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Mending historical fences

LUND (SE): Standing in the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis said on October 31 that relations between the Lutheran and Catholic faiths has moved beyond the stage of resignation to division and that he regards his presence at the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as an opportunity to mend a critical moment of history.

The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Reverend Martin Junge, and the primate of the Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jaclelé, stood alongside Pope Francis to give thanks for the many people, who refused to be resigned to division, but instead kept alive the hope of reconciliation among all who believe in the one Lord.

Speaking in Spanish, Pope Francis reflected on the Reformation, saying, “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 realise 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.”

He quoted Pope John Paul II as saying that we are not here to judge history, but to try and understand what happened.

Quoting from a document released by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, From Conflict to Communion, Pope Francis said that the one thing the Lord desires, is for us to abide like living branches in his son, Jesus.

He explained that taking a new look at the past, does not include achieving an impracticable correction of what took place, but to tell that history differently.

In paying tribute to Martin Luther, he said that he challenges us to remember that apart from God, we can do nothing, a question he said that haunted Luther.

“In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question of our lives,” Pope Francis said.

He then addressed the sticky issue, saying that the concept that salvation takes place by grace alone and not by our own merit, reminds us that God always takes the initiative and this initiative always comes prior to any human response. “He seeks to awaken that response,” he noted.

This is what is known as the doctrine of justification, which for almost 500 years was a deep point of division between the Catholic and the Lutheran Churches, until the signing of the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification in 1999.

The declaration says, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts, while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

At the ratification of a joint Chinese translation of the declaration in Hong Kong in 2014, Father Peter Choi Wai-man said that the declaration illustrates the similarities in Lutheran and Catholic teaching, but pointed out that the Catholic Church used to describe salvation in metaphysical language and, while it was accurate, it was cold.

He explained that this was one issue that Luther took issue with, but in the 20th century, the Catholic Church moved its theological expression to more human language, making it easier to comprehend what Luther was talking about.

While the presence of Pope Francis at the anniversary celebration is not a statement that full unity is on the doorstep and nor would the Lutheran guests at his November 1 Mass receive communion, it is an important statement that the two Churches have resolved to travel together.

“I really hope the joint commemoration gives us a strong encouragement to be faster, to be bolder, to be more creative, with a strong focus on where people feel the lack of unity the heaviest; around the table,” Reverend Junge said at the Vatican on October 26.

Kurt Cardinal Koch, the president of the Congregation for Christian Unity, said that there are three reasons for the pope’s presence in Sweden; the progress made in ecumenical relations over the past half century, the shared witness of a commonly held hope for the future and repentance for the bloody deeds of vengeance of the past.

Pope Francis commended Luther for putting the word of God in the hands of the people, but added it was an extremely complex situation that he was attempting to address and, because of political complexities at the time, the matter ended up in a state of separation instead of reform.

He ended saying that he hopes that in the future there will be more common prayer and joint outreach on social issues, not only theological discussion.

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