"We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history," Pontiff says at ecumenical gathering to mark Reformation's 500th year
Pope Francis has arrived in Sweden for a two-day apostolic journey where, together with the heads of the Lutheran World Federation he will jointly preside at an ecumenical prayer service in the Lutheran cathedral in the city of Lund, followed by a public witness event in the nearby city of Malmö.
On Tuesday morning, All Saints Day, the Pope will celebrate Mass in Malmö for Sweden’s small Catholic community, according to Vatican Radio.
Greeting journalists travelling on the papal plane to Malmö on Monday morning, Pope Francis said: “This journey is important because it is an ecclesial journey, it’s very ecclesial in the field of ecumenism.”
The formal occasion for the Pope’s visit to Sweden is to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The event comes as the culmination of years of theological progress, from the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, to the publication of a shared history of the Reformation in the 2013 document “From Conflict to Communion.”
Before travelling to the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund for the joint ecumenical prayer service on Monday afternoon, an official welcome ceremony at Malmö International Airport saw state and religious authorities on the tarmac to receive Pope Francis. The Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, and the Minister of Culture and Democracy meet privately with the Pope at the Airport.
Also before the ecumenical service, the Pope paid a courtesy visit to the Swedish King and Queen, Carl XVI Gustav and Silvia, at Lund’s Royal Palace (the Kungshuset).
Upon His arrival in Lund Cathedral, Pope Francis was welcomed by the Primate of the Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelen, and the Catholic Bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, both of whom accompanied the Holy Father in procession to the main altar. The procession also included representatives of the Lutheran World Federation. After a sermon of the General Secretary of the LWF, Rev. Martin Junge, the Holy Father gave this homily:
We have gathered as sisters and brothers from different countries and traditions. Let us take a moment to look around. Look at each other and greet those next to you—because this is a day of great promise. We share experiences of wonder and worry.
We marvel at the wonders of love and mercy. We recognize their awesome power as well as their tremendous vulnerability. We rejoice in Jesus Christ.
We also worry—about the threats to environments and societies. We fear hate. We mourn losses. We lament—and we celebrate.
We lament the pain of division ever again inflicted on the human family—and we celebrate every step that leads from conflict to communion. We call for a change of minds, hearts and lifestyles. We call for action, Together in Hope.
We celebrate the great promises of Christian faith: repentance is meaningful and liberating, destructive forces can be overcome, healing is possible, justice happens, peace grows and hope prevails.
Jesus asked us to pray for unity just before he died for our salvation. Today we are all here in order to do so. We thank the Lord for the unity that we already have thanks to our common baptism. We lament our sins and shortcomings that have caused division. And above all, we hope, we pray, and we long for that perfect, visible unity that can persuade the world that the Risen Lord is alive and at work among us. Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we thank the Lord for your presence and prayer. May He always help us to be faithful to our commitment to work and pray for this unity.
Pope Francis also delivered this homily during the service:
“Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15:4). These words, spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, allow us to peer into the heart of Christ just before his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. We can feel his heart beating with love for us and his desire for the unity of all who believe in him. He tells us that he is the true vine and that we are the branches, that just as he is one with the Father, so we must be one with him if we wish to bear fruit.
Here in Lund, at this prayer service, we wish to manifest our shared desire to remain one with Christ, so that we may have life. We ask him, “Lord, help us by your grace to be more closely united to you and thus, together, to bear a more effective witness of faith, hope and love”. This is also a moment to thank God for the efforts of our many brothers and sisters from different ecclesial communities who refused to be resigned to division, but instead kept alive the hope of reconciliation among all who believe in the one Lord.
As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past 50 years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.
Jesus tells us that the Father is the “vinedresser” (cf. v. 1) who tends and prunes the vine in order to make it bear more fruit (cf. v. 2). The Father is constantly concerned for our relationship with Jesus, to see if we are truly one with him (cf. v. 4). He watches over us, and his gaze of love inspires us to purify our past and to work in the present to bring about the future of unity that he so greatly desires.
We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. We ought to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearn to be one, and that it was perpetuated historically by the powerful of this world rather than the faithful people, which always and everywhere needs to be guided surely and lovingly by its Good Shepherd. Certainly, there was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith, but at the same time we realize that we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language. As Pope John Paul II said, “We must not allow ourselves to be guided by the intention of setting ourselves up as judges of history but solely by the motive of understanding better what happened and of becoming messengers of truth” (Letter to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, President of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, 31 October 1983). God is the vinedresser, who with immense love tends and protects the vine; let us be moved by his watchful gaze. The one thing he desires is for us to abide like living branches in his Son Jesus. With this new look at the past, we do not claim to realize an impracticable correction of what took place, but “to tell that history differently” (Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, From Conflict to Communion, 17 June 2013, 16).
Jesus reminds us: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (v. 5). He is the one who sustains us and spurs us on to find ways to make our unity ever more visible. Certainly, our separation has been an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding, yet it has also led us to recognize honestly that without him we can do nothing; in this way it has enabled us to understand better some aspects of our faith. With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life. Through shared hearing of the word of God in the Scriptures, important steps forward have been taken in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, whose 50th anniversary we are presently celebrating. Let us ask the Lord that his word may keep us united, for it is a source of nourishment and life; without its inspiration we can do nothing.
The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. “How can I get a propitious God?” This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives. As we know, Luther encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. 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 doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.
Jesus intercedes for us as our mediator before the Father; he asks him that his disciples may be one, “so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). This is what comforts us and inspires us to be one with Jesus, and thus to pray: “Grant us the gift of unity, so that the world may believe in the power of your mercy.” This is the testimony the world expects from us. We Christians will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst. Together we can proclaim and manifest God’s mercy, concretely and joyfully, by upholding and promoting the dignity of every person. Without this service to the world and in the world, Christian faith is incomplete.
As Lutherans and Catholics, we pray together in this cathedral, conscious that without God we can do nothing. We ask his help, so that we can be living members, abiding in him, ever in need of his grace, so that together we may bring his word to the world, which so greatly needs his tender love and mercy.