Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #122. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Sep. 2, 2017; in print Sep. 3 

The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 is getting attention around the world. It deserves notice here, too. The relations of Catholics and Protestants — especially Lutherans — in Central Minnesota is a big part of the region’s history.

Indeed, as recently as three decades ago an application form for designation as foster parents had these choices in the “religion” category: “Catholic; Lutheran; Other.”

A friend of mine, Herbert Chilstrom, growing up Lutheran in Litchfield, would quickly move to the other side of the street when he saw a Catholic priest or nun walking toward him. At the end of the 20th century, when Chilstrom retired as the first bishop of the newly united Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Archbishop John Roach of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was an honored guest at the retirement party.

The intervening half-century saw a seismic shift in Christian identity. The archbishop’s attending that party was as predictable as Catholics and Protestants in an earlier era avoiding encounters on the sidewalk.

What many would not have dreamed of — except in their nightmares — has come to seem the most natural thing in the world. I am pleased, but not surprised, when Catholic Bishop Donald Kettler and Lutheran Pastor Dee Pederson, along with other local faith leaders, stand together in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors.

Among the engineers of this change are the monks of St. John’s Abbey and the sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery. They — most notably, the late Rev. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB— had influence at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The significance of that council is registered in the titles of two books, edited by the late Rev. Colman Barry, OSB, who was president of St. John’s University. He published "Readings in Church History." The first volume, in 1960, was "From Pentecost to the Protestant Revolt." Volume 2, "The Reformation and the Absolute States," appeared in 1965. Vatican II happened between the “revolt” of Volume 1 and the “reformation” of Volume 2.

Dozens of Protestant observers were given access to virtually everything that was going on at the council. Conversations that began there led eventually, in 1999, to one of the most remarkable documents in the history of Christianity: the Joint Declaration on Justification issued by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.

The youthful Herb Chilstrom and the Catholic priest would likely not have described the Litchfield street between them in the technical theological terms used in 16th-century Wittenberg and Rome. Their mutual suspicion, however, was grounded in four and a half centuries of bitter, often lethal dispute about how humans’ broken relationship with God gets mended.

That dispute reached a rhetorical peak in 1928. Pope Pius XI forbade dialog and declared that Christian unity meant unequivocal submission to the papacy: “So, Venerable Brethren,” he wrote to the world’s bishops, “it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.”


The distance from these words of Pius XI in 1928 to 1999’s Joint Declaration on Justification is galactic.

Another friend of mine, the late Margaret O’Gara, devoted 11 years to patient dialog as a member of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission on Unity. She observed that “the Joint Declaration is an exchange of gifts in which positions once thought to be contradictory are now found to be complementary, each enriching the other.”

Complementary, not contradictory. Diversity is not eliminated, obliterated, denied, or papered over. It is acknowledged and celebrated. Nobody claims to have figured everything out. Lutherans and Catholics have discovered they can be each other’s students as well as each other’s teachers.

It took nearly half a millennium to sort this out. But it got done.

The Rev. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, of St. John’s, who in two weeks will turn 96, served 22 years on the U.S. Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue. “Our sessions on justification — five years of them — were rigorous and scientific,” he says.

“An atmosphere of mutual trust, built up over the years of contact, meant we could come to an understanding. Without trust nothing, absolutely nothing, can be done. This is why personal friendships are so important. I knew my Lutheran partners well. They were my friends, and I knew that they would never lie to me. I believe they knew the same of me.”

Of course there remain Catholics and Lutherans who consider each other the minions of Satan. They used to be the norm. Now, thank God, they are outliers.

Trust and personal friendship have coalesced those in the center. Let’s hope something similar happens in current religious, cultural, and political clashes. And that it won’t take 500 years.