A wound that tore Christian churches apart in the time of the Reformation was healed 20 years ago – but too few people know that.

“For the people who were involved, it was a huge step forward,” says Father Martin Moser, pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in New Westminster.

In 1999, Catholics and Lutherans signed a joint declaration, coming to an agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith. 

“What it really means is that it’s through God’s grace that we are saved and forgiven. We can’t earn salvation,” said Father Moser.

“It was the first time since the Second Vatican Council, or even before that, that the Catholic Church as a whole and the Lutheran churches together came to an agreement. That had never happened before, and it was on such a central issue.”

In the years that followed, the World Methodist Council, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Consultative Council also got on board with the declaration – some as recently as 2017.

Father Moser said it may come as a surprise to many Catholics that something that tore Christians apart 500 years ago is now a powerful instrument of unity. He hopes many people rejoice in that fact as the 20th anniversary of the agreement comes up this November.

“It’s a celebration of thanksgiving to God, because that’s what matters more than anything,” he said.

St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Coquitlam will host an anniversary event Nov. 3, and Catholics, Lutherans, and other Christians are invited to join in realizing the “crux of all the disputes” in the Reformation has evaporated for five of the largest denominations in Western Christianity.

Rev. Marlys Moen of Mount Zion Lutheran (right) at an ecumenical event.

Marlys Moen, pastor of Mount Zion Lutheran Church in New Westminster, said when she was a child, an ecumenical movement like this was unthinkable.

Moen grew up in a small prairie town in the 1950s and ’60s where she was allowed to play with any of the neighbourhood kids – except the Catholics. When the joint document between Lutherans and Catholics was signed 20 years ago, she was in seminary.

“We studied the document because it was quite a historic event,” she said. “That was the whole doctrine that tore things apart in 1517, and to be able to get to a point to say, ‘no, we can agree upon this, this, and this,’ was huge.”

Yet today, “a lot of pastors and clergy are unaware of it.”

She said there is a need, here and now, for people to set aside some “deep-seated barriers” and get to know their Christian brothers and sisters. “When you actually do it, you have more in common than what has kept you apart. We are Christians together, and that is a powerful witness to be giving our community at large.”

There is a strong tradition of close relations between churches in New Westminster. For the last 17 years, Christians from five communions have been getting together for prayer, reflection, and conversation every Lent. They have also celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January and the World Day of Prayer in March together for longer than Moen has been a pastor at Mount Zion.

At church-organized social justice efforts, Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians now are often seen volunteering side-by-side, said Moen.

“We haven’t been doing this (solely) because we have a joint declaration. No! It’s because we enjoy learning together, being together, and worshiping together,” said Moen.

Christians of various denominations dialogue about what it means to be a disciple.

Catholic Maureen Boyd said her faith has been deeply influenced by Jesus’ prayer recorded in the Book of John: “That they may all be one.” 

She first attended an ecumenical prayer service a few years ago at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Coquitlam.

“I felt very welcomed by the members of the Lutheran congregation” and “struck by similarities in the way that the altar was set up, as well as the number of common songs in the hymnal,” she said.

“At consequent gatherings, I learned to respect and admire their knowledge of the Bible, their facility in spontaneous prayer, their youth programs, their community outreach, and their love of music. In my ongoing relationships with my Lutheran friends, I have never felt judged nor felt that my Catholicism was being judged.”

A huge moment for Boyd, and for many Catholics and Lutherans in the Lower Mainland, was an event commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Pope Francis marked the occasion by taking part in an ecumenical Catholic-Lutheran prayer service at Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Locally, about 300 people turned up to pray for healing from old wounds between their faith traditions in Coquitlam.

The organizing committee considered it such a success and so enjoyed spending time together that they continued to meet once a month, looking for other opportunities to bring members of their various traditions together.

That led to an interdenominational Taize prayer service during Advent in 2018 and a discussion series on what it means to be a present-day disciple for several weeks this past March.

The upcoming November event is another chance for people to gather, learn from each other, pray together, and celebrate they have more in common than they may have realized.

“The event coming up is a possibility for somebody who has never experienced gathering together, to be willing to risk doing something you have been raised to not do,” said Moen. 

“Experience the joy and the value of coming together as the people of God, without our labels – just that we are people of God.”

The 1999 document states, “We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.”

The full text can be found on the Vatican’s website.

Anyone interested in learning more about ecumenical efforts or in becoming a parish representative for ecumenical and interfaith relations can call Maria Rocha, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, at 604-683-0281 ext. 50232.