Pope takes Christian unity bid to the Protestant heartland
Pope Francis arrived in Sweden yesterday on the latest leg of his mission to promote reconciliation and unity within the wider Christian family. After touching down in the southern city of Malmo, the Argentine pontiff heads to nearby Lund for an ecumenical service marking the start of a year of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The event marked 50 years of reconciliatory dialogue between the Catholic Church and Lutheranism, a tradition that was once fervently hostile to the authority and teachings of the Vatican.
Just by agreeing to attend, Francis has made a gesture that would have been unimaginable for all but his most recent predecessors. The popes of the 16th century spent huge amounts of time and energy trying to stifle or reverse the reforming wave launched by the German monk Martin Luther when he nailed his “95 theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Yesterday’s meeting comes eight months after Francis became the first pope in almost 1,000 years to meet an Orthodox Patriarch. The current leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has also reached out to Anglicans. And ahead of the visit, Francis reiterated the importance he attaches to Christian unity at a time when both believers and belief itself are under pressure in many parts of the world.
‘Ecumenism of blood’
“When Christians are persecuted and murdered, they are chosen because they are Christians, not because they are Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Catholics or Orthodox,” Francis said in an interview with two Jesuit publications. “An ecumenism of blood exists.” He also went out of his way to underline that Catholicism no longer regards Luther, who was excommunicated, as a heretical figure. “Luther took a great step by putting the words of God into the hands of the people,” Francis said in an apparent reference to the monk’s efforts to get a German translation of the Bible printed and circulated.
Some Catholic conservatives question whether there is anything about the Reformation worth celebrating. Partly for that reason, every word of the sermon the ever unpredictable Francis delivers in Lund is likely to be closely scrutinized, as will remarks by Mounib Younan, the Palestinian president of the World Lutheran Federation. The pontiff’s body language will also be closely watched, particularly when he is led into the Lund cathedral by Antje Jackelen, the female archbishop who is the senior cleric in the Swedish Lutheran church. With its approval of women holding office, backing for gay marriage and openly lesbian and gay bishops, the Swedish church is liberal to an extent unimaginable for the vast majority of Catholic clerics. The two traditions also differ in their approach to church governance-hierarchical for Catholicism, flat for the Lutherans-as well as on more esoteric theological questions. — AFP