2016-10-30 20:54:00

Expectations for the Pope's ecumenical encounter in Sweden

(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis departs on a historic visit to Sweden on Monday for a joint commemoration of the Reformation, together with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation. During the 26 hour visit, he’ll also celebrate Mass for the Solemnity of All Saints Day with the small Catholic communities in Sweden and the neighbouring Nordic countries.

It’s the Pope’s 17th foreign trip, but as Philippa Hitchen reports, it’s shaping up to one of his most historic, at least from an ecumenical perspective:


Next October 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, sparked by the publication of Martin Luther's famous 95 theses on what he saw as the much needed reforms for the Church of his day.

Nobody is quite sure if he did, dramatically, nail them to the door of the  church in Wittenburg, as some historians believe. What is certain though is that over the centuries since then, the event has been commemorated in a polemical and antagonistic way, attempting to prove that one side was right, while the other side was wrong and the cause of all the bloody conflicts that followed.

But over past decades attitudes have radically changed and the ecumenical movement has brought people together across those denominational divides. Historians and theologians have taken a closer, more objective look at what really happened back then and shown that Luther had no intention of dividing the Church. They've seen how secular, political interests fanned the flames of theological controversy that could have been resolved with more listening, trust and respect from both sides. And they've proved how some of the apparently most divisive theological ideas of Luther's day are actually what both sides believe, leading to a landmark 1999 document called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

All of which is why Catholic-Lutheran relations are now better than ever before and why Pope Francis is going to Sweden to jointly host this first ever ecumenical commemoration, the 499th anniversary, to be precise, to set the tone for celebrations that'll follow throughout the coming year.

The southern city of Lund is where the Lutheran World Federation was founded in 1947 and it's in the medieval cathedral here that the Pope and the Lutheran leaders will preside together at a prayer service, featuring thanksgiving for ecumenical progress, repentance for past sins, and hope for a future of shared Christian witness. 

Among those welcoming the Pope to Sweden will be the female archbishop of Uppsala, Antje Jackelén, which makes for an interesting encounter, since women's ordination is one of the major issues dividing the Protestant and Catholic Churches today. The Pope made some polite comments about her in an interview on the eve of his trip, but could she convince him to revisit what some Catholic commentators see as one of the biggest challenges facing their Church today?

Another area of expectation surrounding the visit is whether the Pope will take any further steps towards permitting Catholics and Lutherans to share the Eucharist at the same altar rail. While the practice is currently allowed only in very particular circumstances, Francis went further than any of his predecessors, during a visit to the Lutheran church in Rome recently, to suggest that personal conscience can be as good a guide as anything laid down in canon law.

In the pre-trip interview, the Pope said that praying and working together to help the sick, the poor, the prisoners, is a key way of advancing the cause for unity among all Christians today. Partnering together for justice and peace is one area where even the most secularised citizens in these Nordic countries can agree and work alongside the different Churches and faith organisations. 

If the Pope can encourage really creative and stepped up collaboration in this area at least, then maybe, hopefully, that spirit of closeness and encounter, as he calls it, will lead to solutions to the more tricky theological problems as well.

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