Catholic and Lutheran bishops have signed a declaration that they hope solidifies areas of “consensus” on matters of faith while providing a path forward for more dialogue. "Pope Francis in his recent visit to the United States emphasized again and again the need for and importance of dialogue,” explained Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and co-chair of the task force that authored the document the “Declaration on the Way.” He added that the declaration “represents in concrete form an opportunity for Lutherans and Catholics to join together now in a unifying manner on a way finally to full communion.” The declaration, published on Oct. 30, Reformation Day, commemorates 50 years of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans and points ahead to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. It lists areas of “consensus” between Catholics and Lutherans on matters of the church, the Eucharist, and ministry while acknowledging that full agreement and communion have not yet been achieved. Both the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs committee and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Conference of Bishops “unanimously affirmed” 32 statements of agreement on the church, the Eucharist, and ministry that were outlined in the declaration. They exemplify the “imperfect but real and growing unity of Catholics and Lutherans,” the declaration stated, and show that “there are no longer church-dividing differences” on those matters, solidifying a platform on which to continue dialogue in the future. The Lutheran bishops are sending the statements to higher church bodies for acceptance and implementation. For the Catholics, acceptance will also be sought from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “Through our dialogues, we are renewed in our commitment to continue together on the way to full communion, when we will experience our unity in sharing the Eucharist, in the full recognition of each other’s ministries and of our being Christ’s church,” the declaration states. Although differences still exist, dialogue has brought Catholics and Lutherans much closer than they have been in the past, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America noted. "Five hundred years ago wars were fought over the very issues about which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now achieved consensus," Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton said. “The declaration is so exciting because it shows us 32 important points where already we can say there are not church-dividing issues between us, and it gives us both hope and direction for the future.” For instance, some of the statements of agreement centered on the Eucharist. Both Catholics and Lutherans believe that Jesus is present “truly, substantially, as a person” in the Eucharist and is also “present in his entirety, as a Son of God and a human being,” the declaration said. Catholics and Lutherans also believe that Eucharistic worship is a participation in the “life of the Trinity,” as well as a “memorial” of Christ, “present as the one crucified for us and risen, that is, in his sacrificial self-giving for us in his death and in his resurrection (Romans 4:25), to which the church responds with its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” the document continued. However, “there are differences in their theological statements and terminology about the mode of presence,” the document explained, although both Catholics and Lutherans believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Statements of agreement should be implemented at the local and regional levels, the document recommended. More opportunities should be made for Lutherans and Catholics to receive Holy Communion together, the declaration said. They should also try to pray and read the Bible together, as well as study each other's respective histories. Parishes should establish “covenants” with each other by praying for each other at the Sunday liturgy. The declaration emphasized that Catholic and Lutheran clergy should pray together regularly and make regular retreats in manifestation of the “real, if imperfect, communion with each other.” Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium provided inspiration for the declaration. “The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’,” Pope Francis wrote, as quoted in the declaration. The bishops also commended the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church as an “ecumenical breakthrough” because it clearly explained the difference between “divisive mutual condemnations” and “diversities in theology and piety which need not divide the church, but which can in fact enrich it.” “All of this flows from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples after the Last Supper, ‘That they may all be one’ (John 17:21),” the declaration concluded.
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