Ecumenical service to mark 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — While October 31 is a date to celebrate Halloween or, more precisely, “All Hallow’s Eve,” it’s also the day in 1517 that Martin Luther first published his “Ninety-Five Theses,” marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and a divisive split from the Catholic Church.

This year, to mark the historic 500th anniversary of that event, the Fall River Diocese will host a special ecumenical worship service at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River on Sunday, November 5 beginning at 3 p.m.

While it may seem odd to celebrate this segregation from the Catholic Church, for Father Edward J. Healey, who heads the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs Office for the diocese, it presents a unique opportunity for Christians of different denominations to come together.

“Protestants and Catholics can now gather in prayer together not only to remember the origins of their divisions, but most especially to celebrate their ongoing progress along the path toward greater unity over the past five decades,” Father Healey recently told The Anchor. “We all recognize that most fundamentally we share Baptism in Christ together (and) we all recognize one another as part of the Body of Christ.”

To that end, Father Healey explained that a committee of representatives of Catholic, Lutheran and other Christian denominations collaborated on planning the worship service. Father Healey noted that the prayer service will at the same time mark history and make history.

Presiding at the service will be Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., of the Fall River Diocese while Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will preach.

“This is kind of historical for us,” Father Healey said. “I don’t think a Protestant bishop has ever preached in our cathedral. So as we mark this significant anniversary of this pivotal moment in the history of Western Christianity, we will also be making history as this fifth centenary observance is taking place within the context of 50 years of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.”

Coordinated and planned by a committee comprised of representatives from area Protestant and Catholic faiths, the idea for the prayer service came from an international committee on unity with Catholics and Lutherans, which published a document called “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017” earlier this year, according to Father Healey.

“It’s an instruction — a rationale — about how we would commemorate this 500th anniversary together, with the basic principle being that over the last five decades we have been working together in an ecumenical spirit together to overcome our differences,” Father Healey said. “This prayer service is an adaptation of one published by the Atonement Friars who have been very active in ecumenical efforts.”

According to Father Healey, although the Roman Catholic Mass will not be celebrated, the prayer service will include an opportunity for Reconciliation, similar to the Liturgy’s penitential rite; a Liturgy of the Word with two readings and a Psalm; an exchange of peace; and a “little candlelight ceremony with a commission to go out and be ambassadors for Christ and for Reconciliation,” he said.

“First the service will be one of Reconciliation, where we’ll try to confess our sins against one another — or sins against unity anyway — and then hear the Word of God with readings that we’d all be familiar with,” Father Healey said. “We’ve invited ministers from not only the Lutheran churches but of other Protestant denominations … and we’re encouraging members of their congregations to come along with members of their choirs and music ministries to help us sing during the service as well.”

Citing the Second Vatican Council as the catalyst for change that “moved us forward,” Father Healey recalled a time not too long ago when such a prayer service would never have happened.

“Certainly my parents would remember when we were prohibited from even entering into a non-Catholic church,” Father Healey said. “I remember that caused many divisions in families. You know someone (Catholic) married someone of a Protestant faith and … often they were married in the rectory, because you weren’t allowed to get married in the church.”

But after Vatican II and in the subsequent half-century since, attitudes have changed and the barriers between Catholics and Protestants have slowly eroded.

“Biblical scholars — Catholic and Protestant — started to cooperate together in their research, and so that kind of forced them to meet one another, get to know one another, and come to respect one another as not only scholars, but also as fellow Christians,” he said. “We have to find reasons to get together and acknowledge our common faith and pray together.”

Dr. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic convert and author of the book “Catholics and Protestants: What We Can Learn From Each Other,” published earlier this year, agreed that Protestants and Catholics are not as far apart as it seems.

While he acknowledged that overcoming some differences would be difficult, there is common ground where the two faiths can connect and they need to stop “directing arrows against each other.”

Noting that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is indeed monumental, Kreeft makes the case that that the ties broken that day can not only be put back together, but Christ’s Word “will” be done.

Father Healey said Bishop da Cunha has been very supportive of the commemorative prayer service throughout the planning process and it is “certainly something he has been enthusiastic about doing.”

“I am glad to welcome to our cathedral Protestant and Catholic clergy and faithful alike for this important ecumenical worship service,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “On this significant anniversary in the history of our Christian family, we need not look back to a time of discord and division. This is an opportune moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made in ending division and to reaffirm our commitment to continuing with the grace of God on a pathway toward full unity.”

Bishop Hazelwood agreed, adding: “Commemorating this anniversary is a way for us to demonstrate to the world that people who have had differences in the past can work toward healing those differences.”

Father Healey cordially invites all Christians from throughout southeastern Massachusetts — Protestant and Catholic alike — to attend the special ecumenical worship service beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 5 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 327 Second Street in Fall River, which he prays “will not only be historic, but also healing.”

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts