Pope Francis at Ecumenical Event in Sweden: Make Unity a Priority

‘We remember this anniversary with a renewed spirit and in the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize that much more unites us than separates us,’ the Holy Father said Oct. 31 about the 500th commemoration of the Reformation.

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

LUND, Sweden — While in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Pope Francis heard moving testimonies from both Lutherans and Catholics working to better society, giving thanks for their witness and praying for greater unity.

“We remember this anniversary with a renewed spirit and in the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize that much more unites us than separates us,” the Pope said at an ecumenical event in Malmo, Sweden, Oct. 31. He explained that the journey toward unity taken so far is in itself “a great gift” from God.

The path of dialogue has helped the two churches to grow in mutual understanding and has fostered greater trust between Catholics and Lutherans as they strive toward full communion, Francis said.

He pointed to common areas of cooperation as a concrete example of the steps taken.

In addition to the 1999 joint declaration on the “Doctrine of Justification” between the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Catholic charity organization Caritas Internationalis and the Lutheran World Federation World Service signed a joint Oct. 31 “Declaration of Intent” aimed at “developing and strengthening a spirit of cooperation for the promotion of human dignity and social justice.”

Pope Francis is on an official Oct. 31-Nov. 1 visit to Sweden for a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. His visit marks the first time a pope has traveled to Scandinavia since St. John Paul II’s 1989 visit.

After landing at the International Airport of Malmö, the Pope paid a courtesy visit to the royal family before joining an ecumenical moment of prayer at Lund’s Lutheran cathedral.

Following the prayer, Francis then headed to the Malmö Arena for the primary ecumenical event, during which he was greeted by Bishop Munib Younan, President of the LWF.

In his speech, Younan said that “it brings me immense joy to be here today, bearing witness to the work of the Holy Spirit sowing unity among the followers of Jesus.”

The historic gathering, he said, sends a message to the entire world that strongly held religious convictions “can lead toward peaceful reconciliation rather than always contributing more conflict to our already troubled world.”

“When religious people work for unity and reconciliation, religion can promote the flourishing of all human communities,” Younan said.

“As we meet here, Catholic and Lutheran, with many other ecumenical guests, we are challenged to move forward in the Holy Spirit, he concluded, adding that this meeting “is not the end of our dialogue, but a new beginning.”

“I am confident that our common purpose will be found not just in theological dialogue, but in the practical witness, the martyria, of prophetic diakonia.”

Before their speeches, the Pope and Younan also listened to four testimonies from Catholics and Lutherans working for the common good and the advancement of various sectors of society.

After hearing the testimony of Pranita Biswasi, a Lutheran woman from the district in Orissa, India, speak about the effects of climate change on the poor and the need to take better care of the environment, the Pope noted that creation “is a sign of God’s boundless love for us.”

He thanked Biswasi, who was a delegate from the LWF to 2015’s COP21 climate summit in Paris, for her work, telling her that he shares her concerns for the “abuses” that harm the plant and cause “grave effects on the climate.”

“As you rightly mentioned, their greatest impact is on those who are most vulnerable and needy; they are forced to emigrate in order to escape the effects of climate change,” he said, adding that everyone, especially Christians, “are responsible for protecting creation. Our lifestyle and our actions must always be consistent with our faith.”

The Pope then turned to the testimony given by Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao Gaviria of Colombia, who serves as director of Caritas and the National Secretariat of Social Pastoral Ministry.

After hearing the priest speak about the problem of violence in Colombia, the initiatives of Caritas and the need for peace in the country, Francis said “it is good to know that Christians are working together to initiate communitarian and social processes of common interest.”

“I ask you to pray in a special way for that great country, so that, through the cooperation of all, peace, so greatly desired and necessary for a worthy human coexistence, can finally be achieved,” he said.

Francis then pointed to the testimony of Marguerite Barankitse of Burundi. After receiving death threats for speaking out against conflict that erupted in the country last year, she has been a refugee in Rwanda.

Barankitse is Catholic and is the foundress of the Maison Shalom organization, which is a complex of schools, hospitals and a care network extending throughout Burundi focusing specifically on child welfare and ending ethnic discrimination.

Referring to the work Barankitse carries out, the Pope said that striving to achieve peace and help children who are victims of various atrocities “is both admirable and a summons to take seriously the countless situations of vulnerability experienced by so many persons who have no way to speak out.”

He noted how, in her speech, Barankitse said many people called her “crazy” for her work, which she called her “strategy of love.”

This charity, Francis said, “is the ‘craziness’ of love for God and our neighbor. We need more of this craziness, illuminated by faith and confidence in God’s providence.”

“What you consider a mission has been a seed that has borne abundant fruit and, today, thanks to that seed, thousands of children can study, grow and enjoy good health,” he said, voicing his gratitude that, even in exile, she continues to spread a message of peace.

The Pope then pointed to the last testimony he listened to before his speech, which came from Rose Lokonyen, a refugee from South Sudan living in Kenya who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics as one of 10 members of the games’ first-ever refugee team.

Originally from South Sudan, Lokonyen fled with her family to Kenya when she was just 4 years old, where she lived in a refugee camp for 16 years before joining the Olympic team.

Pope Francis noted how Lokonyen was able to make use of the talent God had given her. Rather than “wasting her energy on adverse situations,” she “found fulfillment in a fruitful life,” he said.

“While I was listening to your story, I thought of the lives of so many young people who need to hear stories like yours. I would like everyone to know that they can discover how wonderful it is to be children of God and what privilege it is to be loved and cherished by him,” Francis said.

He thanked Lokonyen for her efforts and commitment to encouraging other young women to return to school and also voiced his gratitude “for the fact that you pray daily for peace in the young state of South Sudan, which so greatly needs it.”

Francis then gave a shout-out to all governments that assist and welcome refugees, displaced and asylum speakers, calling their assistance “a great gesture of solidarity and a recognition of their dignity.”

“For us Christians, it is a priority to go out and meet the outcasts and the marginalized of our world and to make felt the tender and merciful love of God, who rejects no one and accepts everyone.”

He then pointed to the situation of Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who was also present at the event and gave his testimony after the Pope and Younan spoke.

In his comments about Bishop Audo’s situation, Francis noted that Aleppo is a city “brought to its knees by war, a place where even the most fundamental rights are treated with contempt and trampled underfoot.”

However, he also pointed to the “truly heroic” men and women who have remained in order to provide material and spiritual support to those in need.

“It is admirable too, that you, dear brother, continue working amid such danger, in order to tell us of the tragic situation of the Syrian people. Every one of them is in our hearts and prayers,” he said, and he prayed for the grace “of heartfelt conversion for those responsible for the fate of that region.”

Francis closed his address by encouraging those present not to get discouraged in the face of adversity, but to allow the testimonies of others to “give us new impetus to work ever more closely together.”

“When we return home, may we bring with us a commitment to make daily gestures of peace and reconciliation, to be valiant and faithful witnesses of Christian hope. ... As we know, hope never deludes us.”

The ecumenical event was Pope Francis’ last event of the day. Before departing tomorrow, Nov. 1, the Pope will hold an outdoor Mass at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö, marking All Saints’ Day.