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500 years of Reformation: Joint service set for Sunday in Willmar

Erica Dischino / Tribune The Rev. Steve Verhelst is shown at the Church of St. Mary in Willmar where Catholics and Lutherans will join in a Service of Common Prayer at 4 p.m. Sunday to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The service will focus on common ground and shared vision for the future. 1 / 4
the Rev. Jon Dahl2 / 4
the Rev. Naomi Mahler3 / 4
Erica Dischino / Tribune Erica Dischino / Tribune The Rev. Justin Ask, of Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, is one of the local clergy members who helped plan the Service of Common Prayer slated this Sunday in Willmar to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Organizers say the service is open to all Christian faith traditions.4 / 4

WILLMAR — A bold act 500 years ago by a German monk named Martin Luther that split the Roman Catholic Church and gave birth to Protestant religions is being commemorated Sunday afternoon in an ecumenical service in Willmar that will focus on unity.

It may surprise some that the service is being held at a Catholic church.

It may come as a further surprise that the Service of Common Prayer was initiated by Father Steve Verhelst, from the Church of St. Mary in Willmar and Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Church in Spicer.

The Rev. Verhelst said the Protestant Reformation — spurred by Martin Luther nailing on the door of a church on Oct. 31, 1517, his 95 Theses that questioned practices of the Catholic Church — was a significant and historical event that had an impact on the whole world and continues to impact churches and individuals today.

"We need to celebrate that," said Verhelst, who issued the invitation to area Lutheran church leaders to conduct a service together.

"To get an invitation from the priest at the Catholic church wanting do something was very exciting," said the Rev. Jon Dahl, of Bethel Lutheran Church.

While some who grew up living with the division between Lutherans and Catholics may find it "curious and interesting" that the joint service was prompted by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Naomi Mahler, of Calvary Lutheran Church, said church members "feel grateful for this invitation because it came from Father Steve and excited that we can celebrate together in this way."

The invitation was "thoughtful and generous," said the Rev. Justin Ask, of Vinje Lutheran Church, who along with clergy from Bethel Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutheran Church, worked with Verhelst to plan the service.

"This is a great opportunity for Catholics and Lutherans to gather together in prayer and Christian unity," Ask said.

Clergy, families and musicians from Lutheran and Catholic congregations will be part of the service at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Church of St. Mary in Willmar.

Verhelst said the inspiration for hosting the service came from an event a year ago when Pope Francis participated in a joint service in Sweden with President of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan, to launch the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Verhelst said he remembers thinking, "Gosh, that's pretty incredible" for faith leaders from different churches with a long — and sometimes violent — history to come together in unity.

The liturgy being used Sunday, which is similar to the service in Sweden, bluntly acknowledges the shortcoming of both denominations that created a deep divide between Catholics and Lutherans for hundreds of years.

"In the past, Catholics and Protestants frequently not only misunderstood but also exaggerated and mocked their opponents in order to make them look ridiculous," reads one section of the liturgy.

It continues by saying Christians have often focused on what separates them instead of what unites them. "Human beings suffered and the credibility of the Gospel was undermined with consequences that still impact us today. We deeply regret the evil things that Christians have mutually done to each other."

"There's been a lot of ugliness," Dahl said.

The service will "acknowledge we haven't treated each other so well, but we're trying to learn from that past and move toward a more vibrant future," Dahl said.

Mahler said the service is meant to "heal divisions" and allow members of the different churches to focus on the shared "common ground" and "celebrate our faith together."

The Second Vatican Council from the 1960s and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999 helped create opportunities for ecumenical growth and reducing divisiveness.

Verhelst said even though the Reformation was an event between Catholics and Lutherans, the invitation to "lift our voices together" is made to all Christian faith traditions.

The clergy agreed that reflecting on the Reformation that started 500 years ago will help lead the churches to more positive growth in the future.

"There's more that unites us than divides us," said Ask, who hopes this joint service will encourage more partnerships between area churches. "We can do so much more together than separately," he said.

A lunch will be served after the service.

In a light-hearted moment, Dahl said having people from four different churches working together in the St. Mary's kitchen may be just as significant as coming together in prayer in the sanctuary.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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