October 17, 2017

How Roman Catholics commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

500th anniversary of the protestant reformation

Catholics should commemorate the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation for three important reasons:

  1. The impact of the Reformation changed the course of human history.
  2. Commemorating the Protestant Reformation gives the Church the opportunity to reflect on history and to grow in faith and love for Christ and our separated brothers and sisters.
  3. We live in the hope of healing with our separated brethren to restore Christian unity.

I’ll expand upon those three reasons a little bit and then Dr. Glenn Byer will share with us some of the musical beauty and richness that came about as a result of the Reformation proving that – even in the midst of darkness, division and conflict – God brings forth truth goodness and beauty. At the end Dr. Byer will share with us songs composed by the reformers that are commonly used in Catholic worship and are found in your OCP missals and hymnals.

How the Reformation changed the world

The Reformation of 1517 marks a great wound in Christian unity and, like the Great Schism of 1054 before it, introduced great division into the Body of Christ the Church. The entire landscape of the Christian faith would be fundamentally altered during the 16th century. Catholicism had not been limited to simply uniting Christians in 15th century Europe but was also a great force for political unity. With the religious division introduced by the Reformation came also political divisions. As denominations and territories began to redraw the boundaries of “us and them,” many states found themselves at war as a result of the Reformation. This political unrest would eventually result in the fall of the Holy Roman Empire as division gave way to revolution in France and preceded the rise of Napoleon. The violence that ensued was on the scale of a world war. The fallout from the Reformation had much to do with why the borders of the countries of Europe are where they are today.


Lessons from history and the Counter-Reformation

Although commonly referred to as The Protestant Reformation it would be more accurate to say protestant reformations. Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the Lutherstadt Wittenberg Castle Church door was a historic moment, but not the only Reform movement to happen in the 16th century. In fact, there were several leaders of reformation within the Holy Roman Empire at the time. Notable leaders of reform movements were Lutheran reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Calvinism reformers Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564). King Henry the VIII (1491-1547) also began a movement of reform in England at about the same time, which became Anglicanism.

In response to these movements of reform the Roman Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation (sometimes called the Catholic Revival). This Catholic Reformation began with the Council of Trent in 1545, which addressed five major elements:

  1. Defending and clarifying the doctrines of the Church, especially regarding the Sacraments
  2. Reform of administrative and ecclesiastical abuses, such as the selling of indulgences.
  3. The Church’s authority to interpret Scripture and the equal authority of Scripture and Tradition.
  4. The relationship between faith and works and the doctrine of justification.
  5. The affirmation of practices that were questioned by reformers, such as the veneration of saints and relics.

The commemoration of Reformation Day helps Catholics remember these troubled times and hold fast to the true, good and beautiful aspects of our Catholic faith. It’s important to remember these troubled times in history and to learn from them: 1) how to address conflicts within the Church moving forward in a way that heals divisions and fosters unity, and 2) how to move from conflict to communion with protestant churches. This is why Pope Francis is reaching out to Evangelical Lutheran churches during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Prayer for Christian unity, healing the body of Christ

Reformation anniversaries or celebrations are not appropriate for Catholic churches. Instead we say that we commemorate the event in the same way that we commemorate the Schism of the Orthodox Church in 1054. We remember the wound these events caused in the unity of the body of Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” The differences between Christians should never lead to separation from one another. The pinnacle of Christian worship is the celebration of Communion, of the Eucharist, of the sharing in the Body of Christ of which we all are a part. That is why we must commemorate the Reformation with prayer. Prayers for unity and peace.

Jesus’ prayer before entering the Garden of Gethsemane was:

“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:20-23

We asked Dr. Glenn Byer to share with us below on ways that, as faithful Catholics, we can move from these words of Jesus toward prayer and greater Christian unity through the musical traditions that came about as a result of the Reformation.

How should OCP and music ministers commemorate the Reformation?

There have been commemorations of the Reformation springing up all over this past year, including events attended by Pope Francis, documents issued by the USCCB and the Vatican, and individual events in areas where Lutheran and Catholic communities have been existing side by side. All of this should give permission to musicians everywhere to stop for a moment to give thanks for the musical traditions that have come from the Reformation.

As a Catholic liturgist, there are several gifts that come to mind. While it is almost certain that some of these gifts would have entered the Catholic tradition without the Reformation of the 16th century, it is also true that the Reformation gave them the room to blossom in ways and at a speed that we could never have hoped to see in our own tradition. So here are some gifts:

Vernacular hymn singing:

From Martin Luther on, through John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and dozens more, the emphasis on singing in the hymn form at Sunday Eucharist is something that was simply not on the radar for the Church in the 16th century. And while the permissions for such singing in the Roman Catholic tradition begin in the early 20th century, the sheer quantity of hymnody that was already extant, much of which, after theological review, was brought in to Catholic liturgy, gave a jump start to congregational singing that had eluded the countless musicians and clerics who promoted of chant from at least the Council of Trent. It was hymnody that caught people’s imagination and helped them to sing at Mass.

It is important to remember that these writers were not ignorant of Latin, or indeed of Greek in many cases, but the value of singing in the vernacular was seen as essential to the spread of the Gospel.

The pipe organ and instruments at liturgy:

As late as 1903 the Catholic Church was reticent to have the pipe organ in churches. Pope Pius X in Tra le sollecitudini #15 almost grudgingly wrote “Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted.” Now he goes on to prohibit the piano, but what is clear is that one of the gifts of the Reformation is the development of the pipe organ and the music that goes with it. Some reformation communities were more catholic and in fact walled up pipe organs in their churches, but over the centuries some of the greatest music for that instrument comes to us from the Reformation tradition.

Bach, product of the Lutheran Church:

While it was an accident of history that Bach was born to a Lutheran family, it is equally clear that his immense body of work was shaped by the Lutheran tradition, and without it, there would have been a very different output from this genius. The same could be said of other composers of the age: Palestrina in a Protestant context would not have given us the same music.

English Chant:

The Anglican/Episcopal form of chanting in English grew out of the English Reformation. It took the structures of Latin plainchant and applied the speech patterns of the English language. Ironically, without this development, the notion of singing Gregorian melodies with English words would not have been so easily promoted.

So, as musicians, here are a few things to be thankful for as we commemorate the Reformation.

Songs in Music Issue/Breaking Bread from the Reformation leaders:

Should your parish want to celebrate the common musical tradition we hold with a neighboring community from a Reformation tradition, here is a list of songs from Music Issue/Breaking Bread written by early leaders in the Reformation.

Jethro Higgins


Jethro Higgins, father of 6,  has Directed Youth & Young Adult ministry programs and led liturgical music ensembles since 2004. Jethro received his Master of Science in Business Analysis from the Catholic University of America and is currently studying at The Augustine Institute in the Master of Arts in Theology program. 

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer


Dr. Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.