Pope’s Sweden Trip Represents Ecumenical Progress, but Concerns Also Abound

The Holy Father will travel to the Scandinavian country at the end of the month for a two-day trip marking the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Pope Francis meets Sweden's Queen Silvia , Princess Madeleine and her husband Christopher O'Neill and Princess Leonore during an audience in the private library at the Vatican on April 27, 2015. The Holy Father will travel to Sweden later this month to solemnly mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Pope Francis meets Sweden's Queen Silvia , Princess Madeleine and her husband Christopher O'Neill and Princess Leonore during an audience in the private library at the Vatican on April 27, 2015. The Holy Father will travel to Sweden later this month to solemnly mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. (photo: Sipa via AP Images)

VATICAN CITY — A deeply scarred Catholic-Lutheran history in Sweden and optimism that a new ecumenical path has begun, but also abiding concerns that Catholic-Lutheran leaders might open the door to intercommunion, form the backdrop of the upcoming joint commemoration of the Reformation in Sweden.

Pope Francis will be the first pope in 25 years to visit the Scandinavian country, when he takes the unprecedented step of participating in an ecumenical event marking the Reformation on Oct. 31 in Lund and Malmö, near Stockholm.

The solemn commemoration, which anticipates next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation and also marks 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, will comprise a common ecumenical prayer service in Lund’s Lutheran cathedral followed by the main ecumenical event at the Malmö Arena in Malmö.

It will be followed by an outdoor papal Mass at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö on Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day. The Mass was not in the original plans for the two-day papal visit, but it was added later.

The aim of the commemoration is to recall the “objective achievements of Catholic-Lutheran relations and dialogue in the past 50 years,” Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told the Register. “It’s an occasion to give thanks to God for the positive change that has come about in that relationship.”

Setting the tone just ahead of the meeting, Pope Francis told Lutherans visiting the Vatican Oct. 13 that “an essential part” of the commemoration is “a common Christian witness to today’s world that thirsts so greatly for God and his mercy.” He encouraged those present to be “true protagonists of a new season in this journey that, with God’s help, will lead to full communion.” Inferring that actions and witness are better than words, he also said off the cuff that it’s “not licit to convince someone of your faith” and described proselytism as the “worst venom against ecumenism.”

A lengthy document to coincide with the commemoration, “From Conflict to Communion,” drawn up by the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for Unity, is meant to serve as the ecumenical basis of the meeting.

It notes how the Second Vatican Council led to leaving behind the “charged polemic atmosphere of the post-Reformation era.” It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations (“Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” 5).  

It calls on the two churches to focus on what they hold in common rather than on what divides them, to undertake activities of common witness to the Gospel and to heal wounds to unity committed by Lutherans and Catholics by taking a “critical” look at themselves. It also tries to re-present history in a different light.

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change,” the document says. “Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017, the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”


Catholic-Lutheran Common Prayer

A “Common Prayer,” based on the document “From Conflict to Communion,” has also been devised as a liturgical guide. It controversially 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.”

The Catholic reading for the thanksgiving ceremony is to conclude by saying the “ecumenical journey enables Lutherans and Catholics to appreciate together Martin Luther’s insight into and spiritual experience of the gospel of the righteousness of God, which is also God’s mercy.”

For centuries, the Catholic Church has considered Luther, whose excommunication by Pope Leo X remains in force, to be a heretic.

Bishop Farrell, whose dicastery is partly involved in preparing the commemoration, said the event marks a “step along the way” towards unity and takes the Reformation and its consequences “out of the polemical contexts of the past and into a spirit of genuine repentance for sins and mistakes of the past on both sides.”

In particular, he told the Register Oct. 7, it aims to turn past wounds and divisions into “an attitude of hope and trust in God’s will to bring about the reconciliation of all in Christ’s body, the Church.”

Speaking for the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Rev. Cristina Grenholm said the commemoration is a “historic step” that sends a message that past conflicts are “further behind us,” allowing both churches to be “better equipped to take on the many challenges of our time.”

“We want this meeting to be a sign that communion is possible, in spite of differences, especially in a time of increased tension and segregation, not least in Europe,” Grenholm, secretary of the Church of Sweden, told the Register. “As churches, we want to build bridges together, not borders. Visible unity, so that the world may believe, is our aim and mission. We will meet, talk and interact wherever we can.”

Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm believes the event is an “historic and prophetic sign” on the “path toward full visible unity that sometimes seems so far away.” Such an ecumenical step has much to do with Pope Francis, he said, “who has already taken so many steps towards Christians of other denominations.”


