Reformed and Catholic Worship – Are There Any Points of Convergence?

Date Published

October 11, 2017

Home / Blog / Reformed and Catholic Worship – Are There Any Points of Convergence?

Published by Karin Maag

Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and Adjunct Professor of the History of Christianity; Co-Director of the Master of Theology (ThM) Program

A few years ago, at our end-of-year celebration at the Friendship for people with cognitive impairments, jointly run by Woodlawn CRC and St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, MI, two of our Friends, Greg and Paul, decided that they wanted to sing. After some back and forth, they decided to sing the setting of the Lord’s Prayer that they heard every Sunday at Mass. 

Blessed with enthusiasm above all else, they sang out with deep faith and great vigor and reduced many of us to tears. Together, Reformed and Catholics and everything in between, we joined in worship of our God who had brought all of us together in that holy moment. Yet even today, these points of convergence in worship seem few and far between. Why? 

At the outset, we should note that in spite of the very clear differences in worship practices that emerged five hundred years ago in the Reformation era, Catholics and Reformed Christians share a common worship heritage that predates the Reformation. Enduring points of connection have persisted over time in spite of the doctrinal divide over the past few centuries. Whether Catholic or Reformed, believers attend worship in consecrated buildings dedicated for that purpose. Catholics and Reformed alike hear Scripture read and proclaimed, join in corporate prayer, and celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. Although theological understandings differ, especially regarding the sacraments, the two communities of faith continue to share these worship practices.

For many sixteenth-century Christians, however, the points of convergence were lost amid the growing wave of differences in worship that, for most Christians, surfaced most visibly at church. Roman Catholic worship took place in Latin, was oriented around the celebration of the Mass, and featured images, incense, and vestments. Reformed Christians worshipped in their mother tongue in church buildings largely devoid of religious images. Their communal worship centered around preaching, so much so that when Reformed folk spoke of going to church for a worship service, they said they were going to “sermon.”

Reformation-era church leaders on either side reinforced these differences in worship through education and church discipline. Genevan consistory members, for instance, sought to eradicate any remnants of Catholic devotional practices, such as use of the rosary, prayers for the dead, or recitation of the Hail Mary. Meanwhile, Catholic church leaders prohibited Catholics from engaging in Reformed worship practices such as singing psalms in the vernacular or reading Protestant vernacular translations of the Bible.

Over time, these worship practices and prohibitions became hallmarks of identity, shaping the worship experiences of each faith community over the decades and centuries. Yet today, after five centuries since the Reformation began, are Reformed and Roman Catholic congregations still so far apart when it comes to worship? What if any points of convergence are emerging? 

Although it is still rare for Catholic and Reformed congregations to worship jointly, steps are being taken to highlight areas of common agreement or to resolve past theological disagreements that made any attempt to find points of convergence well nigh impossible. For instance, in 2013, four Protestant denominations, including both the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America formally signed the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This agreement does not mean that Catholic and Reformed congregations will start holding joint baptismal services, but the promise to recognize each other’s Trinitarian baptisms as valid is a starting point that moves away from any reflexive rejection of each other’s sacramental acts.

One of the healthiest and most encouraging signs of the increasing willingness to learn from each other when it comes to worship is the number of conferences and workshops on worship attended by a wide section of Christians from across the denominational spectrum. The annual meeting of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, for instance, regularly brings together hymn-writers, composers, church musicians, clergy, and lay people from a wide range of confessional backgrounds. The 2017 meeting, with over 350 participants, took place in Waterloo, Canada. There, participants from many denominations attended plenaries and workshops that introduced the most recent Roman Catholic hymnal put out by GIA Publications. During the same conference, in a strong example of cross-confessional collaboration, Emily Brink, the editor emeritus of Reformed Worship led a joint plenary on Psalm-singing with Tony Alonso, a Cuban-American Roman Catholic. In Grand Rapids, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship holds its annual Symposium on worship every January, bringing together Christians of over thirty denominations who want to learn from each other about worship in its various forms, from art to music to liturgy to preaching. In 2016, alongside both Catholic and Reformed respondents, I participated in a panel discussion on how to commemorate the Reformation. Many of the suggestions from the panelists were tied to worship. Building on this encounter and others, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has put together a very helpful worship resources page for those interested in marking the anniversary in their churches, whether Catholic or Protestant: resources/resource-library/worship- resources-for-the-500th-anniversary- of-the-protestant-reformation/

At the congregational level, most Roman Catholic and Reformed encounters in worship take place during ecumenical prayer services during the National Day of Prayer, or the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, for instance. Other joint Roman Catholic and Reformed prayer services have taken place during times of national or international crisis, as was the case after 9/11, or following the shootings in an African-American church in Charleston, or after the recent confrontations and violence in Charlottesville. Some Catholic/ Reformed worship opportunities are very local and are the product of long- running partnerships. For example, in the Woodlawn/St Paul Friendship group each week, the gathering begins with worship: praise songs, prayer requests, and a time of communal prayer. Here confessional differences shrink away in the light of faith-filled prayer requests and heartfelt singing. 

Speaking of singing…it is this aspect of worship, it seems, that is bringing Catholic and Reformed congregations closest together, as a considerable part of the repertoire of hymns and songs of praise has become joint. The Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal issued by Faith Alive in 2013 and used by many CRC congregations includes a range of hymns written by Catholic hymn- writers, including Bernadette Farrell (“Christ, Be Our Light”), David Haas (“You are Mine”, “Blest Are They”) and Marty Haugen (“My Soul in Stillness Waits”, “All are Welcome”). Meanwhile, the second edition of the Roman Catholic hymnal Ritual Song published in 2016 features Genevan Psalm 100 (“All People That on Earth Do Dwell”) and a range of traditional Protestant hymns, such as Isaac Watts’ “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Jesus Shall Reign” as well as John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” Another option that has garnered support over the past years is Taizé worship, centered on meditative prayers and repeated sung refrains. The Taizé community in France is an ecumenical group started in 1940 by Roger Schütz, a Swiss Reformed church leader. The Taizé repertoire has found a home in both Reformed and Catholic church worship. 

So we sometimes worship together in informal settings, we learn from each other at conferences and workshops, some denominations recognize each other’s baptisms, and we increasingly sing each other’s songs. These may seem like very small markers compared with the number of aspects of worship that seem to keep Reformed and Catholics apart. Arguments over who is more faithful to the teachings of Scripture and the practices of the Church throughout the ages tend only to reinforce divisions. The unresolved challenge is how to remain faithful to the fundamental teachings of our faith while at the same time locating and celebrating points of convergence in worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. 


by Karin Maag, Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, Editor of Calvin Theological Journal, and Adjunct Professor of the History of Christianity. 


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