Norman and Joanne Ellertson are lifelong Lutherans.

Both grew up in small Minnesota towns where church was a big part of their lives, but there were certain lines that weren’t crossed.

Norman and Joanne Ellertson

Norman and Joanne Ellertson, lifelong Lutherans, remember a time when Lutherans and Catholics had little to do with each other. 

“The only other religion I was aware of was Catholicism, and Catholics and Lutherans didn’t get along very well,” Joanne said, sitting in the apartment she shares with her husband of 61 years. “We didn’t have race issues, we didn’t have any other issues like that, but there was this divide between Catholics and Lutherans.”

When she reached her teens, her parents would have frowned on the notion that she date a Catholic boy.

Towns tended to skew one way or the other, as well, Norman added.

“The communities we both grew up in were predominantly Lutheran,” he said. “I could count the number of Catholics on one hand.”

Lifelong Catholic, author and retired educator Virginia Smith, of Billings, remembers something similar.

Virginia Smith

Virginia Smith, author and former teacher, has spent a great deal of time studying religion both pre- and post-Vatican II. Smith says it was a turning point in relations between Catholics and Lutherans.

“When I was growing up, I knew at an early age that we were right and everybody else was wrong, and it was up to us that we share what was right,” she said, sitting at her dining room table.

Much of that has changed over the years, of course. Look no further than the joint Lutheran-Catholic commemorations this fall in Montana linked to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

On Friday, Catholic and Lutheran clergy and lay leaders will meet for a convocation in Lewistown hosted by the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

On Monday, Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings and Bishop George Thomas of the Diocese of Helena will be joined by Bishop Jessica Crist and retired bishop Mark Ramseth of the Montana Synod of the ELCA for an ecumenical vesper service at St. Helena Cathedral.

The focus will be a jointly authored document, “From Conflict to Communion,” in which Lutherans and Catholics for the first time tell together the history of the Reformation. In the document they express regret over the pain they inflicted on each other, but give thanks for the theological insights they have shared.

The doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg

The doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses that questioned the Catholic Church and helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago this month.

The start of the schism

Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary when, in 1517, Martin Luther is said to have pinned his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting the Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Luther was a priest, an Augustinian monk and a doctor of theology who never intended to leave the Catholic Church, let alone split the Christian world.

“His intention was to debate and work for change in areas where he found inconsistencies,” said the Rev. Steve Loy, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Billings. “In the process he got excommunicated.”

Steve Loy


Loy, who has spent the month of October teaching on theological issues related to the Reformation, shares some interesting facts about the events and context of the time when Luther lived.

One has to do with whether Luther actually posted the theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg — an act that traditionally has been credited to him. Modern scholars question that.

“He was a doctor of theology and a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg,” Loy said. “During that time when he was teaching, he came up with the 95 theses.”

The alternative theory is that Luther wrote the theses in Latin and handed them out to his students.

“The idea is his students took them, had them printed and spread them more widely,” including posting them on the church door, Loy said.

However the document was dispersed, it created a firestorm. Luther was unhappy with the church’s practice of selling indulgences, merits that individuals could use to more quickly get themselves or someone else out of purgatory after death.

Loy said it wasn’t a coincidence that a new St. Peter’s Basilica was in the process of being built during that time. Indulgences provided a steady source of income for the project and many other needs (some helpful like hospitals, leper colonies and schools).

But it marred a central tenet of the Christian faith, and Luther fought for a change.

“Grace comes from God and is grasped by faith,” Loy said. “That’s the whole crux of the Reformation, really, that a relationship with God can’t be purchased.”

In January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church. Four months later, after refusing to recant his writings before Emperor Charles V, Luther was declared an outlaw, losing all his rights and possessions.

Fortunately, Frederick the Wise, the duke of Saxony, arranged to have Luther kidnapped and housed him safely in Wartburg Castle. Luther spent a year there, during which time he translated the New Testament into German.

He returned to Wittenberg, took up his work as a pastor and an instructor and continued working on other elements of the Reformation. That included shifting the concept of an angry God to one filled with grace, “which is an enormous shift in theological understanding,” Loy said.

Even as technology has created a seismic shift in today’s world, Loy said, much was going on in Luther’s time that contributed to the spiritual shakeup.

Columbus sailed to America in 1492, Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” in 1543 and Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the Earth from 1519 to 1522, Loy said.

“For the 16th century it was mind-boggling the way they were having to process the change and understanding,” he said.

