Reception, Unity Key Topics of ELCA Visit to the Vatican

 — Mar. 28, 200328 mars 2003

VATICAN CITY (ELCA) — Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations must engage in a “reception” process for the agreement reached in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), and the document should be presented in terms that members can understand, said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Vatican.

In ecumenical circles, reception refers to how church bodies receive and implement elements of a theological agreement. Kasper was a central figure for the Vatican in developing and completing the JDDJ.

Kasper made his remarks to a 21-member delegation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) during the delegation’s visit here March 21-26. The delegation includes ELCA leaders, bishops, Church Council members, pastors, staff and members. Leading the delegation is the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop. The ELCA group is traveling with Hanson as he meets international church leaders in Europe.

While here, the ELCA delegation was hosted by and met with key Vatican leaders, and they visited a variety of historic religious sites throughout Vatican City and Rome.

On March 24 the ELCA delegation met briefly with Pope John Paul II. In prepared remarks, Hanson and the pope both said the signing of the JDDJ in 1999 was a sign of greater unity between the churches.

The JDDJ stated that the churches of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican had reached a common understanding on justification, agreeing that believers are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works. The interpretation of justification caused disagreement in the church nearly 500 years earlier, which led to the Protestant Reformation.

“We have come to appreciate more deeply the fellowship existing between Lutherans and Catholics, which led to the Joint Declaration signed in 1999,” the pope told the ELCA delegation. “In that document we are challenged to build on what has already been achieved, fostering more extensively at the local level a spirituality of communion marked by prayer and shared witness to the gospel.”

Beyond developing a reception process for the JDDJ, Kasper said Lutherans and Roman Catholics should recognize “our common basis in the Bible.”

“We should read the Bible together,” Kasper said. “Over the Bible we divided, and over the Bible we should come together again.”

To achieve greater unity, Lutherans and Roman Catholics should also emphasize what Kasper called “spiritual ecumenism.” That means that members can make a spiritual connection with one another by putting their faith into practice together.

As an example, he said members of both churches could serve those who live in poverty, people who are sick and those suffering in a variety of situations.

“It doesn’t matter whether the suffering [person] is Protestant or Lutheran or Catholic or Orthodox or Jewish or Muslim,” Kasper said in an interview. “It’s a suffering person, and we can work together [to help]. We must not do it separately. In this way, we can ‘lift’ together and become more familiar with each other.”

In the ELCA audience with Pope John Paul II, Hanson called for the possibility of “limited interim Eucharistic sharing” between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. At present, it is not possible for Lutherans to participate in Holy Communion in most Roman Catholic congregations. Roman Catholics, however, are welcome to receive Holy Communion in most ELCA congregations. The pope did not address Hanson’s suggestion.

For Roman Catholics, a central question in Eucharistic sharing is whether Lutherans and Catholics share the same faith, Kasper said.

“We must share the same faith,” Kasper said. “For us, Eucharistic sharing is a problem of ecclesiology.”

The LWF is a global communion of 136 Lutheran churches in 76 countries. Its worldwide membership includes 61.7 million Lutherans. The LWF and the Vatican continue to discuss significant theological issues in a formal dialogue.

“Lutherans and Catholics should see that our community has grown up very much,” Kasper said of the growing unity between the Christian churches. “I think the dialogue with the LWF is one of the best we have, and we have 16 dialogues all over the world.”

The community of Lutherans and Catholics “is growing,” as is “trust” between the two, he said.

In 2002, Kasper visited the Chicago-based churchwide office of the ELCA — an LWF member church. In addition to his role as ELCA presiding bishop, Hanson is an LWF vice president.

During the visit to the Vatican, Hanson met privately with Kasper.


A new papal statement — or “encyclical” — may be issued as early as April 17, Maundy Thursday, on the topic of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Hanson asked about the statement in a meeting here with officials of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Its purpose is to ensure that Roman Catholic doctrine is taught properly and the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached faithfully, said Father Augustine Di Noia, OP, undersecretary for the CDF.

Di Noia said he could not comment on the encyclical, because no one except the pope knows its final form.

“In this case, Pope John Paul II has an intense personal interest in the topic of the Eucharist,” he said. “It [the encyclical] is chiefly addressed to the Catholic Church, but it will be of interest to all Christian churches.”

Di Noia added that “the most productive conversations” since the Second Vatican Council — an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church held in the early 1960s — have been conversations between Lutherans and Catholics.

The JDDJ is not about the state of Lutheran-Catholic relationships, Di Noia said. “It is about our state as Christians proclaiming to the world,” he said.


Despite the fact that war is underway between a U.S.-led military coalition and the Iraqi military, the Vatican will continue its efforts to put an end to the fighting, said Monsignor Pietro Parolin, undersecretary for Relations with States, Secretariat of State, Vatican.

“We will do all that is possible through prayer and diplomatic means,” he told the ELCA delegation. “For the time being, it is difficult. We’ve not seen any effort [toward peace]. We’re ready to do what is possible.”

Parolin described how the Vatican sent representatives to meet with international political leaders, including President George W. Bush, to try to avert conflict. Like the ELCA, he said, the Vatican and Pope John Paul II publicly emphasized avoiding war and the responsibility of Iraq to conform to U.N. resolutions, while saying the international community must seek solutions under the watch of the United Nations.

“We do not believe this war has met historic principles of ‘just war,'” Parolin said, adding that the Vatican has “rejected” suggestions that a pre-emptive war is a just war.

The Vatican has also worked to prevent impressions that the war is a clash between Christianity and Islam, he added.

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