[Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, India, published this essay in the Indian ecumenical journal Sampreeti in October 2016, and he will also deliver a version of it as a talk to the Catholic bishops of India at their plenary meeting scheduled for January 2017. It appears here with his permission.]

Next year will have completed 500 years of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017). It was initiated by Martin Luther, who was born on November 10, 1483. Do we Catholics have anything to do with this event? Can we just let it go, as if we have nothing to say and nothing to do with it?

Was what happened in the 16th century just a result of personal drama in an individual’s life, whose name was Martin Luther? What led to this “Lutheran explosion”? Why was Luther finally at peace to declare: “Only Faith which Jesus Christ justifies in us can save us, whereas our works are nothing but our sins.”

From then on, Luther built the whole “Truth of the Church’s Faith” on the unique principle of the Word of God. By becoming a reformer, Martin Luther led an immense religious movement and thereby his personal anxiety caused trembling in the entire Christian world.

I would like to present to the readers what I have learned personally from both Cardinal Yves Marie Congar – my professor of happy memory, and from Cardinal Walter Kasper – a friend and collaborator in the Vatican.

It’s interesting to ask in what time of history Martin Luther was born. Sadly, it was a time of many evils in the Church, above all because religiosity was becoming worse and superficial. A reform from the head to the last member of the Church was needed.

The schism of the West (1378-1417) had heavily damaged the papacy, and at one point there were three popes at the same time, one excommunicating the other. There was much confusion in the theological world, mainly about the doctrine of grace. With the discovery of the new world in the 15th century by Vasco da Gama and Columbus, it was the beginning of a “new era.”

Luther was born between the two eras, medieval and modern. He certainly was a man of his time, not of our time. This transitory character of the world is also manifested in the church of Martin Luther’s time.  It was a time of both renewal and decadence.

There was also a Catholic reform, which took place before the attempt of the reform by Luther. As a student Martin Luther had also known a “new religiosity” (devotio moderna), the protagonist of which was John Tauler in the Germany of Luther’s time. There was also interest in the Bible, even before Luther undertook his work of Protestant Reform.

It must be noted that Luther did not enter a fallen religious order, but the reformed order of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt. Luther grew up under the influence of Bernard of Clairveaux. Young Luther, therefore, was an ardent Catholic who was full of desire for reform.

Luther was also influenced by people like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who propagated ideas of Christian humanism and did not spare criticism of Christian bigots, hypocritical monks and corrupt popes.

As children of the ecumenical era in the Church today, we must consider it an opportunity for us and seize the occasion of the 500 years of the Protestant Reformation which Martin Luther led, in order to exploit it for closer ecumenical ties with Lutherans and others.

Luther himself was not an ecumenical person in the sense we understand ecumenism today; neither were his adversaries of the time. Both were inclined towards polemics and controversies.

Because Martin Luther found that the popes and bishops were refusing to proceed with reform, he, being convinced of its absolute necessity, went ahead, fully confident that the evangelical truth would impose itself, and thus he left the gate fundamentally open for a possible reform.

To add to it, from the Catholic side at that time, there wasn’t any single ecclesiology harmoniously structured – what existed were only approaches and a kind of doctrine on hierarchy – to face the challenge.

Today’s ecumenical movement has opened the gate a bit more. Controversies and polemics have now been replaced by cordial and friendly dialogue; obviously, however, dialogue does not mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. An authentic dialogue cares for the truth; it is an exchange of gifts.

Therefore, listening to and recognizing the truth of the other, acknowledging one’s own weaknesses and courageously and patiently declaring the truth in charity, is of utmost importance.

The Second Vatican Council, even after 50 years, has not yet been “received.” Thanks be to God, Pope Francis has inaugurated a new phase in ecumenical relations.

He is underlining the “ecclesiology of the people of God on a journey”; he is explaining the meaning of the faith of the Church for the people of God; he is exploring the synodal structures of the Church to continue the journey, and taking risks to trod new approaches to collaborate with others, even though, as he knows well, the goal of real unity seems still far away.

The unity of the Church is not imagined by Pope Francis as concentric circles around a “Roman Center,” but a multifaceted reality, not a puzzle to be solved from outside, but a whole which reflects the light of Christ. Pope Francis has once again resumed the concept of “reconciled diversity,” to use Oscar Cullmann’s phrase.

In Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father invites us to conversion, not as single and individual Christians, but conversion of the episcopate together with the primate. This is where we find Martin Luther’s contribution conducive to resume our dialogue, namely, his call to the Gospel of grace and mercy and invitation to conversion and renewal.

Not only have we not yet reached the “reception” of the Second Vatican Council, but we have not yet reached the end of the “history of reception” of the Protestant Reformation.

Unlike Ulrich Zwingly, Luther remained decidedly faithful to a realistic understanding of the Eucharist, an understanding which cannot be blocked in a rigid manner in a religion of pure interiority. Luther also had openness to the issues of historical succession of the episcopate.

Thus, while understanding Martin Luther, we should not refer only to the polemics and controversies, but go to the other side of Martin Luther. We must and we can resume the question, fundamentally for the sake of ecumenism, of understanding the relationship between the Church, Ministry and Eucharist, the title of a document from the US Catholic Conference of Bishops and Lutheran Church in the USA in 2015.

Martin Luther’s many writings also point to his mystical slant, and we must take that seriously. Luther excels in mystical writings, not only as young Luther but also as a decided reformer. This can open us up to a mutually enriching dialogue. In fact, unity and reconciliation do not only come out of heads but, in the first place, from hearts, from personal piety, practiced in daily life and in meeting persons from across the boundaries.

We are in need of a warm and welcoming ecumenism, as against cold and rigid ecumenism; we need to be ready to learn from one another. Only this way can the Catholic Church concretely and fully realize its “catholicity.” We do not still have any common solution, but a way towards full unity has been opened.

The most important contribution of Luther to ecumenical dialogue is in his original orientation to the Gospel of grace, mercy of God and to the call to conversion.

The message of the mercy of God was an answer to his personal quest, problems and needs. However, the truth is that only the mercy of God can heal the deep wounds which divisions have caused to the Body of Christ and to the Church. The mercy of God can transform and renew our hearts, so that we may be well disposed to conversion and through the mercy of God we may grow and forgive reciprocally the injustices of the past.

We must not lose sight of the eschatological vision: “Even if I know that tomorrow the world will end, I will still plant a sapling of apples in my garden,” is the phrase attributed to Luther. One who plants a small sapling, nourishes much hope; we need also patience.

We must go to the origins and roots (ad fontes e ad radices). Today we need spiritual ecumenism in the common reading of the Scriptures and in common prayer. We cannot “produce” ecumenism by ourselves. We cannot organize ecumenism, or pretend to impose it. Ecumenism is God’s gift in the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit of God has initiated the work of unity. He will bring it to fulfillment, not the unity as we want, but as He wants. The small sapling must grow widely. This means that we must allow unity in a big, multiple reconciliation, and give the world today a common witness of God and of his mercy.

Christian Unity today is closer than it was 500 years ago. In 2017 we should not think of ourselves as if we are still in 1517!

That was the unfortunate time of separation. Today we are fortunately on the way to unity. Let us journey forward with courage and patience. 2017 is an opportunity both for Protestants and for Catholics. We must exploit this moment of God’s grace. We need to give our world a common witness.

Let us do it with God’s grace and mercy.