VATICAN CITY: In a gesture of reconciliation rich in symbolism, Pope Francis flies to Sweden on Monday for the start of celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“What’s to celebrate?” Catholic conservatives cried when the visit was announced in January, the negative reaction perhaps helping to explain why the visit has been belatedly extended for a day so that it can include a papal mass.
Francis was initially scheduled to make only a one-day visit to Lund in southern Sweden to attend an ecumenical service of commemoration jointly organised by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and his own inter-faith agency.
The service will see Francis worship alongside the heirs to a tradition founded in fervent opposition to the teachings and power of the Church of Rome.
Against that historical backdrop, Francis’s presence in Lund will be “quite simply sensational”, according to Theodor Dieter, of the Lutheran Institute for Ecumenical Research.
“It must not be forgotten that (Martin) Luther himself described the pope as the Antichrist and was a severe critic of the Roman Catholic Church,” Dieter told AFP.
“Only three years ago, the bishops and cardinals did not think that the Reformation was a subject for celebration.”
History is not the only issue that separates the two traditions.
The Swedish branch of the Lutheran Church is among the most liberal in the Christian family. Its top archbishop has been a woman, Antje Jackelen, since 2013; it has ordained women pastors since 1960 and embraces homosexuality to the point of having openly lesbian and gay bishops — all unimaginable in the Catholic Church.
Francis however has championed rapprochement between Catholicism and all other faiths, saying earlier this year that Catholics should seek forgiveness for their past treatment of other Christian believers, and vice versa.
“We cannot undo what happened but we cannot allow the weight of the mistakes of the past to poison our relations,” he said.
The LWF’s president, Bishop Munib Younan, echoed that sentiment. “Being a Lutheran of course, I also carry the burden of the past,” the Palestinian Christian told AFP. “But I don’t want the burden of the past to define my future.”
The service in Lund will take place exactly one year before the 500th anniversary of German monk Martin Luther nailing his famous written protest against the Church’s abuses of its power to the door of a church in Wittenberg. The act of defiance of papal authority resulted in Luther being excommunicated and declared an outlaw by Rome.