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Are Lutherans Next? Lutherans Seek Full Communion with Catholic Church

By Deacon Keith Fournier
July 11th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Pope Benedict XVI's first Papal message: 'With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty.'

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) -  On Tuesday, Peter Kemmether,  a married 62 year old father of four children was ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller.  Fr. Peter was granted a dispensation from the canonical discipline of celibacy attached to priestly ordination. He had been a Protestant Pastor who came into the full communion of the Catholic Church as the fruit of a sincere search for the fullness of the Christian faith. On June 6, 2010, I read a story in the Philadelphia Enquirer entitled "The Priest and his Mrs."  concerning now Fr. Philip Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor for 19 years, who followed a similar path. He was ordained for the Diocese of Camden with the same exception, under the sponsorship and invitation of Bishop Joseph Galante. 

Catholics are becoming aware of the former Anglican and Episcopal ministers who have followed the same journey home. Fewer Catholics are aware of the marvelous welcome the Church has extended to many more through the historic apostolic constitution approved by Pope Benedict XI. I have written extensively about this and recently shared my joy with our readers at the ordination of lifelong friend and pro-life hero Fr. Paul Schenck, whose ordination I had the privilege of attending last month. You can read my account here.  

I am in a dialogue with Archbishop Irl A. Gladfelter, CSP, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the  Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, a group of Lutherans who have embraced the Catholic Catechism and the teaching of the Magisterium. They are humbly knocking at the door of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeking a way into full communion. You can read about this amazing group here. I am working on a fuller story of their journey. Some have said that their smallness and placement on "the fringes" of the Lutheran community makes them less representative. I recall that those were the same comments made about the "Traditional Anglican Communion" in their early efforts. They became the prophetic vehicle the Holy Spirit used to open up an historic breakthrough.

To be Catholic is to enter into the prayer of Jesus for the Unity of His Church. In Pope Benedict XVI's first Papal message he signaled his  commitment to this unity: "Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope in the Upper Room. The Successor of Peter knows that he must make himself especially responsible for his Divine Master's supreme aspiration. Indeed, he is entrusted with the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22: 32). With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty."

He has placed the commitment to the full communion of the Church at the forefront of his Papacy. This is evident in his love, respect and repeated overtures toward our Orthodox brethren, whom we recognize as a Church and whose priesthood and Sacraments we also recognize. However, this love is also evident in his outreach to the separated Christians of the Reformation communities of the West. On the 4th anniversary of the death of his predecessor, John Paul II, Pope Benedict reminded us of John Paul's passionate commitment to the full communion of the Church. That teaching is summarized in the Encyclical Letter "May they be One" (Ut Unum Sint).

The teaching of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. John Paul II wrote: "It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression "separated brethren" tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities". The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes" There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ."(#42)

John Paul also wrote: "Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant". This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved." (#40)

I embrace the Catholic claim that the fullness of truth is found within the Catholic Church and carry a burden to see the prayer of Jesus recorded in St. John, Chapter 17, answered. There is a connection. Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with "sides" and "camps" at enmity with one another, the Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God. The heart of the "Gospel" is the message that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God - and through Him, in the Spirit, with one another- is not only possible but is the plan of God for the entire human race. The Church is the way. It was not the Lord's plan that she be divided. It is His Plan that she be restored to full communion.

Let us take our lead from the clear teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These paragraphs are in the section entitled "Wounds to Unity":

"817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."

820 "Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit."

Are Lutherans Next? We shall see. However, the Holy Spirit is clearly at work.We should welcome these wonderful stories as they increase and pray for the plan of the Lord for the full communion of all Christians to unfold.

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