Lutheran Catholic Frenemies?

This weekend, the Minneapolis ELCA celebrates the installation of Ann Svennungsen as the new bishop of the largest Lutheran synod in the United States.

The Lutherans are pulling out all the glam for this event at Central Lutheran Church Sunday afternoon: pastors processing in red vestments, the St. Olaf College Choir and the Augsburg College Woodwind Quintet.

Dignitaries include the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, and a Lutheran Archbishop from Nigeria.

It will no longer, apparently, include Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Although his name was on the ELCA press release as an ecumenical guest, he cancelled his appearance on Tuesday. A spokesman for the Archdiocese confirmed the Archbishop had “a change in plans.”

From reading Rose French’s excellent piece in the Star Tribune last fall (Minnesota Bishops, Catholic, Lutheran share common ground), we know Catholic and Lutheran leaders have enjoyed a 35-year dialogue and friendship.

But they are also notably far apart on such issues as the ordination of women, and the marriage amendment on the November ballot which would define marriage as between one man and one woman. The Minneapolis ELCA voted to oppose the amendment, while the Catholic Bishops have made its passage a top political priority.

The Archbishop’s no-show at Svennungsen’s installation brings to mind an earlier chapter in Lutheran-Catholic relations.

In 1998, a tornado tore through St. Peter, Minnesota, destroying the Catholic Church of St. Peter.


(Photo of Catholic Church of St. Peter courtesy of St. Peter Kiwanis)

First Lutheran Church offered the use of its building for the two years it would take their Catholic neighbors to rebuild. First Lutheran administrator Paul Aasen recalled the deep friendship that grew between the two congregations. A sign was even erected out front, “First Lutheran Catholic Church”, that Aasen said elicited some double-takes.

According to Aasen, Father Harry Behan, the Irish priest at St. Peter’s, good-naturedly wished the Lutherans a “happy Reformation Sunday.” Reformation Sunday marks Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church nearly 500 years ago.

Father Behan and First Lutheran Pastor Mark Solyst held separate worship times for their flocks on Sunday mornings, but Maundy Thursday, Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, presented a special challenge. Both congregations were used to an evening service. According to a 2007 history of First Lutheran Church written by Donald Gustafson, “A logical but improbable solution was suggested–a joint Lutheran-Catholic communion!”

Mass with the Lutherans apparently proved too much for Behan’s Bishop, Father John Nienstedt, then Bishop of New Ulm. Behan was reprimanded, and shipped off to serve two small parishes in the southwestern Minnesota. He’s since retired in his native Ireland.

I emailed Behan to ask about Nienstedt’s censure of his ecumenical work with the Lutherans. He wrote back:

“The people of St. Peter, in the aftermath of the tornadoes, prayed together, worked together, shared resources and worship spaces, cared together for those who lost property, their health and even a child, to such an extent that it was ecumenism in action. Many of the barriers between different churches disappeared and we were uplifted and joyful as a result. There are so many great stories from that period that ‘that all may be one’ (Ut unum sint) that we treasure the spiritual progress to this day. This was one of the silver linings in the tragedy that happened. I do not wish to speak about the differences with Bishop John Nienstedt except to say that although ‘That all might be one’ is his motto, he seemed to need to control everything rather than pastorally make the motto happen.”

According to Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso, relations with the Lutherans are “good” and the Archbishop had another unspecified engagement.