The visit of Pope Francis to Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation gave the Pope the opportunity to call for a reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, after half a millennium of division. The Pope was greeted by a group of Swedish Catholic nuns among the crowd.
The visit came at the start of the year of commemoration by the Lutheran World Federation, to mark the event in October 1517 when Martin Luther, then an Augustinian priest, published his famous “95 theses” which challenged the Church’s teaching on Indulgences, and indirectly, the teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), by saying that only God can forgive Sin, not the church.
As with other actions taken by Pope Francis, he has been both applauded and criticised.
In the secular media, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with particular attention being given to Pope Francis’ positive comments about Luther’s emphasis on Scripture and Faith, and his call for unity through working together on issues of common concern.
Some Catholics criticised the Pope’s attendance at any event that commemorated the Reformation, saying that Luther had been excommunicated by the Church in 1521, and Lutherans were continuing in his footsteps.
However, in his last words to his disciples, Jesus prayed over them, urging them to “be one”, and all popes in recent times – from St John XXIII to St John Paul II – have seen a particular responsibility to bring together separated Christians, and end the historical divisions between Orthodox and Catholic, as well as Anglicans and Catholics, and Protestants and Catholics.
In his address in Lund Cathedral – originally dedicated to St Lawrence in 1145, but Lutheran since the 16th century – Pope Francis said, “We Christians will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst.”
The Lutherans were hoping that the Pope would agree to full inter-communion, following the agreed statement on Justification in 1999.
In his homily at the Lund cathedral, the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, expressed his hope for shared Communion now.
“Jesus Christ calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation,” he said, using stones for “building bridges so that we can draw closer to each other, houses where we can meet together and tables — yes, tables — where we can share the bread and the wine, the presence of Jesus Christ who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so the world may believe.”
A joint statement signed in Lund by Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, said, “Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table as the concrete expression of full unity.”
Particularly referring to Catholic-Lutheran married couples, the two leaders’ statement said, “We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.”
However, they did not authorise further opportunities for shared Communion, but expressed longing “for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”
Among the practical issues still to be resolved are the subtly different understanding of the Eucharist between the Catholics and Lutheran churches, and the validity of consecration of Lutheran clergy who now include female pastors and female bishops.
A very balanced assessment of the current state of Catholic-Lutheran relations was given by Jesuit Father Magnus Nyman, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Stockholm, Sweden and Vice-Rector for the Newman Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, who was interviewed by the American Catholic paper, the National Catholic Register.
He said he hoped that “more people will realise that the separation in Scandinavia from the Catholic Church―due to the ‘political’ Reformation through kings that wanted to expand their power and used Lutheran teaching to reach their goals in all the Nordic countries―is something negative and against the will of Christ.”
Fr Nyman said that “from 1617 onward, a Swedish subject who professed the Catholic faith earned the death penalty. It wasn't until 1860 when Swedish citizens were permitted, with many restrictions, to belong to the Catholic Church.
“Today’s vibrant Catholic community in Sweden, approximately 2% of the population, both immigrants and Swedes together, try to make the faith visible in a highly secularised society. Many of our parishes have people from around 100 different countries. We are truly ‘Catholic’ in the universal sense.”
Asked about his involvement in ecumenical dialogue in Sweden, he said, “I'm a member of a small academic group of Catholics and Lutherans who regularly meet to ascertain if there is further need for more official dialogue between the communities.
“Unfortunately, there’s been no dialogue for many years after the Lutherans officially accepted same-sex so-called marriages. The results of our talks are yet to materialise.”
Referring to the Reformation as a “great tragedy”, he said, “Christ's body mustn’t be torn asunder. We are meant to heal the breach that exists between us and not celebrate it.”