Catholics, Lutherans 'beg forgiveness' for violence on 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation

People attend a celebratory mass in the Schlosskirche under a portrait of German church reformer Martin Luther (top, left) on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on  in Wittenberg, Germany on Oct 31, 2017
People attend a celebratory mass in the Schlosskirche under a portrait of German church reformer Martin Luther (top, left) on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on in Wittenberg, Germany on Oct 31, 2017PHOTO: AFP

VATICAN CITY/WITTENBERG, Germany (AFP) - Catholic and Lutheran leaders issued a joint statement Tuesday (Oct 31) saying they begged forgiveness for violence waged during a revolution that saw Protestants break away from the Roman Catholic Church.

"We begged forgiveness for our failures and for the ways in which Christians have wounded the Body of the Lord and offended each other during the five hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation until today," the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation said.

Five hundred years ago today, German theologian Martin Luther published his groundbreaking “95 Theses” of criticism of the Catholic Church, creating shockwaves that eventually changed the face of Christianity. 

The Reformation caused major upheaval in Europe, leading to wars, persecutions and exoduses, including the departure of the Pilgrims for what was later to become America. 

The deadliest of Europe’s religious conflicts was the Thirty Years’ War which ended in 1648 and after which religion’s role in European politics was reduced. 

“We recognise that while the past cannot be changed, its influence upon us today can be transformed to become a stimulus for growing communion, and a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation,” they said. 

There are many theological differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, including whether or not the Bible is the highest authority in matters of faith and whether the pope has full power over the Church. 

Both parties committed to “overcome remaining differences between us”, adding that it was “clear that what we have in common is far more than that which still divides us”.

Meanwhile in Germany, there will be a host of events to celebrate 500 years since theologian Martin Luther nailed his "95 theses" to a church door.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will attend a service at the same church where Luther is said to have first displayed his list of criticisms of the Catholic Church in 1517.

The 2.30pm (9:30pm Singapore time) service at the gothic Schlosskirche (All Saints' Church) in Wittenberg will mark the end of year-long celebrations by protestants in 700 German towns and cities.

Wittenberg, a town of 47,000 inhabitants 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Berlin, has itself received tens of thousands of Christian visitors from around the world in recent months.

Reformation Day on Oct 31 is this year a public holiday across all of Germany. Usually it is a day off only in certain states.

Half a century ago Luther challenged Catholic clerics' practice of selling "indulgences" to repentant worshippers.

He said Christians could not buy or earn their way into heaven but only entered by the grace of God.

His challenge led to a historic break from the Catholic Church.

However, the theologian's name has also been associated with one of Germany's darkest periods: his attacks on Judaism in his writings were used as a reference for Nazi ideology.

Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor, said it was essential that Luther's anti-Semitism never be scrubbed from his theological legacy.

"That is, for me, the comprehensive historical reckoning that we need," she said in her weekly video podcast on Saturday.

A row over a medieval anti-semitic carving which remains on the facade of another church in Wittenberg risks overshadowing the celebrations.

It is one of the last remaining examples of anti-Jewish folk art that was common in Europe at the time.

A petition started by British theologian Richard Harvey has called for the sculpture to be removed from the public sphere and displayed in a museum.