Archbishop Hebda encourages homework in uniting Catholics and Lutherans

| January 25, 2017 | 13 Comments

Archbishop Bernard Hebda, second from right, leads an ecumenical prayer service Jan. 22 with, from left, Lutheran bishop Ann Svennungsen of the Minneapolis Area Synod, the Rev. Dr. Bradley Schmeling of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul and Lutheran bishop Patricia Lull of the St. Paul Area Synod. Courtesy Susan Masters

Speaking at an ecumenical prayer service Jan. 22, Archbishop Bernard Hebda exhorted the congregation of Catholics and Lutherans to keep working for unity in light of last October’s joint statement in Lund, Sweden.

“It was exhilarating to listen to the talks that day and to digest the joint commitments that were made,” Archbishop Hebda said about the events in Lund. “I couldn’t help but think that Dr. Yunan and Pope Francis had given us quite the homework assignment even if we were halfway around the globe.”

Pope Francis and Bishop Dr. Munib Yunan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed the joint declaration in Lund Oct. 31 for continued work toward unity between the churches. Archbishop Hebda watched the events with local Lutheran bishops Patricia Lull and Ann Svennungsen during an Oct. 31 viewing event at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

Archbishop Hebda, in his Jan. 22 sermon, read from the pope’s and Yunan’s joint statement, which calls for “all Lutheran and Catholic parishes and communities to be bold and creative, joyful and hopeful in their commitment to continue the great journey ahead of us. Rather than conflicts of the past, God’s gift of unity among us shall guide cooperation and deepen our solidarity.”

“In spite of the immensity of that task, I feel compelled to respond affirmatively to that call,” Archbishop Hebda said. “And I find great encouragement in the fact that the Lutheran bishops in this area share that conviction.”

Archbishop Hebda accepted the invitation from Lull and Svennungsen to preach for the Jan. 22 ecumenical service at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis sponsored the event in partnership with the Minneapolis Area Synod and St. Paul Area Synod.

Andrew Heintz, 41, a Central Lutheran member who served as a host for the prayer service, liked how the service was “bringing people together. So much better than to have all these separations and walls,” he said.

In celebrating evening prayer at the service, the congregation commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation during the annual International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25. Archbishop Hebda also acknowledged that it’s a time to commemorate “the events that led to the Reformation and gave birth to the Catholic Counter Reformation as well.”

In 1517, the Reformation began with Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” a list of topics on which, the author believed, the Catholic Church needed to reform. He infamously nailed the document to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

A Catholic priest himself, Luther’s document and movement eventually led to his followers splitting from the Catholic Church. Other reformers followed suit during that time, but the Catholic Church in the following centuries began working to unify Christians.

Archbishop Hebda highlighted the past 50 years of ecumenical efforts.

“We’ve been telling the story, re-presenting the facts with an eye to justify the actions that were taken,” he said. “While I suspect it would be advantageous for Catholics to look at those facts through different eyes and vice versa, I think that our brothers and sisters who gathered in Lund would be asking us to go even further and to look at those facts from the eyes of Christ,” he added.

The archbishop addressed a “sizzling” email he received about coming to preach for the service. He said it “provided a refresher course on what is heresy” and “concluded with a cheery ‘no wonder the number of Catholics in the archdiocese is decreasing.’”

It drew laughter from the congregation.

“I’m here today because Catholics and Lutherans have moved far beyond those old prejudices or misunderstandings,” Archbishop Hebda said.

He reminded the congregation that both Catholics and Lutherans share in the same baptism. During a visit to the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility earlier in the day, he said he was “reminded by one of the non-Catholics how important it is that all those who share a common baptism support one another in meeting the huge challenges that we face in living out our shared Christian commitment.”