A Backdrop of Concerns

But beyond the optimism, high expectations and controversial texts, not all is rosy behind the scenes, particularly in Sweden, where the scars of the Reformation run deep. Apprehension is growing that the event will be used to gloss over significant Catholic-Lutheran differences, some Swedish Catholics are upset at feeling marginalized and excluded from the upcoming commemoration mainly by the Lutherans, and many Catholics are concerned about a possible push towards intercommunion and the “rehabilitation” of Martin Luther.

Regarding the first concern, Bishop Arborelius and the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, expressed in a recent joint article hopes for closer collaboration on issues held in common, such as “poverty, climate change and migration,” but they avoided citing any central moral or doctrinal differences, many of which are significant.

Like Sweden as a whole, the Church of Sweden, which remains highly politicized despite separating from the state in the year 2000, has become highly secularized. That is perhaps not surprising in a country with the highest teenage abortion rate in Europe and where sex education is graphic and compulsory.

The Church of Sweden supports contraception and abortion and has allowed same-sex “weddings” since 2009. Earlier this year, it teamed up with the U.N. Population Fund to try to convince religious leaders to accept abortion and contraception and said that children have a human right to uninhibited sex.

Archbishop Jackelén herself has gone on record saying she believes the Virgin Birth is a "mythological term" and that she supports same-sex “marriage” in church. Last year, the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, Eva Brunne, proposed that a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers. Brunne became the world’s first openly lesbian bishop in 2009 and has a young son with her “wife” and fellow pastor Gunilla Linden.

Perhaps partly for these reasons the Church of Sweden is losing vast numbers of members: 13,311 left the Church of Sweden just in June this year, with 9,211 in August. In 1972, 95% of the population were members; by 2015, it was just 63% — and only 3% go to church on Sundays.  

Lutheran churches vary on social and ethical issues and not all are as radically secular as Sweden’s. In the U.S., for example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod believes homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s Word while the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially recognizes a limited range of different understandings and practices within its church regarding publically accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships. The LC-MS believes life begins at conception while the ELCA has not addressed that particular question. 


‘New Form of Dialogue’

Bishop Arborelius acknowledged that despite the wide chasm on moral teaching, Swedish Catholics and Lutherans have “no official dialogue” on doctrinal and ethical issues, but said a “new form of dialogue” recently started through “working groups,” which they hope will develop into discussing “the more difficult questions regarding doctrine.” He also said at the “unofficial grassroots level” contacts already exist between Catholics and Lutherans “who sometimes have the same ideas or try to discuss these issues.”

Some Swedish Catholics in the pews are nevertheless disgruntled by what they are seeing. They are “troubled by the celebration of Luther,” said Jeanne Rudbeck, a churchgoing Swedish Catholic, especially as the Catholic Church in Sweden is very small; it was almost extinguished by the Reformation and has never come close to recovering because of “decades” of Lutheran persecution of Catholics.

Another Swedish laywoman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Register that “most Catholics are not interested in the Lund events” and only want to attend the Mass in Malmö. The only enthusiasm, she said, comes from a “minority” of people who are “very progressive.”  

She said the discontent has not been helped by the way the two days have been organized and accusations that the Lutheran church has tried to portray itself as the “true heir of the Catholic medieval past” through a revisionist view of history. Criticisms have been leveled that Lutherans are keeping Bishop Arborelius, Sweden’s sole Catholic bishop, “out of sight” and that there has been little or no consideration of the scars of the Reformation on Catholics, as well as accusations that even the Vatican seems to be ignoring what occurred here 500 years ago, along with the history and trauma of the Church in the country.

Varldenidag.se, a respected publication of the Swedish free churches, reported Oct. 7 that Catholics had been “frozen out” of the ecumenical celebration and that only “after pressure from Swedish Catholics” was the Pope “finally permitted to celebrate Mass” on the following day. The Mass will take place outdoors, in a soccer stadium, rather than at the indoor Malmö Arena, where the commemoration will be held, even though Swedish weather in early November is often “marked by freezing rain, sleet or even snow,” Varldenidag reported.

“It would have been natural to have both events at the arena,” Father Fredrik Emanuelson of the Diocese of Stockholm told the publication, but added they had received a “directive” to “find a location separate from Malmö Arena where the Lutheran events take place.” The official reason for the directive, which allegedly came from the Church of Sweden, was to avoid “confusion.”

Bishop Arborelius said the main reason for any discontent is that many Swedish Catholics don’t “fully realize” that the commemoration is the main reason for the Pope’s visit and that, given the discrimination of the past, “it’s not so easy” for all Catholics to “accept this reason for the Pope to come.”

He also acknowledged that the Catholics in Lund will not have any special encounter with the Pope. “We try to show that Catholics are not at all forgotten,” the bishop said, “but also that we have to be more involved in ecumenical dialogue.”

