A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther

How to think about the Reformation at 500.

Lutherans world-wide are already buzzing about 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, commonly regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. But no one’s quite sure about the right way to observe the occasion.

Should Lutherans celebrate the profound insights of a brilliant theologian into the gospel? Or should they lament the splintering of the Western church and the physical and spiritual intra-Christian wars that followed? Should Lutherans lord it over Catholics or should they apologize? Will Catholics ignore the anniversary and its significance altogether, or condemn it; or will they find a way to celebrate it too?

On top of all this, many believe, Christians are and remain in the grip of an “ecumenical winter.” Despite the high hopes for church reconciliation and even reunion through most of the 20th century, the past 25 years have seen waning interest in ecumenism on the popular level, and scandal and schism consuming the churches’ attention at the institutional level.

Martin Luther posting his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, 1517.

Under the circumstances, it seems to me and my husband Andrew that the only thing to do is go for a thousand-mile walk.

Because, as it turns out, 2010 already is a 500th anniversary year for the Luther-minded. In 1510, Martin Luther the Augustinian friar set out from his priory in Erfurt, Germany, for the thousand-mile trek to Rome.

This Sunday, August 22, Andrew and I are departing from the same Augustinian priory in Erfurt—presently inhabited by Lutheran nuns—and following Luther’s footsteps all the way to Rome, where we’ll arrive 70 days later. Luther’s connection with Rome was severed by the unfolding events of the Reformation. We are trying to fix the broken links, reconnecting Erfurt and Rome with our feet.

Our path will take us through southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and half of Italy. In many respects it will be an easier trip for us than it was for Luther. He left during the pre-Christmas Advent fast, which meant more snow and less meat. He didn’t have orthopedically correct shoes or waterproof synthetic fabrics. But he still went farther than our planned daily trek of 15-20 miles: about 26 miles a day for him, considered then a normal day’s march.

Luther did, however, have one distinct advantage. While we’ll resort to frequent camping, especially in the northern half of our journey, where pilgrim hostels are few and far between, Luther enjoyed Augustinian or other monastic hospitality every night. People in 1510 didn’t camp out if they could possibly help it.

But we and Luther do share one significant similarity: We’re both living in the midst of a communication revolution. For Luther it was the printing press. He and his followers were able to use pamphlets and ever-cheaper printed books to promote the Reformation cause. This ability to spread the word also hardened the opposing teams in a divided and dividing church.

For us the main tool is social media. We’ll be Tweeting our progress in Nuremberg, Vaduz and Siena. Facebook fans will have a chance to “like” our photos of Septimer Pass in the Swiss Alps and the boat ride down Lake Como (it’s not cheating: even 16th-century pilgrims skipped walking along its narrow shore and opted for the boat).

Visitors to our blog—hereiwalk.org—a play on Luther’s famous words at Worms, “Here I stand”—can follow our daily progress and read our posts featuring snippets of Luther’s writings, Catholic theology and ecumenical documents.

Our hope is that, through the use of these new media, the controversial figure of Martin Luther and the current relationship between the Catholic and Lutheran churches will appear in a new light.

For the Martin Luther of 1510 just doesn’t fit comfortably into popular polemics. According to many Catholics, he’s still a good son of the church at that time, but about to turn bad, and richly deserving his eventual excommunication in 1520. According to many Protestants, the early Luther is still in the grip of old illusions and religious terror, about to break free from the past and start something brand new. Extreme caricatures are required to sustain the image either side has of him.

In the discourse between Lutheran and Catholic ecumenists over the past half-century, however, a new picture of Luther has emerged. Both sides have acknowledged that the claim of a severe cleavage between pre- and post-Reformation Luther is simply inaccurate. Luther’s revolutionary insights were firmly grounded in the long tradition of the church. Both Catholic rejection and Protestant triumphalism fail to do justice to the real man and his work.

The Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and officially committed the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement, made a number of reforms that would have won Luther’s wholehearted approval: permission to distribute both bread and wine at the mass, worship in the vernacular, and an emphasis on biblical preaching—to name just a few.

The problem is that most Lutherans and Catholics remain unaware of the remarkable ways that their churches have drawn together over the past fifty years. Differences and disputes still compel greater interest than convergence and agreement.

So we two pilgrims invite Catholics, Lutherans and all other Christians concerned for the unity of the church to join us on this pilgrimage. Come in person if you can, or undertake a pilgrimage in spirit: Follow our blog, reconsider Luther, educate yourself about churches other than your own, and—above all—pray. Jesus promised to hear the prayers of only two or three gathered together. How could he ignore the prayers of all the fans on Facebook?

Ms. Hinlicky Wilson is a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and editor of the quarterly journal Lutheran Forum.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704868604575433283501270518.html