A top Vatican official has joined other global Christian leaders in the eastern German town where Martin Luther broke with the papacy, at a tree-planting ceremony that looks to closer ties on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
The ceremony took place in Wittenberg, the German town known as “Lutherstadt”, 492 years after Luther nailed his epoch-changing 95 theses to a church door there, leading to the breach with the 16th-century papacy.
“It is possible for us today to together learn from Martin Luther,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as he planted the first of 500 trees on 1 November in a landscaped Luther Garden, forming part of the celebrations for 2017.
Churches worldwide are being encouraged to adopt one of the trees planned for the Luther Garden and also to plant a tree themselves, to denote a link with the birthplace of the Reformation. Kasper said a tree would be planted at the Vatican in Rome.
Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox and Reformed leaders gathered alongside Kasper in the Luther Garden in sunny autumn weather.
“This newly planted tree reminds us that Martin Luther’s call for reform in the Church was a call of penitence that also affects us today,” said Kasper at the ceremony, which followed the anniversary of Luther’s action on 31 October 1517 that led to often bitter quarrels between Protestants and Catholics.
The Luther Garden is planned around a landscaped adaptation of the Luther Rose, a symbol of Lutheranism based on the seal with which the Protestant Reformer authenticated his correspondence.
The idea is inspired by a quote ascribed to Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that the world were to collapse tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” Close to the Luther house on the outskirts of the town, two thick old trees still stand that locals claim Luther planted.
“Today is another milestone,” said the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Ishmael Noko. He noted that the tree planting in Wittenberg came after celebrations in Augsburg the previous day to mark the 10th anniversary of the LWF and the Catholic Church signing an agreement about the doctrine of justification, a central point of contention at the time of the 16th-century Reformation.
“The Catholic Church and the Lutherans have given shape to this as an ecumenical event. 2017 will be an ecumenical event,” the LWF leader said. “The dialogue will go on,” said Noko. “We have had our hiccups but we’re still moving forward and every step we’ve taken in the last 10 years is a step towards ecumenism. The joint planting of the trees today is such a step. It is another step forward and this provides energy and strength for the ecumenical movement.”
The joint declaration on justification stated that the condemnations on this issue made by Catholics and Lutherans against each other’s teachings of the Reformation at the time do not apply today.
“It is fitting that churches should plant trees as a symbol of commitment to God’s creation at this time when world attention turns towards the climate conference in Copenhagen in December with its focus on the impact of environmental destruction,” the Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said as he in turn planted a tree.
“This is a reformation event, the nailing of the theses in 1517. It is also an ecumenical event. 1517 has to do with the renewal of the whole church family and therefore needs to be commemorated ecumenically, affirming our common heritage.”
Cardinal Kasper said that he hoped the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be marked jointly by Catholics and Protestants.
The 16th-century events, “divided our people and divided the Church”, said Kasper, who until 1999 was the Catholic bishop in Stuttgart, in southern Germany. “It is a day we hold in common and for which we have a joint responsibility,” he stated.
“Now again that which belongs together grows together,” Kasper said in the Luther Garden, using a phrase of former West German chancellor Willy Brandt after the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and referring to hopes for unity between East and West Germany.
The tree-planting ceremony came 20 years after local Christians gathered in Wittenberg to celebrate Reformation day and to call for reform in communist-ruled East Germany, where religion was discouraged. Nine days later the borders between East and West Germany were opened.
The fact that Christians are now a small minority in the town where Luther started the Reformation means ecumenical cooperation is even more important, said Siegfried Kasparick, the Protestant regional bishop for Wittenberg.
“Today Wittenberg is one of the most de-Christianised zones in Europe, and 85 percent of our population have no connection to any church,” said Kasparick. “Therefore, it is really bad when we fight each other.”
This article first appeared on the Ecumenical News International website and is used with permission.