Grenholm said it is “regrettable if someone feels ignored” and insisted that Swedish Catholics are “just as involved in the preparations as the Church of Sweden” and that cooperation “has been tight.” Asked whether they see themselves as the “true heirs” of the country’s medieval Catholic past, she quoted Archbishop Jackelén, who said there can be “no reason for a triumphal celebration” and noted that Lund Cathedral has been a Catholic episcopal see “for centuries.”

“We do not close our eyes for the shadowy sides of the Reformation,” she said. “Simultaneously, we see that theology with roots in the Reformation is a liberating and vitalizing force. It affirms the ability of the individual to take moral and spiritual responsibility. It also affirms that the church authorities do not have any kind of monopoly on God.”


Sweden’s Catholic History

Professor Clemens Cavallin, senior lecturer in the history of religion at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden’s second-largest city, believes the commemoration sheds important light on Swedish Catholic history. After all but being wiped out by the Reformation, Catholics began returning to Sweden in the late 19th century, although they still remain very small in number (around 132,000 out of a population of 9.59 million), made up mostly of immigrants.

He added that St. Elizabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957), a convert to the faith who worked for Christian unity and whom Francis canonized in June, is symbolic of the Church’s return. “Catholics only gradually started being tolerated during the 20th century,” Cavallin told the Register.

The Church has also had to contend with the highly secular ideology and social system of Sweden, “enabled by Lutheranism,” he said.

“Sweden is on a trajectory of modernization that many other nations and countries seem determined to travel,” Cavallin told The Rome Forum, a meeting of Catholic thinkers, in Gardone, Italy, in June. “The endpoint is more or less a complete break with the idea of tradition,” he added, something that was “initiated by the Reformation and perfected by secular ideologies of the 20th century.”

He also said that, with the Second Vatican Council, “the Church as an alternative to modernity was weakened,” it has now grown “closer to Protestantism in many respects,” and the loss of Latin in favor of the vernacular has led to Swedish Catholicism aligning itself more closely with Swedish secular identity.

Still, he hopes that the Pope’s visit will also show that while the Lutheran church is shrinking and continues to be “firmly controlled by political parties,” the Catholic Church is growing, mainly through immigration.  

“My main concern is that the Pope in his sermons, or off-the-cuff remarks, will see his Sweden visit mainly as a way to meet global Protestantism half the way and forget the historically specific situation of Swedish Catholicism,” he said. “Our historical narrative is very different compared with, for example, Italian Catholicism.”


The Intercommunion Issue

Both in and beyond the Catholic Church in Sweden are further concerns that the commemoration will open the door to intercommunion. Such fears have been exacerbated by remarks Pope Francis made last year to members of Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, in which he appeared to suggest that a Lutheran wife married to a Catholic could receive holy Communion based on the fact that she is baptized and in accordance with her conscience.

Many Lutherans, including the pastor of Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, took this to mean the Pope had “opened the door” for them to receive holy Communion, a view the Holy See Press Office never publicly corrected, although Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said the comments were “misunderstood.”

The document “From Conflict to Communion” is also not instilling confidence. “The text paints a picture of Luther as a religious hero who found the way to a more true form of Catholicism,” said Cavallin.

Furthermore, he noted that, on the subject of the Eucharist, the document states that transubstantiation is a “concept” that “seemed, in the Catholic view, to be the best guarantee for maintaining the real presence of Jesus Christ.” Using the verb “to seem,” Cavallin said, “clearly indicates that this doesn’t have objective value for Catholics and that other notions could be used for the same purpose and perhaps even with better effect.”

Bishop Farrell rejected the possibility of opening the door to intercommunion, but not completely. “I don’t like the way people sometimes attribute intentions to the Pope which he does not have,” he said. “The guidelines for intercommunion are very clear in the Ecumenical Directory and in canon law.”

But he stressed that “among the guidelines is the requirement of a pastoral discernment in every case, every single case,” and added that “Pope Francis reminds us that the law needs always to be applied with judgment and discernment. The highest law is the good of souls.”

Cavallin said the fact that a papal Mass has now been added to the commemoration is important in asserting Catholic identity after the ecumenical events. “It is crucial how the question of intercommunion will be handled at this Mass,” he predicted. “If Protestants will participate and show respect for the Eucharist, this will be, I think, vital for the importance of the visit for the Catholic Church in Sweden. On the other hand, if intercommunion will take place, or even promoted in a sermon or in some other way, this will make it into a sign of confusion.”


An Optimistic View

Bishop Arborelius, however, is confident that, despite the concerns, both the commemoration and the papal Mass will be a success.

To have a pope take part in an ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation “shows us that a new period of deeper dialogue and working together has started,” Sweden’s Catholic shepherd said. “I am sure that the papal visit will be very fruitful and help us to go further on the path of unity.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.