Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 55th Street and St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 51st Street are located four blocks apart on opposite sides of the famous avenue, a five-minute walk. Ecclesiastically, the difference is far greater, however, and for most of the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, the history between the two Christian denominations has been a tortured one.
So, when Cardinal Dolan emerged from the door to the right of the pulpit of this historic Victorian Gothic sanctuary with his host, Dr. Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, Oct. 29, there was an expectant murmur in the congregation. Dr. Johnston had invited the cardinal to deliver the homily on a day marking one of the most important dates of the liturgical year throughout the Protestant world, Reformation Sunday. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
“Today is the day when Protestants all over the world are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the events leading to the Reformation,” Dr. Johnston explained. “I grew up a Presbyterian in central Minnesota surrounded by Lutherans and Methodists. There was also a very active Catholic parish in town. And Reformation Sunday, which is always the last Sunday in October, was often an occasion when the local clergy would, I wouldn’t say bash the Catholics, but they wanted the Protestants to know how far superior we were to our Catholic brothers and sisters. And after 500 years, enough of that. In short, that is the point.
“There are wonderful things that came out of the Reformation. The Bible being translated into local languages, but there were also some pretty awful things. I have a Scottish heritage, I’m married to a woman of Irish heritage. We know that in the U.K. and Ireland the divisions between Protestants and Catholics resulted in centuries of violence and acrimony, and I’m sure that is not what Christ ever wanted.”
Ecumenical relations have certainly improved. Dr. Johnston’s invitation was also meant to celebrate the growing partnership between the three prominent Fifth Avenue churches, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Since June, they have collaborated to minister to the swelling homeless population in Midtown Manhattan. The Fifth Avenue Ecumenical Outreach Partnership supports the work of John Sheehan, a full-time social worker, in providing food, clothing, social services and referrals to those in need. Sheehan has served 528 men and women in his Fifth Avenue Presbyterian office.
In his homily, Cardinal Dolan addressed the importance of the Reformation, both to Protestant churches and to the Catholic Church since the Reformation spurred the reform movement within the Catholic Church as well. While the cardinal stressed that reformation remains an ongoing and important feature of the Church, he stressed the most important reformation is in the hearts of individuals.
“The reform of the Church is constant,” Cardinal Dolan said. “But Luther, like Jesus, knew of another object of reform, far more urgent, far more compelling without which neither the Church nor the world could ever be renewed. And that is the reform of myself—personal conversion. The Kingdom of God is within, the preacher extraordinaire explains...So, we might ask this Reformation Sunday, to whom shall we go? Should we go to Martin Luther?...Should we go to Dr. Johnston? Do we go to Cardinal Dolan? I hope all of them, all of us, might be of help. But they only help if we answer that question, as did St. Peter who asked it. ‘Lord to whom shall we go? We have come to believe that you alone are Christ, son of the living God.’ That’s our answer everybody.”
“I thought it was a great day, a profound day. The cardinal was wonderful, gracious,” Dr. Johnston told CNY as he joined Cardinal Dolan in greeting parishioners as they headed out on to rain-swept Fifth Avenue.
“I was as comfortable as can be,” the cardinal added. “By gosh, we’re neighbors, we cooperate with this ministry to the homeless. So, the days of feeling like you are going beyond enemy lines are over. We’re allies!”
That sentiment was reflected by many in the congregation who spoke to CNY.
“Bringing the cardinal here is such an exciting thing for us. And I agree with (Dr. Johnston) that it was about time. And it’s just lovely to have that experience. We all believe in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We have that in common. I think on Reformation Sunday, it’s just a wonderful statement of Christian unity,” said Nancy Moore, a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian for 14 years.
“We all felt the historic moment when he came in,” added Ken Henderson, a parishioner for more than 35 years. “It was interesting that they came up on the side of the sanctuary to go to the back for the processional. If it wasn’t raining, they may have gone around outside. I think people were really struck by, wow, this is really historic, here is the Cardinal. But also struck by how happy he was and how he was waving to people, engaging us as he went through.”