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What is the Wittenberg 2017 Initiative?

A Catholic lay leader with a Ph.D. in history gave a lecture on the medieval papacy. With a historian’s precision, she characterized the sins against which Martin Luther protested – lust for power, sexual immorality, greed. After finishing, she returned to her seat, dropped to her knees, and wept over the sins of the church she loves.

It was the first meeting of the Wittenberg 2017 Initiative – a growing fellowship of Catholics, Lutherans, Messianic Jews, and those of other Christian traditions who are responding to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with prayer, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

During our next meeting, Lutheran leaders spoke with clarity and sorrow of the antisemitism of Luther and the collusion of their church with Hitler and the Nazis. Luther called for Jews to be driven from Germany and their synagogues burned. Nazis quoted him! Lutherans asked God, and us, for forgiveness. We extended it. We all ended up on our knees before an ancient crucifix. Who among us can claim a church tradition without a history of sin and darkness?

A Catholic priest and theologian spoke of the martyrdom of Jan Hus in 1415. This demonstrated the Catholic Church had lacked resources to reform itself. He called the Protestant Reformation a gift of God’s grace to the Body of Christ. He led us in celebrating the treasures of the Reformation, if not its divisiveness.

Messianic Jews are among us. After centuries, the Jerusalem church is again in our midst. We honor the tradition of Jesus and the apostles. They are spiritual fathers and mothers to Catholics, who are spiritual fathers and mothers to mainline Protestants, who are spiritual fathers and mothers to nondenominational congregations.

How are we to respond to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation?

1 – We honor our own tradition, while speaking truthfully about its historic wrongs.

2 – As representatives of our tradition, we repent and ask for forgiveness.

3 – We honor and extend forgiveness to those of other traditions. We don’t judge.

4 – We honor our spiritual fathers and mothers, and also our sons and daughters.

5 – We join Jesus in his John 17 prayer: Father, I ask that they may all be one.