Pope Francis' trip to Sweden shows the Church is 'willing to go over to the other side', writes Christopher Lamb03 November 2016 | by Christopher Lamb | Comments: 0 By making bold gestures of reconciliation and encouraging Churches to work together for social justice, Pope Francis appears to be taking a fresh course towards healing divisions
Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther sparked one of Christianity’s deepest splits by challenging abuses in the medieval Church, Pope Francis sought to draw a line under a bitter history of division. This week he travelled to Sweden, where he stood side by side with Lutheran leaders at events that commemorated the Reformation. His bold and generous gesture represents a new moment in Catholic-Protestant relations, and validates the Catholic Church’s sometimes hesitant journey towards Christian unity.
In Lund, Francis heaped unprecedented praise on Martin Luther, and gave thanks for the spiritual fruits of the Reformation; he embraced the female leader of the Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, and told a 10,000-strong crowd in Malmö that Catholics and Lutherans should work more closely together to help refugees and save the planet.
His visit was a potent ecumenical symbol, and sends the clearest possible message that when it comes to drawing closer to union with other Christians, the Catholic Church is not waiting to be joined by those of other traditions but is willing “to go over to the other side”. He has reinforced the ecumenical approach that insists that dialogue with Protestants must be open and genuine, with each side prepared to learn from the other.
But inevitably his trip has brought into focus apparently intractable differences between Catholics and Lutherans – for example, on women’s ordination and on approaches to same-sex relationships – which leave difficulties in the path towards members of the Churches being able to express their unity by sharing the Eucharist.
Things were never going to be straightforward given that the Lutheran Church in Sweden – there are considerable differences between Lutheran Churches worldwide – takes the polar opposite position to the Vatican on the most contentious issues. In 2009 the Swedish Lutherans ordained the world’s first openly lesbian bishop, Eva Brunne, also the first to be in a registered same-sex partnership.
This is a country where the battle for equality between male and female clergy is over – and has resulted in a decisive victory for the progressives. When I meet Rev Heinz Jackelén, who is married to the archbishop, he tells me: “I’m just a pastor and a husband.”
The old divisions between the Churches are also increasingly seen as part of Europe’s past, and are of less than urgent interest to leaders such as the first Latin American Pope and first Latin American general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the Chilean-born Revd Martin Junger.
Younger generations are also less interested in what divides Churches. What does pique their interest is when they learn of the Pope’s efforts to help migrants, which has been an important issue in Sweden: the country has the highest ratio of asylum seekers per citizen than any country in Europe.
Speaking on Monday in front of the crowd of 10,000 in Malmö, after hearing testimonies from across the world of what the Churches were doing to help migrants, save the planet and build peace, Francis stresses that there is now “more that unites than separates” Catholics and Lutherans.
The Pope arrived at the colourful justice and peace jamboree on an open white golf-buggy version of the Popemobile, waving enthusiastically to the crowd alongside Lutheran leaders. And despite the normally reserved nature of the Swedes, he took to the stage to lively chants of “Papa Francesco”.
The gathering was a vibrant demonstration of the capacity that faith has to inspire action for justice. There were testimonies to the work being done by the Churches to help refugees in South Sudan and to combat the effects of climate change in India. After the event ended, the Lutheran and Catholic international humanitarian agencies – Caritas Internationalis and the LWF’s World Service – signed a joint “declaration of intent”, pledging themselves to work more closely together.
All of this wins plaudits but might suggest the churches are now engaged in a sort of “NGO ecumenism”, getting together to save the world while forgetting about the intractable theological differences on women and gays. It is a bit like a divorced couple who turn up together for their children’s graduation ceremony.
For their part, the Lutherans insist that their joint work with Caritas comes out of a “deep faith commitment”.
One area where there are hopes for change is in sharing Communion between the Churches. During his sermon in Lund Cathedral, Revd Junger said it was time for Catholics and Lutherans to share “tables – yes tables – where we can share bread and wine, the presence of Christ”. The Pope, who has in the past indicated an openness in this area, veered away from the topic in his official speech but the issue is addressed in the joint declaration he later signed.
“We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table,” the carefully worded text explains. “We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ.”
Among those experiencing the most pain are Lutherans and Catholics who are married to each other. Before the papal visit Bishop William Kenney, the co-chairman of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, had said he hoped such couples would be able to receive Communion in each other’s Churches without having to be given special permission. Currently Lutherans can be admitted to the Catholic Eucharist in some circumstances, but Bishop Kenney told The Tablet he hopes “we could open it up a little bit more”.
The slow-burning Catholic and Lutheran dialogue over the years culminated in a 1999 declaration on the once disputed Doctrine of Justification – that Christians are saved by faith alone – and the two Churches have produced another text ironing out old differences, From Conflict to Communion, published in advance of the Reformation anniversary.
These agreements allowed the Pope to tell the ecumenical gathering in Lund Cathedral on Monday: “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to Sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.”
He went on to explain that Martin Luther’s position that Christians are saved by grace alone, “challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing”.
“With the concept ‘by grace alone’, he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response,” the Pope said. “The Doctrine of Justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”
This is the most positive language a Pope has used in relation to Luther. Francis is determined to trumpet the closeness that already exists between Christians. As Archbishop Emeritus, Anders Wejryd, the former Lutheran leader of the Swedish Church told me as he waited to enter Lund Cathedral, “this is something that has been invisible to people”.
“When it comes to ecumenism the first stage is diplomacy,” Wejryd explained. “That you acknowledge that the other is there and maybe that the other Church is more or less a real Church, even if you don’t share all its opinions.”
The Pope’s visit was a dramatic, clear acknowledgement of the Lutherans, their Churches and their traditions. And it also showed that, despite the differences, Catholics and Protestants can do business together.