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W.Pa. Catholics, Lutherans aim to mend centuries-old schism

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Separated by centuries of enmity, Lutherans and Catholics are using the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation to ask forgiveness of each other and focus on things they have in common.

On April 4, Lutherans and Catholics from Western Pennsylvania will gather in Pittsburgh for an “Evening of Repentance” tied to the Reformation anniversary. While not quite a celebration, the event is a commemoration of a seminal moment in the life of Western Christianity — a family squabble that led to the further fracturing of Christianity in the early 1500s.

“Any time you have a division in the Christian faith, that's going to sadden Jesus himself,” Bishop David A. Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said.

Zubik is one of four Christian hierarchs participating in the prayer service at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall. He will be joined by Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, Metropolitan William C. Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh and Bishop Kurt F. Kusserow of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod.

“There are real divisions,” Malesic said, “but any of the divisions that are caused by human sinfulness we want to repent of. We want to fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we be one.”

The Lenten prayer service will be the culmination of months of work in which Catholic and Lutheran leaders have been looking for ways to “increase mutual understanding, reconciliation and more visible unity of the Church” in light of the 500th anniversary, according to a letter signed by all four bishops.

In the letter, they encourage clergy and laity to join them at the service and for a light Lenten meal afterward. The service was rescheduled from March 14 because of weather. It will be streamed live online at www.StJohnsByzantineCathedral.com/cathedral/live.

Lutherans trace their origins to Martin Luther's protest of a Catholic Church that he, an Augustinian monk, felt had become corrupt. Luther's posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 started as an attempt to reform the church from within but eventually resulted in schism.

“Both Lutherans and Catholics said things that were condemnations against each other. Recent statements have said these condemnations are no longer valid, that we have moved from conflict to communion,” said Bishop Emeritus Donald McCoid of the ELCA's Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod.

McCoid, co-chairman of the “Evening of Repentance” planning committee, has been active in the cause of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue since 2007. Prior to being bishop for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, he was pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latrobe.

McCoid served on the joint Lutheran-Catholic task force that developed “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist,” a 2015 document that detailed 32 points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics — as well as 15 “doctrinal differences of varying gravity,” including ordination, papal authority and the Eucharist.

“After 50 years of dialogue, we have seen a lot of agreement,” McCoid said, citing the importance of the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” “We have a consensus agreement on how we are saved and how we are forgiven, which was one of the central issues of the Reformation.”

Although there has been a gradual thaw in Lutheran-Catholic relations, administrative unity is still far off, the bishops said. Intercommunion, in which Lutherans and Catholics would be able to take communion in each other's churches, is a goal that will require much more dialogue and prayer, they said.

“With God, nothing is impossible,” Malesic said, “but I don't believe that we are there yet.”

Malesic participated in a similar service Wednesday at Harrold Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hempfield, at the invitation of the Rev. John Smaligo. Smaligo and the Rev. Lawrence Manchas, pastor of St. Paul's Parish in Hempfield, led a joint prayer service similar to the one Pope Francis participated in last year in Lund, Sweden.

“I think the relationship will only grow stronger over the years,” Smaligo said. “I think this is a prime time to celebrate the relationship, where it's come from and where it's going to go.”

The “Evening of Repentance” next month is a sign that, after 500 years, Lutherans and Catholics are at least able to pray together, Zubik said.

“The animosity that existed 500 years ago is now subsiding,” he said. “We're able to talk about the things that have divided us and have respect for each other.”

McCoid noted there was a sea change between Vatican I (1869-1870), when Pope Pius IX called on Protestants to repent and return to the Catholic Church, and Vatican II (1962-1965), out of which grew the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” (“That They May be One”) said, “When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. … If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them.”

In January, the Vatican recognized Martin Luther as a “witness to the Gospel,” and Pope Francis, during his Sweden trip last year, spoke positively of the ongoing Lutheran-Catholic dialogue. “The intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her,” the pope said.

The Western Pennsylvania bishops said the rest of the year will be spent reassessing historical divisions between Lutherans and Catholics and asking for forgiveness.

An “Evening of Witness and Thanksgiving” is scheduled June 29 at St. Kilian Catholic Church, Mars, Butler County, and a “Day of Commemoration of Hope” is scheduled for Oct. 28 at St. Vincent College's Fred Rogers Center in Unity.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or shuba@tribweb.com.

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