It's been 500 years since an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, frustrated with some practices of the pope and the Catholic Church, wrote a list of 95 complaints or "theses" and nailed them to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany -- an act that set off the Protestant Reformation.
On Oct. 22, 3-4:30 p.m., at First Lutheran Church in Albany, local Catholics and Protestants will commemorate the 500th anniversary of that event with a free program and ecumenical worship service. The program is co-sponsored by the Capital Region Ecumenical Organization (CREO) and the Protestant-Catholic Dialogue Committee of the Albany Diocese.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Diocese will join Bishop John Macholz of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in delivering a joint sermon at the event, which is titled, "500 Years of Catholics and Protestants: Where Are We Now?"
A keynote address will be given by Rev. Dennis Tamburello, OFM, a professor of religious studies at Siena College in Loudonville and a member of the national Reformed Church-Roman Catholic Dialogue.
Father Tamburello spoke with The Evangelist about the focus of his talk: the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," which was signed by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999.
That agreement resolved one of the central controversies that sparked the Reformation: belief in salvation by faith alone, vs. salvation by faith and works. The agreement was subsequently signed by the Methodist and Reformed Churches.
Father Tamburello sees the 1999 Joint Declaration as "a watershed document. It takes the approach of each side seeing the valid insights of the other."
He explained the concept of justification as "'being right with God.'
"Christians believe that humans have alienated themselves from God, and the question is, how is that alienation overcome?" said the keynoter. "Certainly, Christians would all agree that the answer is the grace of Christ. Where there has been some disagreement is, what is the role of the person being 'saved?'
"Catholics traditionally have understood themselves to be able to contribute to their justification by their 'yes' to God's grace. Lutherans and other Protestants have traditionally held that there is absolutely nothing that the sinner does except surrender himself or herself to God's mercy. Some of this has to do with our communities using the word 'justification' in different ways."
Today, most Catholics and Lutherans are open to dialogue and understand that the issues that divided the faiths in the past are nuanced, Father Tamburello said.
"Both sides recognize that they had blind spots and were often talking past each other. To use a sports analogy, we sometimes talked as if we were on two different ballparks, rather than on different bases in the same ballpark," the keynoter said.
Many believers from both faith traditions have wondered whether the future could bring reunification of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Father Tamburello believes any progress has to do more with authority than theology: whether the pope's leadership can be accepted by all Christians, for example.
But "right now, we should just rejoice that we're listening to and trying to understand each other," he said. "We've made a lot of progress with that in 50 years. Where it's all going institutionally is a much more difficult question to answer. I don't know if I'll live to see any formal mergers, but I can dream!"
Lutherans and Catholics are "pilgrims on the road together," he said, and must keep open minds and hearts in order to deal with issues that have caused strife.
"Given the state of the world, we need to work together to proclaim the Gospel in word and in deed," Father Tamburello stressed. "We can easily get too caught up in internal issues and not put enough attention on our mission of promoting peace, justice and love."
The "500 Years of Catholics and Protestants" gathering will include a renewal of baptismal promises in which representatives of eight faith traditions will combine water from their baptismal fonts as witness to the one baptism that unites all Christians. The Festival Celebration Choir will sing "Grant Us Thy Peace," based on a text by Martin Luther.
Donations of canned and non-perishable food items are requested for the emergency shelter and the Damien Center, both located at First Lutheran Church.