Pope at Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration: ‘New Opportunity to Accept a Common Path’

At today’s historic event in Sweden, the Holy Father emphasized Jesus’ desire that Christian believers should be united.

Pope Francis speaks during an ecumenical gathering at Malmo Arena in Lund, Sweden on Oct. 31.
Pope Francis speaks during an ecumenical gathering at Malmo Arena in Lund, Sweden on Oct. 31. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

LUND, Sweden — “We can feel [Jesus’] heart beating with love for us and his desire for the unity of all who believe in him,” Pope Francis said today in his sermon for a historic joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation.

“He is the true vine and we are the branches, that just as he is one with the Father, so we must be one with him if we wish to bear fruit,” the Pope continued at the event, a Common Ecumenical Prayer service in Lund Cathedral.

In a speech that aimed to emphasize what Catholics and Lutherans have in common, and to highlight progress made in dialogue towards unity, the Pope said the prayer service was a moment to “thank God for the efforts of our many brothers and sisters from different ecclesial communities who refused to be resigned to division, but instead kept alive the hope of reconciliation among all who believe in the one Lord.”

In the same vein, the Pope viewed what he saw as positive aspects of the Reformation, saying the 16th-century schism led Christians to realize that without Christ “we can do nothing,” and for helping to give “greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.”

He also said Martin Luther’s concept of justification by “grace alone” reminded us that God always takes the initiative, and asserted that both sides at the Reformation had a “sincere will” to “profess and uphold the true faith.”

Today’s commemoration, he added, offers a “new opportunity to accept a common path” rather than be “resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us.” He also urged looking at “our past” with “love and honesty,” recognizing “error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge.”

The Pope said that although he believes both sides at the Reformation sincerely wished to uphold the true faith, “we realize that we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

Quoting Pope St. John Paul II, he said we must not set ourselves up as “judges of history” but be guided solely by the motive of “understanding better” what happened at that time and of becoming “messengers of truth.” By looking at the past differently, he said, “we do not claim to realize an impracticable correction for what took place, but to tell that history differently.”


‘Source of Suffering and Misunderstanding’

The Pope noted that the separation caused by the Reformation has been “an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding” but by helping us to sincerely recognize that without God we can do nothing, it has “enabled us to understand better some aspects of our faith.”

“With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life,” the Pope said, adding that shared hearing of Scripture has led to “important steps” being taken in Catholic dialogue with the World Lutheran Federation — an organization whose 50th anniversary was also celebrated today.

The Pope went on to say that Luther’s “spiritual experience” challenges all people to remember that “apart from God we can do nothing.”

Through the concept “by grace alone,” he said Luther “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”

He closed by calling on God to grant the gift of unity so that “we will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst. “Together,” he said, “we can proclaim and manifest God’s mercy, concretely and joyfully, by upholding and promoting the dignity of every person.”

Pope Francis then read a Common Prayer at today’s event, a controversial move as the prayer expresses “our mutual joy for the gifts received and rediscovered in various ways through the renewal and impulses of the Reformation.” It further states that, after the prayer, Catholics and Lutherans are to “join in singing thanks and praise for God’s work.” Many Catholics are uneasy at praising aspects of the Reformation, or giving thanks for it, due to the immense suffering the breakaway from the Church caused.


Joint Statement

A joint statement signed today, clearly based on From Conflict to Communion, a 2013 document drawn up by the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for Unity and which is meant to serve as the ecumenical basis of the meeting, continues to emphasize commonalities. It again offers thanks for “the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation” while confessing and regretting that “Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church.” Religion, it argues, “was instrumentalized for political ends.”

In a passage on the subject of intercommunion, it states that “many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity.” It then alludes to mixed marriages, referring to 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,” the statement continues. “We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”

“This paragraph is worrying in that it does not include that the basis must be belief in the Real Presence,” observed professor Clemens Cavallin, senior lecturer in the history of religion at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg. “It makes feelings primary: desire, yearning, pain, longing, thirst, hunger. Faith seems secondary.” He found this to be of particular concern as it’s placed in the context of mixed marriages.

Asked by the Register why the joint statement discusses Eucharistic Communion without mentioning the Real Presence, the Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said it’s “one of the aspects we have to identify, discuss,” and stressed the document isn’t a “theological compendium” but “gives direction” for the future. Catholics and Lutherans are currently in dialogue about the question of Church, ministry and the Eucharist, he disclosed.

