GENEVA – Events in Christianity that led to the Reformation nearly half a millennium ago split the Roman Catholic Church, ushering the advent of Protestant churches.
When the 500th anniversary is commemorated in 2017, Lutherans and Catholics hope to be drawn closer in the quest for church unity.
Catholic and Lutherans announced a special joint publication Monday entitled From Conflict to Communion for this that helps bury many past differences and brings Catholics and Lutherans closer together.
"The awareness is dawning on Lutherans and Catholics that the struggle of the 16th century is over," the report said. "The reasons for mutually condemning each other's faith have fallen by the wayside."
The document is a shared re-telling of the often troubled history of relations between Lutherans and Catholics and was launched in Geneva, sometimes called the city of Calvin with its famous Reformation Monument.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, presented the keynote address Monday on behalf of the Vatican body to the main governing body of the 75-million strong Lutheran World Federation, its council.
"The true success of the Reformation can only be achieved through the overcoming of our inherited divisions in a renewed Church consisting of all Christians, and that consequently our ecumenical efforts aimed at recovering unity are actually a completion of the work of the Reformation itself," Koch said.
Koch advised both Lutherans and Catholics to be realistic about their expectations from each other.
"We, for example, cannot impose papacy on you; and I can expect from you not to push us to Eucharistic hospitality [shared holy communion] and church community as these are constitutive questions for the theological basis of our faith."
Catholics are not allowed to share the Eucharist at Lutheran services nor do Catholics permit Lutherans to take part in holy communion, a key ritual in Christian worship, at Catholic services.
Koch told journalists Catholic and Lutheran perspectives of one another naturally differed.
"Now we have been able to see that Martin Luther wanted a renewal of the Church and not a new Church," the Catholic representative said.
LWF President Bishop Munib A. Younan noted in a speech, "It is my sense that this document can be an important tool in improving relationships and, more importantly, common witness, in all contexts."
He said, "We seek unity, not because it simply is a good idea, but because it is the desire of Jesus, grounded in his commandment of love."
The event that is considered to have triggered the Reformation was the writing in 1517 by Martin Luther of the document known as "The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences."
The Ninety-Five Theses, as it is now known protested against clerical abuses in the Church of Rome, especially the sale of indulgences which were considered to speed up the process by which Christians who had sinned could get to heaven.
The Protestant Reformation creating the schism within Western Christianity was also led by John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, John Calvin, John Knox and other early Protestants.
International and civil wars were fought in the centuries that followed between Catholic and Protestant European nations, often on the pretext of faith.
Younan observed, "Through the centuries, we have engaged in violent conflict with one another. More often, however, we have failed to abide by the Eighth Commandment [Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour] and have borne false witness about one another.
"Now, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the moment that sparked the Reformation, 'From Conflict to Communion' provides an opportunity to reflect on our particular history - now worded jointly by Lutherans and Roman Catholics - so we can correct our behavior and engage one another more constructively for the sake of God's mission."
The Lutheran World Federation wishes to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 as a global communion.
"Above all, the document seeks to address difficult points in the history of Lutheran-Roman Catholic relations so we can deepen our relationships globally and get on with the work of jointly participating in God's mission for the sake of the world."
In his address, Koch said that the decision by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity to follow up its dialogue on baptism was much to be welcomed, as it represents an important new step on the path of deepening understanding between Lutherans and Catholics.
He also proposed that this would open a possibility for the preparation of a future joint declaration on church, Eucharist and ministry.
The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Commission made up of people approved by the Vatican and the LWF offers five "ecumenical imperatives" intended to help Catholics and Lutherans into their new era of dialogue.
The first imperative is: "Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced."
Bishop Emeritus Eero Huovinen, from Finland, who serves as co-chair of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, urged both Lutherans and Catholics to concentrate on how much they have in common in the theological issues that were central to both Luther and the Catholic faith.
"None of us can alone decide how to build unity. We have other sisters and brothers on the same road. We need profound and sound theological work," said Huovinen.