Jesuits and Luther: Remembering the Reformation Differently


Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the elder

For Catholics in general, and for Jesuits in particular, Martin Luther used to be seen as simply an enemy, a benighted schismatic. Juan de Polanco, Ignatius’ secretary, saw Ignatius’ conversion at Loyola in 1521 as God’s ‘antidote’, countering the poison of what Martin Luther’s 1517 declaration of war ‘on the apostolic Holy See and the Catholic religion’.

However, centenaries have a way of provoking reassessments. Jubilee celebrations commemorate the past, but they also make us think about what that past means for us now. In 1917, the Reformation jubilee fell during the First World War. Luther’s memory was used to encourage German militarist heroism in a way that historians today find bizarrely shocking. In 2017, we find ourselves in an ecumenical age, when Christians of different traditions instinctively make common cause. Now it is the sheer divisiveness of the heritage that seems embarrassing, indeed unchristian.

New ways of remembering

One sign of the times is that the Lutheran World Federation, in preparing the 2017 commemoration, has worked together with the Vatican, producing an important document entitled From Conflict to Communion. Most Christians now live in Africa and Asia; they do not—as the joint document puts it – ‘easily see the confessional conflicts of the sixteenth century as their own conflicts’, and seek rather to address questions of justice, acute need, and religious pluralism together. In Europe too, secularization has made Church divisions appear meaningless today. Thus we approach the centenary with mixed feelings, proceeding in gingerly fashion. Even Lutherans are generally happy to speak of commemorating, rather than celebrating, the beginning of the Reformation.

But nevertheless, and by the same token, there has already been a strikingly symbolic visit by Pope Francis to Lund in Sweden, the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation, to mark the beginning of the Reformation jubilee year on October 31 2016. In a homily at a prayer service, the Pope spoke of Catholic gratitude for how ‘the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life’. Moreover, Luther’s insistence on ‘by grace alone’ reminds us ‘that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response’. The doctrine of justification ‘expresses the essence of human existence before God’.

Strong and generous words. Even if full reconciliation remains in the future, we are indeed moving ‘from conflict to communion’. As the ecumenical preparation document puts it: ‘What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change’.

"Without taking notice of their faults"

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of his devotion to Pierre Favre, the first of Ignatius’ companion to stay with him. Indeed, one of his rare uses of papal privilege has been to canonize Favre in default of the standard process. And Favre was the first Jesuit to work in Germany, marked as it was by the Reformation conflicts in the 1540s. The earliest entry in Favre’s marvellously detailed spiritual journal that directly mentions Reformation questions is indeed rich. In its own small way, it can help us remember, or imagine, the Reformation period differently.

Favre writes of his ‘great fervour as eight persons became present to me’, and of his desire that this should happen vividly so that he can ‘pray for them without taking notice of their faults’. The eight include, conventionally enough, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France. But Favre also mentions Henry VIII (who, on the date in question, November 19 1541, was setting about having his fifth wife executed), the Grand Turk, and three Protestant theologians: Luther, but also Bucer and Melanchthon. Precisely because these people were judged severely by many, Favre felt for them ‘a certain kind of holy compassion accompanied by a good spirit’.

Moreover, on that very same day, Favre reaffirms his commitment to poverty and gratuity of ministries, a commitment reflecting just the kind of protest against corrupt, venal religion that had animated Luther. ‘I made a vow never to accept anything for confessions, for Masses, or for preaching’. As he writes about the vow, he recognises it as ‘a very special favour from Christ our Lord’.

The conflicts of the past, and the involvement of Jesuits in them, cannot be denied. But we can tell their story differently. We can see an affinity of concern between the best intuitions of the Lutheran Reformation and the convictions of Ignatius’s first companions, the ‘reformed priests of Jesus’ as they were called. And this recognition can help us make our own the declaration of our two Churches at Lund in the presence of the first Jesuit pope: ‘Today, we hear God’s command to set aside all conflict. We recognize that we are freed by grace to move towards the communion to which God continually calls us.’

This article first appeared in Jesuits and Friends Magazine Summer 2017 edition