Serenhedd James on the Pope’s trip to Sweden


Pope Francis, yet again, has proved himself to be a dab hand at the grand gesture. He was in Sweden on All Hallows’ Eve – “Reformation Day” – for the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation. It marked the start of a year of events leading up to the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the European Reformations, if we take as given the catalyst being Martin Luther’s sending of his 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31 October 1517.

“Commemoration” was the tactful way of putting it, given the obvious sensitivities – the Pope could hardly be expected to attend a celebration of European schism, after all. And so he visited Malmö and Lund, to meet Lutherans and to pray with them. I was there too, and staying at Christian’s Acre through the good offices of Sr Gerd Swensson and Fr John Brownsell (ND, July/August 2016).

The Lutherans were led by Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation; the Revd Martin Junge, its General Secretary; and Archbishop Antje Jackelén of Uppsala, the first woman to be Primate of Sweden. The main service in Lund Cathedral included – in no particular order – hugging and kissing, a guitarist who doubled up as an accordion player, the lighting of candles, the King and Queen of Sweden, a painted cross from El Salvador, children’s choirs, and mutual regrets all round.

Those regrets expressed themselves in a Joint Statement, which is easily found online, and in Five Imperative Commitments for the way ahead.


  1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.


“We have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation,” said Pope Francis in his homily. “Now, in the context of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path… 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.” The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (PCCU) were at pains to stress that this was the first time in history that the anniversary had been commemorated jointly, and that the “landmark event” reflected “the progress made in fifty years of international Catholic-Lutheran dialogue”. Their joint statement ended with the anticipation that the Joint Commemoration would “provide the motivation for committing to even more passionate dialogue so that remaining differences are overcome and the unity that is hoped for can be received and celebrated”.

That is a noble aim, clearly; but not without its practical problems. How will the Roman Catholic Church reconcile itself to a denomination that does not insist on the threefold nature of Holy Order? How will the Lutherans respond to Rome’s position on same-sex marriage? What will become of the anathemas of the Council of Trent, on which the last 450 years of Roman Catholic ecclesiology are predicated; or, for that matter, of Leo X’s Exsurge Domine?

Perhaps the most telling tension was demonstrated when a Lutheran woman bishop prayed for both denominations to be brought together at the “Eucharistic table”: a presently intractable theological and ecclesiological difficulty for Lutherans and Catholics alike. For the worthy aims of the Joint Commemoration to come to fruition, something, somehow, will have to give; and yet the Pope himself acknowledged that historically “there was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith”.

Unsurprisingly, many people were unsettled. Given that the young Fr Bergoglio was professed in the Society of Jesus, whose work historically involved the repudiation of Luther’s position, this does not seem entirely unreasonable. Nor is it one of the customary charisms of the office of Sovereign Pontiff to suggest that the divisions of the Reformation might be healed by anything less than full submission to the See of Peter.

The main press conference was an exercise in answering questions different from those asked. The President of the PCCU, Cardinal Kurt Koch, called the Joint Commemoration “a beautiful day after 500 years”; but when a journalist from the National Catholic Reporter asked him if the Roman Catholic Church still regarded itself as the One True Church, his answer was distinctly evasive.

Pope Francis was clear that “we do not claim to realize an impracticable correction of what took place”. As he entered Lund Cathedral in cotta and stole, only his oversized white solideo marked him out from the Lutheran ministers in the procession. The question that springs to mind, then, is this: when faced with dealing with historic European schism, what does it now mean to be the Vicar of Christ?