The reformation of 1517 should be celebrated with grateful and humble hearts

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Michael O’Cathail (February 13) has been bothered, it seems, by the signatures of ten unionist MPs to a House of Commons motion acknowledging the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant reformation.

His treatment of the facts in relation to European and Irish 16th and 17th century history is firmly in the vein of the Catholic counter reformation strategy.

Catholicism has ever sought to discredit the reformation with Jesuitical cunning but this letter strikes me as a more of a clumsy attempt to rubbish the most liberating event in European history.

Rome wishes to discredit the reformation because prior to this event Europe was in spiritual, moral and political darkness.

The church had neglected the simple faith and theology of the Apostles and had added layers of traditions and concepts with the result that the simple doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone was lost.

Luther’s personal story is one of a man’s quest for peace. As a faithful son of the church he could not find Christ amid the penances, the rosaries and the masses.

Punishing his body, enduring sleepless nights his brother monks were afraid that Martin would die. It was, however, while studying the book that the church withheld from the people, the Bible, that Martin’s soul was set free and so he devoted the remainder of his life to advocating the truths, he had discovered, which the church had lost.

Why did the church eventually excommunicate Martin Luther?

Why was Pope Leo 10th unwilling to leave the German monk alone? Because the theology of Luther represented freedom. Freedom to read and study the Bible, to have the Bible in the common language, to find peace with God through Christ the Great and only High Priest who offered one sacrifice for sin.

This freedom nullified the revenue stream that the church benefited from through indulgences masses for the dead and pilgrimages to the shrines of the saints and to view their relics.

Man can have peace with God, not through the church but through Christ. Yes, Christ alone. Luther took an axe and struck the office of the Roman priesthood by defining Christ as the only mediator, as the only one who forgives our sins.

Man has direct access to God. Popes, priests and saints and even Mary were of no value in the great scheme of salvation. Faith in Christ alone! This liberating truth lay at the core of the reformation.

The Papacy recognised the danger of Luther’s beliefs because its power over the souls of men was now declared to be a fraud. So the Pope excommunicated Luther, after he refused to be muzzled and would have burnt him to death if it were not for the protection of Frederick, the Elector of Saxony.

Prior to the reformation Europe was in political bondage. Far from the German peoples being a united nation in the 16th Century, they were distinct provinces within Charles 5th’s Holy Roman Empire.

This institution was so named because it was a tool in the hands of the Papacy to control a large swathe of Europe’s population. Luther’s stand for freedom taught the German peoples that tyranny both ecclesiastical and political can be opposed by the little man. So the German peoples fought for their freedom. It was a life and death struggle.

The church sought the extermination of Protestants. In those times the Papacy continued to honour the concept that burning heretics in the flames was necessary for the removal of their sins and these Protestants were certainly heretical.

But what the historian cannot do is blame the man who ignited the torch of freedom for the deaths of those fought for freedom. The blame lies with the aggressor, the tyrant, the Papacy itself.

This is borne out in the history of these islands.

Michael O’Cathail has conveniently airbrushed out of his account of 17th century Irish history the terrible rebellion of 1641 and the atrocities perpetrated against Protestants. The English government was the civil authority in Ireland and were quite within their rights to subjugate this island and deal with such a serious rebellion that had catastrophic results.

Within the British Isles the real battle was for a new constitution and a free Parliament. Perhaps Michael O’Cathail is content with the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings as was practiced by the Stuart dynasty.

I would suggest that while Romanism supported the King in his quest to do as he pleased, as if he were God, it was Protestantism which defended the liberty of the subject and the concept that rule must be by consent.

The Bill of Rights (1688) arose out of this desire and quest for freedom, one of the first documents dealing with human rights.

The British Parliament became the Mother of Parliaments and an example to the world because of the principle that Luther’s Reformation had planted in the hearts of men and women – Freedom.

Yes, Luther was a child of his times. His views on the Jews were wrong and reprehensible. Yet those views, he espoused concerning the Jewish people, were held throughout Christendom, especially by the church at that time.

Yet the later Protestants would see the error of Luther’s anti-Semitism and would accord freedom to the Jews. Oliver Cromwell in England led the way in granting the the Jewish people freedom of religion within the Commonwealth.

Protestantism in its quest for freedom has ever led the way in advocating civil and religious liberties for all.

Roman Catholicism on the other hand was the source of bondage and darkness.

Should the Reformation of 1517 be celebrated with grateful and humble hearts? Absolutely.

Rev Peter McIntyre, Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church, Fivemiletown