Nov. 10, 2011
Lutherans are Evangelical Catholics. Thats how the late Richard John Neuhaus described our church body, before he entered into communion with Rome and became a Catholic priest. He never said he converted. Why? I suspect the answer may have been engraved on a handsome bronze medallion then-Pastor Neuhaus gave me in 1983. It is a Martin Luther 500th anniversary commemoration. On the obverse side is a quote from the man we call the Blessed Doctor: I believe that there is on earth throughout the whole wide world no more than one holy common Christian church.
Thats what I believe. Pastor Richard Neuhaus had welcomed me into the fold when I joined the Lutherans for Life national board. He encouraged me in my pro-life advocacy. And, oddly enough, when I had the honor to meet him, I was working for the Roman Catholic Bishops of Connecticut. They had consciously chosen me, a non-Catholic, to head up a pro-life office in the Constitution State. The joke one priest told me about my unorthodox selection was from a popular ad of the time. You dont have to be Jewish to love Levys real Jewish rye. In the same way, the good father said, you dont have to be Catholic to be pro-life.
He was right. When a hostile reporter from the Hartford Courant demanded to know what percent of the Catholic Churchs money went to pro-life activities, I answered mildly: All of it.
I was in a quandary when I first came to faith in the mid-1970s. The Catholic Church was then, as now, the leading voice in the world for the sanctity of human life. Many of the leading Mainline Protestants were outspokenly pro-abortion. Tragically, they still are. Only now, there are millions fewer of them. I could never have joined one of them. What part of the readings about King Herod and the slaughter of innocents had they missed?
Even though I admired the Catholic Churchs brave stance, I knew that I was from the Protestant half of my family. We were, truth to tell, unchurched. But if we had gone to a church, it would have been Protestant.
So, what an exciting thing it was for me to discover The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synods (LCMS) strong biblical stand against the unjust taking of innocent human life. When I studied more about Martin Luther, I learned he had been schooled as an Augustinian monk in Saxony. In fact, young Dr. Luther had earned a degree in theology at a time when doctorates were rarer than Nobel Prizes are today (and more deserved, too.)
Luthers courage appealed to the warrior in me. He was warned not to go to the Diet of Worms. That was a legislative assembly of German petty princes and church prelates presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor. You might be betrayed by the Emperor and burned at the stake, as the reformer Jan Hus was burned, his friends cautioned.
Luther would not be deterred. I would go, he said, if there were a devil on every roof tile. And so, in 1521, he went. Ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to recant his writings on the authority and primacy of Scripture, Luther refused. Here I stand, he boldly proclaimed, God helping me, I can do no other.
Instead of being burned, he was kidnapped. Actually, the young doctor was taken into protective custody by knights loyal to the Elector of Saxony, a lesser magistrate. Frederick the Wise, as the Elector was known, hid Luther away in the Wartburg Castle.
While there, the monk translated the New Testament into German. It was this translation of the Bible that was said to be for the German language what the King James Bible and Shakespeare are for English.
It wont do to brush over the centuries of violent hostility between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and around the world. One-third of Germany was wiped out in the Thirty Years War.
Happily, though, in America, this home of freedom, religious conflict has been minimized by the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. In Washingtons great words, this government gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. Until recently, anyway.
Today is a day we can celebrate the birth of the great reformer. Martin Luthers life and work brought new life to the church and made great things possible. When we see the reforms of Vatican II, like celebrating the Mass in the language of the people, we can see the foundations that were laid nearly half a millennium ago, in Saxony.
Last weekend, I was honored to be a pallbearer at the funeral of a dear family friend. Our daughters godmother, at 58, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on a Thursday and died five days later. Under cold, gray, grim and blustery skies, we processed into the sanctuary and up to the altar of St. Pauls Catholic Church in Portsmouth, Virginia.
As the priest sprinkled holy water on our friends casket, a sudden shaft of sunlight broke through the stained glass window, brilliantly lighting the figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ child. The congregation was in awe. As we departed the church, the organ music swelled with the tones of Martin Luthers great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. He is bringing us together now and using our common defense of life to do it.