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A Married Priest - Part VII

In the previous two articles in this series, I have explained my first “conversion” from a sectarian protestantism to a catholic-minded, sacramental Lutheranism. Here I begin the account of the way these catholic convictions and longings brought me to a crisis of conscience and led me into the Roman Catholic Church.
 
Right Authority in the Church
Almost all Protestants who tell the story of their journey to Catholicism will speak about the question of authority. What is called the Protestant Reformation was born in a crisis of authority. It was, at first the brilliant charismatic reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and others – their relation to the catholic tradition still more or less intact – that fell into bishop-like roles. But from the first generation, these leaders found it impossible to speak with one voice. Soon from the late 17th Century onward, authority in Church matters was legally ceded to secular rulers. And with the rise of nation states, the “State Church” soon became fixed throughout Europe and Great Britain (desperately so, given the horrors of confessional wars). The compromise inflicted many wounds on the Catholic Church as well as upon the various protestantisms.
 
 
From the 19th Century onward, with the growth of freedom of religion, denominationalism became the status quo, in America especially as the protestant logic of division (the reform of the reform of the reform!) radically fragmented protestantism. This would inevitably lead to that sort of religious individualism by which each person is his own pope; or better, each one is a religious consumer, accountable only to his or her own felt needs. 
 
 
I understood from the first that, as an “evangelical catholic”, (the term often used to describe Catholic-leaning Lutherans); I was in a member of a “party” among Lutheran churches and within my particular Lutheran denomination. Generally speaking, in America, Norwegian Lutherans were usually pietists, Germans stressed theological loyalty to Luther, churches with Swedish origins were more catholic liturgically. But at the time, we Catholics thought we had history on our side. After decades of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, it did not seem utopian to speak of the possibility of reunion with Rome. Certainly, the dialogues had revealed the big “empty spot” in Lutheran experience and teaching concerning authority. Lutherans were all bound, so we said, first by Holy Scripture, and then by 16th documents gathered in the book of confessions. But where was one to find an authoritative reading of these authoritative texts?
 
Living and Teaching Toward Reunion
Amid these contradictions of division, I comforted myself that at least I was free, so I thought, to work and pray and teach a fully catholic faith. And I saw my task as a Lutheran pastor and teacher as two-fold. First, I would work to establish in the parishes I served a truly catholic church life loyal to the Lutheran confessions and the wide catholic tradition – a church life rooted in the Holy Eucharist, the offering of private confession (according to Luther's own rite!), the observance of the saints calendar in the Lutheran Book of Worship (a book praised by many leading Roman Catholic liturgical scholars). Secondly, I would work tirelessly with others for reunion – studying, writing, lecturing at the annual Luther-Aquinas conference. I helped to found a society of Lutheran pastors and bishops in North America (the Society of the Holy Trinity) in which regional chapters would gather for retreats, all members subscribing to a rule of prayer, mutual discipline, and catholic pastoral practice. The rule pledged our members to work for the unity of the Church, professing our belief that it was the destiny of the Lutheran confessing movement to be reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. These were hopeful days. We were, so we believed, living reunion ahead of time. 
 
 
How was it that things suddenly (so it seemed) fell apart? How was it that “living reunion ahead of time” was revealed to be an avoidance of the obvious, a betrayal of unity rather than a moving toward it.


 
 
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