Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod Assembly
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Remarks for Rite for Repentance, Reconciliation and Common Witness
2 June 2017

I am truly grateful for the invitation of Bishop Zeiser to join with you today. Our growing friendship has been a blessing for both of us. It’s also important for you to understand that our mutual desire to witness to this moment in our shared history emerged hardly by chance but rather through what I know we both recognize as the hand of divine Providence.

While we’ve known each other for several years, our meetings were most often in the context of large ecumenical gatherings that hardly lent themselves to intimate conversations about our shared ministry and mission as bishops. That changed earlier this year when I found myself in Chicago for a meeting of the Catholic Bishops Committee on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs which, through the kindness of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is held bi-annually at your headquarters not far from O’Hare Airport. Our meeting in March, by intention, coincided with a plenary meeting of Lutheran bishops for the purpose of participating together in a service of prayer marking the 500 years of the Reformation.

Prior to the service as we sat quietly in the chapel, I looked straight ahead at the bishops seated directly across from me and noticed a familiar face that seemed to have recognized me. It was, of course, Bishop Zeiser. We quickly greeted each other in the moments just before the service was to begin. We shared dinner together that evening. And we determined that very day that we needed to do something to express our shared commitment of the journey of faith that is ours as brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus. Today is one more very important step in that journey. Thank you for the privilege of joining with you for your Synod Assembly.

In his homily at the common Ecumenical Prayer at the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund held in October of last year, Pope Francis stated: “As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past fifty years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.”

Jesus tells us in the 15th chapter of Saint John’s Gospel that his Father is the “vinedresser” who tends and prunes the vine in order to make it bear more fruit. He reminds us that the Father is constantly concerned for our relationship with him – Jesus – to see if our commitment to that relationship and the unity that it should inspire is authentic. Jesus then goes on to assure us that he watches over us, and his gaze of love has the power to inspire us to purify our past and to work in the present to bring about the future of unity that he so greatly desires.

As disciples of Jesus, it is our responsibility today to look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. It’s our place to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division has distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearn to be one. This division, sadly, was perpetuated historically by the powerful of this world rather than faithful souls, who always and everywhere recognize their need to be guided surely and lovingly by the Good Shepherd.

Certainly, there was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith. At the same time, however, we realize today that we closed in on ourselves out of fear and bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent, language, and cultural background.

In response to this sad reality, Saint John Paul II challenged all of us who are party to division and separation to look to the future in a new way. “We must not allow ourselves to be guided by the intention of setting ourselves up as judges of history but solely by the motive of understanding better what happened and of becoming messengers of truth.”

While grateful for the progress that we have made, may we never forget that we are called by Christ to journey more deeply together through shared prayer, ongoing dialogue, cooperation and collaboration and so to provide an effective witness to the world of our unity in faith.

My brothers and sisters, we still have much to learn from each other and we still have miles to go before our journey to unity reaches its final destination. Nonetheless, may we recognize in our ecumenical relations the blessing of knowing each other better, and especially, as Pope Francis has noted on many occasions, “all that the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”