Pope Francis in Sweden: forgiveness and rejoicing

The Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden: Wikimedia Commons
The Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis is in Sweden this week, on a visit to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Vatican and the Lutheran Church say the event is not a celebration of Luther's revolt but rather, a solemn commemoration to ask forgiveness for the schism in Western Christianity and an opportunity to rejoice publicly at the way ecumenical relations have improved over the past 50 years.

Upon his arrival in Malmo, southern Sweden, the Pope met Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, followed by a meeting with members of Sweden's royal family. The main event today is an ecumenical prayer service with the head of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan, at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund.

Deeply symbolic encounters like these show that the Christian faithful can and must work and pray together, especially in times of religious persecution, even though they may be divided on dogma, Francis told the Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica before he left Rome. "If we don't do it, we Christians hurt ourselves by division."

The Holy Father said in the interview with Swedish Jesuit Father Ulf Jonsson SJ that he hopes that the commemoration in the Swedish city of Lund will help him draw “closer to my brothers and sisters” because closeness “does all of us good.” He added that people should not be “held back by fears,” but should rather engage in theological dialogue, with a “shift towards common prayer and the works of mercy.”

Humanitarian and peace effortsInterviewer Fr Ulf Jonsson SJ with Pope Francis and the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, Fr Antonio Spadero SJ

The Vatican and Lutheran delegations are due to to attend an event highlighting both Churches' peace-making and humanitarian efforts during the Pope’s visit to Sweden, with testimony from refugees and the Catholic bishop of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, who is himself a Jesuit, among the speakers.

The Protestant Reformation started in 1517 after Luther nailed 95 theses on the church door in the town of Wittenberg. In them, he denounced what he saw as the abuses of the Catholic Church, especially the sale of indulgences. Despite being excommunicated by Pope Leo X, Luther’s teachings spread throughout the world. However, Pope Francis has acknowledged that Martin Luther did a service to the Christian faith by putting the Scriptures into people’s hands.

Stressing that his visit to Sweden was an “ecumenical witness” rather than “sectarian”, Pope Francis was not intending to celebrate Mass during the commemoration. However, it has been confirmed that he will now preside over Mass tomorrow with Sweden's small Catholic community in the Malmo sports stadium.