He reiterated what the statement said, that communion was the “goal,” and said the document acknowledges the “pastoral challenge” facing couples in mixed marriages. “I foresee us going deeper into dialogue to focus more strongly on that very aspect as well, because we recognize that around the table, where people experience the fragmentation of the Church the hardest, it requires a response from our side.”


Pope Didn’t Reference Intercommunion

Cavallin, who noted the Pope did not allude to intercommunion in his sermon, did welcome the sincerity of Francis’ “burning desire for unity” which appeared in the first half of his sermon, and which “resonates with the Pope’s own inner convictions.”

From a Swedish perspective, however, Cavallin was concerned about the Pope’s comments regarding recognizing error and seeking forgiveness. Catholicism in Sweden was wiped out by the Reformation and did not return to the country until many centuries later.

“Of course, a purification of memory depends on truth, but one needs to be able to speak the truth about the past in order to purify it,” he said. Today, the differences can also be so wide “it’s not really the same faith anymore.”

Part of the difficulty with this text, Cavallin said, is that the Pope couldn’t go into too much detail and dwell on difficulties and specificities that would have made it long and complicated.

Asked why the day’s speeches and the statement tended to focus on the positive aspects of the Reformation and Luther rather than mention any positive and invaluable aspects of Catholicism such as the fullness of the Truth and the sacraments, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the reason was because it was a “commemoration of the Reformation and we said what the Reformation has brought the Catholic Church into future dialogue.”

He added, “It’s very important to have an habitual discussion to see what Catholics can learn from the Reformation, and what the Lutherans can learn from the Catholic Church today, I think we can deepen this in the future,” he said.

Pressed why the Lutherans appeared to say little favorable about what the Church has to offer, he said the very fact that Lutherans wanted the joint commemoration with Catholics shows their “very great esteem” from the Lutheran ecclesial community. They were also grateful that the Pope “decided to come for the commemoration… We must always see beautiful signs present today,” he said, “and not what is lacking in the future.”


Positive Perspectives

The longing for unity, which is clearly strong in the leadership of both sides, also showed itself to highlight commonalities at the expense of real differences such as women’s ordination, abortion rights and human sexuality. When it comes to ethics and morals, Lutherans and Catholics have never been farther apart.

Still, Church and Lutheran leaders gave the day, which included an international ecumenical gathering and a question and answer session with Pope Francis in the evening, effusive praise. Rev. Junge said the historic meeting was a “fantastic encouragement” for dialogue and a “milestone” in the bilateral relationship.

Catholic and Lutherans attending the evening event also appeared to be greatly encouraged by the commemoration.

“It was a very big event and I think it changed something, not only in the Church but in me personally,” said Els, 65, from Sweden. “I found what the Pope said to be most helpful: to convert and not to judge other churches nor my own church.” But asked if she felt drawn to enter the Catholic Church as a result, she emphatically said "no" and that she had to "be faithful to my church.” She told the Register she felt Pope Francis “doesn’t want us to be altogether as Catholics but remain as we are. We have to keep our identity and that’s the only way to become one church because unity is in diversity, and not in difference.”   

Jonas, a Swedish non-denominational Christian, said he believed the commemoration was a “sign of Christian unity and hope for the future,” adding it was “very nice” to have the Pope in Sweden.” But like Els, the event did not draw him toward the Catholic Church but rather called him to be a “faithful Christian.”

“May God bless Catholics,” he said.   

Father Dominic, a Jesuit living in Stockholm, said the most “fundamental thing was that Catholics and Protestants came together and made this happen.” He advocated more dialogue in order “to learn much more” from each other. The Pope’s visit, he said, “made the faith more accessible, it’s saying you don’t need to be afraid of Catholics.”  

Cardinal Koch told reporters in the evening of Oct. 31 it was a “very beautiful” day, one that’s “very late” in coming, but “very important.” It’s a “new beginning of a way to leave conflict in the past and go toward communion in the future,” he said.

But when asked by the Register whether he believed the Catholic Church was the one, true Church to which all Lutherans actually belong, he said “Christ is also present in other churches.”

The Catholic Church is the “universal Church” while the Lutherans have “another structure,” he said, a subject he would like “deepened.”   

For her part, the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, said of the day that she felt “sort of overwhelmed” by the events, and that what came to her mind was a “sense of deep gratitude.” Dialogue may seem tedious in the beginning, she said, “but it can bear wonderful fruit.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent. He filed this report from Sweden.