It all started with a letter penned to Father Alan Wielinski, pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Fergus Falls, and addressed to the entire parish community during Lent 2016.
The letter — an acknowledgment of and appeal for forgiveness — came from the pastors and council president of First Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls.
“A Lutheran pastor had written a letter on Facebook,” Lutheran Pastor Saul Stesvaag recalled. “I saw that letter and thought that’s a great idea. So I wrote my own version and sent it to Father Alan. He read it at Mass, the congregation applauded. He wrote a return letter, which was very gracious, and that’s what got it all started.”
The initial letter referenced a call from Pope Francis during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for “forgiveness for un-Gospel-like behavior on the part of Catholics against Christians of other churches.”
“We the pastors and church council…humbly accept the Holy Father’s appeal,” the letter to Our Lady of Victory read. “In turn, we appeal to him and to you … for forgiveness of un-Gospel-like behavior on the part of Lutherans against Christians of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The letter clarifies that it does not speak for all who practice faith within the Lutheran churches but offers hope that this step might foster further healing of any division.
“While recognizing the differences our churches continue to have, we commit ourselves to walking and working together with our Catholic sisters and brothers to proclaim the mighty acts of our Lord,” the letter concluded.
Father Wielinski along with the parish council president responded to the letter with their own, asking the members of First Lutheran Church to collaborate on a commemoration for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
After the exchange of letters, members of the two church councils got together to socialize twice, once at a downtown coffee shop and the other time for supper at the American Legion.
“We just wanted to start getting to know one another,” Father Wielinski said.
Father Wielinski then was invited to a weekly study with pastors from the five area Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and chaplains.
“We visited about many things at these studies and together decided we should all do a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seemed like a good ecumenical opportunity,” Father Wielinski said.
An estimated 400-500 people attended the historic joint worship service Nov. 5 at Our Lady of Victory. The event, titled “Lutherans and Catholics Together in Hope,” was a blend of music performed by a joint adult community choir and children’s choir, prayer, readings from Scripture, orations from various faith leaders on themes of repentance, witness and service, and reflections from both Lutheran Bishop Larry Wohlrabe and St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler.
“One of the great gifts in this journey we are on together has been an ever-deepening awareness that despite our differences, far more unites us than divides us,” Bishop Wohlrabe said.
He cited three examples of commonalities:
- We are firmly united by our profound shared focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross is crucially central in both our churches.
- We all do church in ways that reflect a deeply sacramental perspective. We firmly believe that the Incarnation, God speaking in human flesh in the child born to Mary, drives all the things that God seeks to get through to us. God is always coming to us garbed in water, in bread, in wine, symbols, beauty, song and all the best of God’s good creation, thus delivering to us faith and forgiveness and a future without end in Christ.
- In our Catholic and Lutheran ways of peering out at the whole creation, we are forever being summoned into a globe-spanning mission and ministries that seek out everyone in service that refuses to deny God’s love to anyone fashioned in Christ’s image.
“God is continually weaving us together in the name of Jesus,” he said.
Bishop Kettler said that ecumenism — working together as one church — is the only way to tear down walls.
“It’s not good enough to say that we get together and learn about each other,” he said. “It’s nice, but it’s not enough. We have to find ways that we can work together, particularly caring for those, as Pope Francis tells us, who are on the peripheries.
“We also have to work hard to find ways that we can better worship together and to grow our relationship with the Lord Jesus and with each other. The scandal of our division remains with us. We have to find a way to overcome those differences and to become one people working together,” he said.
The evening concluded with fellowship and a shared meal.
“I felt it was a fitting observance of this noteworthy anniversary in our community, which is predominantly Lutheran, but where the ecumenical spirit and cooperation with Catholics also has been significant over the years,” Father Wielinski said.
“There is a long standing ecumenical ministerial group, joint text studies and, of course, so many ecumenical marriages,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier with the participation in the lead-up study and then the full church on Nov. 5 with the presence of so many parishioners, pastors, the choirs and the inspiring messages from our bishops.”