If what has been called the Reformation was in truth what it purported to be, an honest call to reform the Church, Martin Luther would have his own feast day on the liturgical calendar.
It's been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle (or simply mailed them to the archbishop, as more recent scholarship suggests). Five hundred years of separation. Five centuries of political power-plays and theological recriminations. Half a millennium of reformation gone wild, and far beyond the intent of most of its earliest proponents. Why? Because as St. Francis deSales put it not long afterward, "The devil likes to fish in troubled waters." Throughout history, the devil has had some pretty good fishing indeed.
In 1517, Martin Luther had 95 reasonable reasons, rational arguments, and well-thought out points. I suspect that if you asked a room full of Catholics today for their concerns and complaints, there'd be considerably more than just 95. But there never has been a lack of sincere -- and even legitimate -- reasons to leave the Church.
The problem is that for anyone who chooses to travel that path there really is no such thing as throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby. To leave the Church is to leave Christ, at least in part, behind. Ask anyone how easy it is to maintain a relationship with a friend when you're not on speaking terms with his wife. It isn't. And there's no getting around the fact that the Church is the Bride of Christ. That remains true despite her warts, imperfections, and even her sins. It was true for Israel, too. No matter how far they strayed from God, they were still his chosen people. That's because God is faithful, even when -- perhaps especially when -- we are not.
If what has been called the Reformation was in truth what it purported to be, an honest call to reform the Church, Martin Luther would have his own feast day on the liturgical calendar. It failed to be a genuine reform because its leaders failed to recognize the single most important principle of reform: unity. It is not possible to reform anything from the outside, and the threat of division undermines the good faith needed to accomplish anything at all. While we call the Our Father the Lord's Prayer, we ought to remember that the prayer Jesus offered as his own the night before his sacrificial death was "ut unum sint" ("that they would all be one.")
Teresa of Avila, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairveaux, Francis of Assisi, all of these holy men and women accepted the call to reform from within. They did so at great personal cost as well as both patience and a generous helping of frustration. Some of them were persecuted by the Church they loved and served. And they accepted that too. All for the sake of fidelity. They embraced unity with Christ and his Church in radical ways, and submitted themselves and all their ideas to the institution founded by Christ himself. This is how true prophets behave.
The bitter fruit of that sad event 500 years ago lingers. The Church of the West is fragmented, not in two or three or four denominations, but literally in thousands. And while few "Protestants" know what it is they are protesting, they are still our "separated brethren." Many of them live lives of holiness and grace, commitment and deep discipleship. But they have no idea what they are missing. They only know how uncomfortable they feel with all things Catholic, and how unnerving it is to see statues, or smell incense, or hear someone pray, "Hail, Mary."
Whatever your theses are, whatever teachings or practices, laws or beliefs you find difficult, please do not leave the Church. Be patient, and take the time you need to explore the faith. Be humble too, humble enough to admit that you may not have all the answers, or even all the questions. Humble enough to recognize that two thousand years of following Christ, even imperfectly, has something to offer you. Above all, let God be the Great Reformer he is, the one who gently, and with great mercy, transforms our lives by the power of his grace and truth both in the Church and through her.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is the author of “Adoption: Room for One More?”, a speaker, musician and serves as an Aquisitions Editor at Our Sunday Visitor. Follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.
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