Luther pilgrimage seeks to enhance Christian unity quest

By staff writers
August 23, 2010

Two Lutherans left the Augustinian priory in Erfurt, Germany, on Sunday 22 August, to walk one thousand miles retracing the footsteps of Martin Luther on his fateful journey to Rome.

For the Rev Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and her husband, Dr Andrew Lars Wilson, it is much more than a long hike to Italy - it is a chance to meet people face-to-face and to discuss the importance of inter-Christian cooperation with those who follow their journey online.

Luther, an Augustinian friar and Reformation pioneer in Europe, created controversy with his 95 Theses. His statement, which he nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, raised tough questions about practices in the Western Church.

The Wilsons' pilgrimage takes place exactly 500 years after Luther himself left Erfurt in 1510 for Rome. They will follow a route through Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Italy, arriving in Rome in about 70 days.

The journey also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference in Scotland, often cited as the birth of the ecumenical movement - and already marked by a centenary conference in Scotland and a forthcoming one in South Africa.

The notion of retracing Luther's footsteps was an idea that the Wilsons discussed during their days in graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, USA.

"The journey had a big impact on Luther," said Sarah Wilson, research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, in an interview with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) News Service. Wilson is a pastor of the ELCA and editor of Lutheran Forum.

When she began her work in Strasbourg, Wilson said she did not know much about ecumenism. But she said she has since gained a passion for it during her time with the Institute, which is among several organisations sponsoring the journey.

Wilson explained that she and her husband are posting daily updates at on the web. "During the Reformation it was pamphlets; for us it's blogs," she added. The couple will also post updates using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and post photos and video taken during their journey.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Wilson commented that during the pilgrimage "our hope is that, through the use of these new media, the controversial figure of Martin Luther and the current relationship between the Catholic and Lutheran churches will appear in a new light."

"Most Lutherans and Catholics remain unaware of the remarkable ways that their churches have drawn together over the past 50 years," she wrote. "Differences and disputes still compel greater interest than convergence and agreement. So we two pilgrims invite Catholics, Lutherans and all other Christians concerned for the unity of the church to join us on this pilgrimage."

The Wilsons will use their website to engage followers about Reformation history, Luther's journey and discuss ecumenical concepts and spirituality, Wilson commented. She said they will also discuss the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a significant milestone in Lutheran-Catholic relations, reflect on Vatican II and other significant topics for Protestants and Catholics. "We will try to draw some connections between Catholics and Lutherans," she said.

"I think the most significant piece is that the ecumenical movement invites us to see each other in the light of God, overlooking neither our failures (nor our) virtues," Wilson said. She added that by taking the journey and engaging Lutherans and others, she and her husband hope people see Luther as a teacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Andrew Lars Wilson, a post-doctoral fellow at the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue, Geneva, has also done a lot of hiking in his lifetime. He determined the route the two will take, making adjustments to it based on the advice of friends and followers.


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.