St. Paul resident Jim McGowan, 80, who attended the ecumenical service, said he thought the archbishop was “pretty honest about where we have been.” McGowan served as a Lutheran pastor, but still appreciated the Catholic Church, which he grew up in. He joined the Lutheran church since his wife attended that church. He recalled old tensions when he received an invitation to speak at a Lutheran women’s group about the Catholic Church, knowing they wanted to hear negative things.

“I can still remember the looks on their faces when I stood up and I said, ‘Well, first of all, I have to admit to you I still love the Catholic Church,’” McGowan said.

Archbishop Hebda spoke of his experience visiting the Reformation exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in January as an example of facing the past. He said he and the tour guide, a Lutheran, “both had moments of embarrassment and uneasiness as we walked through the exhibit and were reminded of the verbal and visual hand grenades that were lobbed from side to side in those early days of the Reformation.”

“I have taken note of the apologies that have been extended in Lund, but at a much deeper and visceral appreciation of the call to recognize error and seek forgiveness as we wondered from room to room and confronted our common past,” Archbishop Hebda added. “That confrontation isn’t easy, but it is necessary.”

He upheld the story of the man with the withered hand from the Gospel of Matthew as a scene to consider in approaching ecumenism. Jesus healed the man’s withered hand after the Lord requested him to extend that hand to him.

“It’s only because of the man’s willingness to stretch forward the hand in need of healing and expose it to public sight, the twisted hand that had been the source of his embarrassment, that the hand was healed,” Archbishop Hebda said.

“Our counterparts in Lund made clear we need to stretch forth our withered hand in a way that doesn’t re-ignite the blame game or simply renew old hostilities, but that exposes the past to the light of Christ and allows for a faithful retelling of the narrative,” Archbishop Hebda added.

The archbishop reiterated the point in speaking of Pope Francis’ Jan. 19 visit with a Finland Lutheran delegation. Pope Francis said “true ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and redeemer,” the archbishop recalled. Archbishop Hebda added that Pope Francis said, “Let us pray more fervently to the Holy Spirit so that we may experience his conversion, which makes reconciliation possible.”

“I share Pope Francis’ conviction that it is that communion of harmony that permits the Holy Spirit to act, that we would be able to find further conversions on points in doctrine and the moral teaching of the Church, and we’ll be able to draw ever closer to full and visible unity,” Archbishop Hebda said.

Archbishop Hebda sees great opportunity in Minnesota to seek unity between the churches, saying their members “have indeed had a great influence on one another in our communities.” He believes the many families in particular who draw “strength and grace from both the Lutheran and Catholic sides of the aisle” foster that influence.

Anita Mattson, 92, who attended the ecumenical service, saw that dynamic first hand growing up Lutheran while attending a Catholic school in New Rockford, North Dakota. She also had relatives, including cousins, who were Catholic. Now a Minneapolis resident and member at Central Lutheran, Mattson appreciates both churches and said she has “always been comfortable going to Mass.”

Isabelle Bakken, 83, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, attended the service with Mattson, a long-time friend through the local YWCA. Bakken said she began to understand the similarities between the two churches.

Archbishop Hebda said such local connections between Catholics and Lutherans may cause “a greater awareness here of the pain that comes from our lack of full communion and a deeper sense of the urgency of doing our part to bring to fruition Christ’s prayer that we would all be one and enjoy the communion that he enjoys with the father.”

“My hope is that we will be able to use our privileged position to the advantage of both communities, building on that shared experience as a way of giving a more united witness to Christ’s presence, especially in a world that can at times be hostile to faith,” Archbishop Hebda added.

McGowan, who once collaborated with Catholic priests as a Lutheran pastor, understands the urgency.

“We can’t just go off on our own,” McGowan said. “We’ve got too many Christian groups that are staying too independent already. They won’t even talk to us.”

Archbishop Hebda expressed that he and those gathered would “be able to give a positive accounting of our efforts” when the next ecumenical service with the churches takes place next year on Jan. 21 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul.

It sets a clear due date for accomplishing some ecumenical homework, too.

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