On top of that, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1439. Another reformer, John Huss, had tried to bring religious change a century before Luther but perhaps was born at the wrong time.

“For Luther’s students to have access to a printer and be able to distribute his writings was crucial,” Loy said.

The printing press also allowed the New Testament Luther had translated into German to get into the hands of the common people. It was also a time when Luther advocated services be held in the language of the people and lay people began to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis.

Preachers began to marry. And Luther also emphasized congregational singing, which wasn’t common at that time. Previously, during the Mass, it was performed by choirs and orders of monks.

Luther took a lot of familiar tavern songs and reworked the words to include sacred texts.

“That opened the door to congregational singing, and maybe that’s why Lutherans are some of the best singers today,” Loy said, with a laugh.

Not long after, other denominations formed, Loy said. The Swiss Reformed Church was founded in 1525 and the Anabaptist Movement got underway in 1530.

That same year, John Calvin began reforms in France before fleeing to Switzerland in 1533. Henry VIII broke with Rome and was excommunicated in 1538, out of which came the Anglican/Episcopal Church.

The Catholic Church often did a good job of making room for reformers, Loy said. Most of the religious orders came out of attempts by reformers to make changes and the Catholic Church's effort to keep them in the fold.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Luther was a combination of too caustic and too uncompromising, which left little room for anything but excommunication, he said. His writings were sometimes obscene “and vulgar all the time.”

“His attacks on the pope are awful, his attacks on the Jews are awful,” Loy said. “But that’s part of what made it possible for him to stand up to the pressure not only of the church but the Roman Empire.”

Opening a window

If the Reformation shut the door to reconciliation between Catholics and what became the Lutherans, then a turning point came with the Second Vatican Council. Opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and concluded in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, Vatican II, among other things, acknowledged a commonality between Roman Catholicism and other faiths.

Smith calls Vatican II “the premiere religious experience in the 20th century.”

“When Pope John XXIII called the ecumenical council, he insisted there be a document of some kind that addressed not only our relationship to the Jews, but also to other major world religions,” she said. “This was world-shaking.”

Smith, who has a master’s degree in religion from Gonzaga University, chaired and taught in the Religious Studies Department at Billings Central Catholic High from 1986 to 1998. She also created two video series on Scripture with retired Rocky Mountain College professor Elizabeth McNamer.

Many things changed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, Smith said.

“Before Vatican II, I can’t even remember getting together with a group for study or discussion, even just for Catholics,” she said. “Faith was a very private thing.”

Laypeople didn’t go past the altar rails or touch sacred objects such as the priest’s chalice. The only role of the laity was to sit in the pews, and Mass was said in Latin.

“Everything was very rigid,” Smith said. “People today who say that they’d like to go back to the pre-Vatican II church have no idea what they want to go back to.”

A total of 16 decrees were issued during the Second Vatican Council, Warfel said in a telephone interview with Crist, both who have their headquarters in Great Falls. One was on ecumenism.

“Pope John XXIII said ‘open the up the doors and windows to the modern era,’” Warfel said. “I think there was a big desire from a large portion of the Catholic Church to do that.”

With the Catholic Church acknowledging a real, though imperfect, union with other Christians, formal dialogue became possible between Catholics and Lutherans and other denominations, Crist said.

“When the highest levels of our church were saying for the sake of the Gospel we need to be talking to one another, that (message) certainly trickled down to the pews,” she said.

In 1999, Lutherans and Catholics adopted a document called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That had to do with salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ, a crux of the disagreement that led to the schism in 1517.

In 2013, as plans were getting underway for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Crist met with Warfel and out of that came a series of public conversations between the two.

“We clearly demonstrated we have a cordial and respectful relationship and we didn’t do point-counterpoint standing at opposite podiums,” Crist said. “I think people felt like 'This was a natural thing; let’s do more of it.'”

Now the two, along with Thomas and Ramseth, will take part in the ecumenical vespers in Helena. Crist knows Lutherans and Catholics who are chartering buses together or carpooling.

Warfel sees the ecumenical movement as something that will keep going. And some differences will remain a source of ongoing discussions.

“You don’t overturn 500 years of division in 50 years,” he said. “There’s still some areas we need to continue to dialogue.”

Crist added that this is the first time Lutherans and Catholics have commemorated the Reformation together, calling it a huge step.

“Those who criticize Christians as hypocrites for not getting along, look what we’ve overcome,” she said. “We can celebrate God together without agreement on everything. We’re celebrating what we have in common.”



General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.