin to gather new clothing and supplies for school, and when parish staffs plot out their programs for the new year. Kids may dread the inevitable, but it is definitely a time for future thinking. It’s always time for a fresh start.

Moreover, it’s within that larger hope-filled human consciousness that we as a Church begin to plan for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous/infamous Ninety-five theses. The Church was torn apart, even amid some wonderful working of God’s renewing grace. We certainly don’t “celebrate” division, but we are deeply grateful for the Church renewal which accompanied those difficult years. Tragically, much blood was shed on all sides and families torn apart. God’s truth itself was sometimes also among the casualties of that era. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit used those human debates to bring greater clarity to the gifts of God’s grace.

The past century has seen constant steps toward renewed mutual understanding and reconciliation. On Oct. 31, 1999, representatives of Pope John Paul II and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which acknowledged that the issues of the 16th century, properly understood, need no longer be viewed as Church-dividing.

I was privileged to serve as Catholic co-chair for two rounds of our national Lutheran/Catholic Dialogues (1998-2010). I know the quality of commitment shared by each of the theological delegates gathered around the table as well as their precision in finding the right words to describe the faith they shared and professed.

Thus, as a result of the careful theological dialogue of the past half century, we can say with confidence that the specific issues which tore the Church apart in 1517 following Luther’s invitation to talk, rightly understood, no longer divide the Church. Certainly some newer and painful questions have arisen such as gender in ordained ministry in Lutheranism, and doctrinal questions in Catholicism such as the infallibility of the Pope defined in 1869 and the Assumption of Mary in 1950. Nevertheless, Lutherans and Catholics now live in “real though imperfect communion.” Among other things, we share belief in the necessity of grace, transforming nature of the Gospel, the importance of baptism, centrality of the Eucharist and even the need for personal purification prior to entering the presence of God.

The Catholic and Lutheran bishops of Wisconsin will gather here in Milwaukee on Tuesday evening, Oct. 31, for common prayer to acknowledge that 500-year mark. We will stand humbly before God in gratitude for the reconciliation which God’s grace has achieved as a result of the work of the past century. The effort has been primarily God’s, but we human beings have cooperated in a fashion one could hardly have anticipated a century ago.
Last year our two Churches published a document entitled From Conflict to Communion, chronicling the history of our division as well as our more recent subsequent efforts toward full and final ecclesial reconciliation. This is something we never anticipated when the formal conversations began during the days of the Second Vatican Council.

Given the imperfect communion which we now share, five Imperatives were listed in the concluding pages of that document. They remain concrete steps toward the future which we Catholics are called to embrace. They state with clarity and conviction the following mandates:
1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity, and not from the point of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, and to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the Gospel for our time.
5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

The work of God’s Holy Spirit in our day continues to underscore God’s grace at the source and center of all our contemporary ecumenical efforts. This is God’s work, not merely human courtesy or “playing nicely in the world’s sandbox.”