News Headlines > Catholics and Lutherans to put 500 years of division behind them as Pope prepares to travel to Sweden

30 October 2016 | by Christopher Lamb , in Lund, Sweden

Catholics and Lutherans to put 500 years of division behind them as Pope prepares to travel to Sweden

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'Pope' and 'reformation' no longer mean the opposite says Catholic Bishop of Stockholm ahead of controversial trip

The anniversary of an event which sparked one of Christianity’s bloodiest periods in history will be used as a spur to closer ties between Catholics and Protestants, Sweden’s church leaders said on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the country. 

At a joint press conference ahead of the papal trip to mark 500 years since Martin Luther started the Reformation, the Church of Sweden’s Lutheran leader, Archbishop Antje Jackelén and her Catholic counterpart the Bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, stressed divisions were now consigned to history. 

“In the past ‘Pope’ and ‘Reformation’ were opposite things,” Bishop Arborelius, a member of the Carmelite order explained. “Now there is a link between the spiritual heritage of reformation and Catholic heritage.” 

On Monday, Francis arrives in Sweden with the centre-piece of his visit being a joint ecumenical prayer service marking the reformation in the Lutheran Cathedral in the city of Lund. Archbishop Jackelén said the gathering would reflect the “joy and gratitude” of what the churches share in common but also “lament and repent our pain and sorrow”. 

And there is a lot to feel sorry about. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral denouncing abuses of the Catholic Church it led to his excommunication by Pope Leo X and as his ideas spread it led to religious wars, including the Thirty Years War from 1618-48, one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts.

The Reformation also led to the disappearance of Swedish Catholics but on Sunday Bishop Arborelius explained that Sweden has maintained a link with its pre-reformation past: Lund Cathedral, consecrated in 1145, is a throwback to the country’s Catholic heritage.

Both church leaders told journalists that today Sweden has strong inter-church co-operation, something they said was vital in a country where the majority of people do not believe in God or go to Church. 

Bishop Arborelius explained that the country’s 115,000 Catholics are able to make use of more than 100 Lutheran churches - and in some cases are able to buy them. This is because many Lutheran places of worship are under utilised such as one church in Stockholm where Polish Catholics have Masses said for them three times on a Sunday. 

The Pope’s visit on Monday and Tuesday will be an affirmation of ecumenical initiatives in Sweden, although it will not be enough to paper over the big differences which remain between Catholics and Lutherans: particularly over women’s ordination and gay people. The Church of Sweden permits the blessings of same-sex unions and allows female priests and bishops. 

An area to bring about closer union is sharing the eucharist: Pope Francis this year suggested that Lutherans married to Catholics could receive communion in certain circumstances. And Bishop William Kenney, co-chairman of the Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, has recommended widening participating in such cases.  

Archbishop Jackelén stressed that like Catholics, Lutherans believed that the eucharist contained the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood and that discussions would now focus on whether sharing communion could happen before or after theological divisions had been solved. 

“One view says ‘you can only come together when you have resolved it all’,” she said. “But you can have another view which states ‘come on, all human communion has a flavour of fragility because that’s our nature’.” 

After the Pope lands in Malmo on Monday he will meet with the Prime Minister of Sweden and when in Lund will make a courtesy visit to members of the royal family: the country’s constitution states that the monarch must be a member of the Church of Sweden. 

Following the service in Lund he will take part in an ecumenical event in Malmo focussing on inter-church working helping refugees and on Tuesday morning, before returning to Rome, he will say Mass for the country’s Catholic community.  

Bishop Arborelius said Francis can expect a warm welcome in Sweden despite it being one of the most irreligious countries in the western world. 

“People here seem to like him. They see him as an authentic person and a moral authority who has something prophetic about him.”

PICTURE - Swedish police finalise their security arrangements in front of Lund's Lutheran Cathedral on the eve of Pope Francis' visit on Monday

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