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Luther anniversary promotes Catholic-Protestant reconciliation

The 500th anniversary of the man who split Christendom has brought reconciliation between church and state in East Germany and between Roman Catholic and Protestant worldwide.

The year-long celebrations leading up to Martin Luther's birthday today have brought Lu-therans in East and West Germany closer together as the East German government has liberalized restrictions on such contacts.

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And they have brought rededication to religious ideals on the part of countless individual worshipers.

The reconciliation within East Germany will culminate in a grand ceremony in Eisleben today in which high-ranking government and Socialist Unity (Communist) Party officials are expected to participate.

The Luther praised by East German officials is, of course, the secular giant of history who ended the Middle Ages and was a forerunner of the eventual Communist revolution. But even this image - stripped of the central core of the great reformer's religious conviction - required a major revision of the previous castigation of Luther as an opponent of the people's revolution.

Moreover, the official embrace of Luther has broadened a relaxation that began with a precedent-setting meeting between church and state officials in 1978.

Most conspicuously, it included permission for more joint meetings of East and West German Lutherans in 1983 than at any other time since East Germany broke up the unitary organization of the East and West German Lutheran Church in the 1960s. It included an end to a ban on repairs of some churches damaged in World War II. It included as well an expensive state program of reconstruction of major way stations in Luther's life in Wittenberg, Wartburg, Eisleben, and elsewhere.

More subtly, it combined with political considerations to soften the punishment meted out to religious pacifists. Jailings and expulsions of East German peace activists continue, but the movement has never been crushed in the way comparable Russian dissidence has been.

And Lutheran churches have been allowed to sponsor peace discussions that stay within their own walls and do not spill over into any more public campaign.

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More subtly still, the official East German embrace of Luther displays a respect for the responsibility, sobriety, and other moral qualities taught by the church - and a tacit admission that the church has been more successful than the state in inculcating these qualities in citizens.

The reconciliation between Roman Catholic and Protestant is hardly less dramatic. The Pope's unprecedented acknowledgment that the medieval Roman Catholic Church erred in its treatment of Luther has been welcomed by Protestants. So has the Pope's unprecedented agreement to preach in a Lutheran church in Rome.

This move clearly promotes ecumenism. In 1983 there is no prospect that the Augsburg Confession of 1530 will be reworked and Christendom reunited organizationally. But there is a growing respect across denominational lines for the insights and shared spiritual yearnings of fellow worshippers of God.

For any Christian, of course, the deepest meaning of Luther's 500th anniversary must lie not with East German politics or with denominational categories, but with individual devotion. This year has seen quiet meetings in thousands of Lutheran churches around the world to reconsider his teaching of the individual's relation to God.

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