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Some reflections commenting on the Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund (Sweden)

Hubertus Blaumeiser
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It was not a superficial step and let alone naive that Pope Francis went to Sweden to begin the commemoration of the 500 years of the Reformation together with the Lutherans. It was not taken for granted that the Lutheran World Federation would want to remember this anniversary together. These were courageous and farsighted choices, fruit of 50 years of official dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans.

Both parts are aware that there are still relevant divergences that require further in-depth analysis. It particularly concerns the way of understanding the ministry in the Church and ethical questions. However this does not justify each one going their own way. “What unites us is greater than what divides us,” recites the Joint Declaration signed by Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Yunan, president of the Lutheran World Federation. In Lund and Malmö the consequences for it were drawn, more than other times.

What unites is solid: for baptism, Lutheran and Catholic Christians are linked with Christ and amongst themselves. Like the branches of one vine – this is how the Gospel excerpt resounded on 31 October in the Lund cathedral during the common Ecumenical Prayer -, like members of one body. As they lived and witnessed together – said Dr Martín Junge, Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, in his homily – the pioneers of ecumenism “began to see one another no longer as separated branches but as branches united to Jesus Christ. Even more, they began to see Christ in their midst ... As we see Jesus among us, we have also started to see each other anew.”

Pope Francis also expressed himself in this way, even before this historical encounter. “Who is better: Lutherans or Catholics?” he asked the large pilgrimage of German Lutherans and Catholics on 13 October. He reaffirmed, “Even better, both together!” In his interview with Ulf Jonsson, published in
La Civiltà Cattolica on 28 October, Pope Francis explained his intention of the trip in this way: “coming closer to my brothers and sisters. Being close does all of us good. Distance, on the other hand, makes us bitter.” The common prayer in the Lund cathedral sealed this healthy mutual closeness.

The following encounter in the Malmö Arena clearly indicated the direction of travel: placing ourselves together at the service of those who suffer the most, manifesting God’s mercy to all, striving to overcome the logic of violence and unite the efforts to safeguard the creation for future generations: our common home. As if to say: the Gospel and God’s Love are not closed in among believers, but are essential resources for the life of a torn humanity. On 31 October Lutherans and Catholics took up a common commitment for these goals.

Another fact must be observed which Francis often highlighted when he affirms, “unity is achieved by walking together.” Walking together, serving side by side those who are in need, a new glance on the past and the present begins and a new way of looking at each other. In this regard Francis, in his sermon in Lund, made important affirmations, “we must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge”; “our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearns to be one”; “we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

The part of the prayer dedicated to penance spoke quite openly about it, “In the 16th century, Catholics and Lutherans frequently not only misunderstood but also exaggerated and caricatured their opponents in order to make them look ridiculous. … They accepted that the Gospel was mixed with the political and economic interests of those in power. Their failures resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”

However, the new glance makes us also understand that we can learn from one another. Francis said, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.” Again, “The spiritual experience of Martin Luther 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.”

Lund was certainly not the arrival point, but a stage of a journey to be continued. “Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith,” requires the second of the five “ecumenical imperatives” prospected by the Lutheran-Catholic document “From Conflict to Communion” (2013). What happened on 31 October at the meeting of two global realities – the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation – must now be carried out locally. From here, in the Joint Declaration, “we call upon all Lutheran and Catholic parishes and communities to be bold and creative, joyful and hopeful in their commitment to continue the great journey ahead of us.”

An image remains in our eyes of that memorable day. At the conclusion of the manifestation in the Malmö Arena, Pope Francis, the President and General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation and Cardinal Koch covered the distance towards the exit in an uncovered electric car. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, with radiant faces and with their gaze they embraced the crowd at 360°: together, for everyone!