Pope Francis Hopes Reformation Commemoration Will Bring Catholics, Protestants 'Closer'

In interview with Jesuit journal, the Pope also calls proselytism a "sin" and speaks of the need to overcome "rigid" perspectives to enable reform.

From left: Father Ulf Jonsson SJ, Pope Francis, and Father Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of 'La Civilta Cattolica', at the end of the interview.
From left: Father Ulf Jonsson SJ, Pope Francis, and Father Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of 'La Civilta Cattolica', at the end of the interview. (photo: Fr Antonio Spadaro/Twitter)

Pope Francis has said in a new interview that he hopes an Oct. 31 ecumenical commemoration of 500 years of the Reformation in Sweden will bring Christians “closer”.

Speaking Sept. 24 to the Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica, the Holy Father also criticized proselytism as a “sin,” and spoke of a need to overcome “rigid perspectives” to bring about Church reform.

He also acknowledged Martin Luther's contribution in taking the “great step” of putting holy Scripture into people’s hands, and revealed that he intentionally chose not to celebrate Mass during his visit to Sweden for the commemoration in order to stress “ecumenical witness” rather than appear “sectarian.”

The scheduled Mass Nov. 1 was added on, he said, after the Swedish faithful requested it.

In the interview, which took place in the St. Martha guest house and was published in various languages Oct. 28, the Holy Father said he hopes the commemoration in the Swedish city of Lund will help him draw “closer to my brothers and sisters” because closeness “does all of us good.”

People can be “held back by fears,” the Pope said, so there is a need to “transcend ourselves to encounter others” otherwise Christians “become sick because of our divisions.”

He also proposed that enthusiasm for theological dialogue “shift towards common prayer and the works of mercy,” saying it was “important to work together, and not in a sectarian way.” Proselytism “in the ecclesial field,” he added, “is a sin,” something every Christian should be “clear” about.

“Benedict XVI told us that the Church does not grow by proselytism, but by attraction,” the Pope said. “Proselytism is a sinful attitude. It would be like transforming the Church into an organization. Speaking, praying, working together: this is the path that we must take.”

Benedict XVI made those comments on proselytism in 2007 at the opening of the 5th General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil. Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, had an influential role as president of the commission that drafted the final document for the conference.

Asked for a final word about his trip to Sweden at the end of the interview, the Pope said: “Go, walk together! Don’t remain in rigid perspectives, because in these there is no possibility of reform.”

Earlier in the interview, he criticized some of the Church that is not on the “peripheries” for being “enclosed in a structure, in a rigid way, fearful of losing space.”

The Pope’s insistence on not being “rigid” is a theme he has frequently repeated, most recently in two of his homilies in the run-up to his visit to Lund next week. In one of them, he called those who unbendingly adhere to God’s law, or what he believes they mistakenly view as God's law, “sick” and in need of the Lord’s help.

Responding to questions put to him by Swedish Jesuit Father Ulf Jonsson, the Pope didn’t discuss the positive Catholic impact on history but instead recalled the many Lutherans he had known and positively influenced him. In particular, he remembered Anders Ruuth, a Swedish Lutheran theology professor, whom he invited to give lectures in Buenos Aires. His thesis on the “Universal Church and the Kingdom of God” was a “gem” and a “critical thesis,” the Pope said.

Asked what the Church could learn from the Lutheran tradition, the Pope said two words came to mind: “reform” and “Scripture.” Luther, he said, “wanted to remedy a complex situation” but it became a “state of separation,” not a reform of the whole Church which, the Pope said, “is fundamental.” He said Luther took a “great step” by putting the Word of God “into the hands of the people.”

Reform and Scripture, the Holy Father said, are therefore “two things we can deepen by looking at the Lutheran tradition.” He then reminded his interlocutors that the cardinals ahead of the last conclave asked that reform be “alive in our discussions.”

As he has done in previous speeches, the Pope repeated his belief in an “ecumenism of blood” by recalling Lutherans who were killed for being Christian, some alongside Catholics. He then criticized churches that “are closed in programs” and said that instead “the spirit is ready to push us, to go forward.” The spirit, he added, “is in the ability to dream and the ability to prophesy. This for me is the challenge for all the Churches.”

He spoke of the need for “radical transcendence” in very secular societies such as Sweden’s, and stressed the need to pray and actively witness to the faith rather than use words. He also blamed a lack of will to seek God on being closely tied to affluence.

“Restlessness is rarely found in affluence,” he said. He held up St. Peter Faber, one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus, as someone guided by a “good, open spirit,” and stressed that “restless hearts” must have “structure”.

Francis said in closing that Jesus for him is, “He who has looked at me with mercy and has saved me,” who has given “meaning to my life here on earth and hope for the future life.” He also said he gave him the “grace of shame,” a positive gift because it “makes you act, but it makes you understand what your place is, preventing any pride and vainglory.”

As is customary for Pope Francis, this evening he visited the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome to entrust his upcoming visit to the Virgin Mary.