By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — In October of 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses — his arguments against some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his time — on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Five-hundred years later, 250 Catholics and Lutherans came together in Iowa City for a joint worship service.
The Common Prayer Service was led by local Catholic and Lutheran leaders at St. Mary Catholic Church on Oct. 15, and featured a mixed choir, shared hymns and a candle-lighting ceremony. “It was pretty dog-gone cool,” said Father Steve Witt, St. Mary’s pastor. The service was inspired by the Common Prayer Service that Pope Francis and Lutheran leaders led last year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Sarah Goettsch, Lutheran Campus Minister for the University of Iowa in Iowa City, approached Fr. Witt earlier this year to see if he would be interested in participating in a joint worship service between Catholics and Lutherans. Goettsch said, “This is extremely important to me because it is not serving the church as a whole to offer a divided witness to the world. Our different denominations reveal different dimensions of faith and the understanding of the sacred, and this worship service provided an opportunity to highlight those differences, celebrate the things we hold in common, and to offer apologies on both sides for past harm done.”
Fr. Witt was eager to participate. For him, the service symbolized “a resolution to agree that we’re separate, but can come together peacefully.” He noted that Vatican II opened the door for peaceful, unifying Catholic/Lutheran dialogue.
The prayer service began with Catholic and Lutheran leaders reading messages of camaraderie. “With joy, we have come to recognize that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. On this journey, mutual understanding and trust have grown. … So it is possible for us to gather today. We come with different thoughts and feelings of thanksgiving and lament, joy and repentance, joy in the Gospel and sorrow for division. We gather to commemorate in remembrance, in thanksgiving and confession, and in common witness and commitment.”
Father Chuck Adam, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, joined Goettsch in offering reflections during the prayer service. Fr. Adam said his reflection focused on the vine and branches image from the Gospel of John, which was proclaimed at the service. “Catholics and Lutherans are united as members of the one body of Christ. Our reconciliation and understanding come about through remembering that in baptism we are all joined together in Christ.”
A highlight for the leaders was the candle-lighting ceremony, which took place near the end of the service. Catholic and Lutheran families took turns lighting candles in the sanctuary, each one focusing on one of five imperatives for Catholics and Lutherans to recommit themselves to in the future, such as “being mutually transformed… by the encounter of one another.”
Throughout the service, a choir of Catholic and Lutheran musicians led worship with songs familiar to both. Directed by St. Mary’s music director Nathan Gibbs, the choir sang in four- and five-part harmony at times. “The place rocked,” Fr. Witt said.
Goettsch said she felt joy in being able to celebrate with her friends and colleagues who are Catholic priests.
Fr. Adam echoed the sentiment. “The service was meaningful. It provided time to lament the sad division we have known and yet time to celebrate the progress we have made in understanding that we share so much in common.”