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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyAn ecumenical leap

Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden illustrates in a dramatic way the vast change that has taken place in church circles.

He is going to Lund, Sweden, to celebrate Reformation Day Oct. 31. This would have been unheard of before the Second Vatican Council, five decades ago. Catholics, much less popes, didn’t celebrate what Martin Luther started in 1517.

However, much has changed in the past 50 years. Catholic and Lutheran scholars have pointed out that the once-deep division between the two churches was due more to political and theological misunderstandings and misrepresentations than on genuine differences in theology. Scholars laid the groundwork in the 1999 joint declaration on justification, the doctrine which once drew the line in the sand between Catholics and Protestants. The declaration agreed that justification and salvation are totally free gifts of God and cannot be earned by performing good works, but rather must be reflected in good works. This ended the battle cry between “faith” and “good works.”

The 2013 document From Conflict to Communion signed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation agreed that “Luther had no intention of establishing a new church but was part of a broad and many-faceted desire for reform.” The title was well chosen to mark the direction the relationship between the churches is taking.

While the role of theologians in seeking Christian unity is essential, what happens at the grassroots level is also important. Pope Francis insists Christians cannot pass all responsibility for building Christian unity onto theologians participating in official bilateral dialogues. The prayer of all Christians is essential, he says, and so is friendship. “Walk together, pray for each other, and do works of charity together when you can. This is ecumenism,” he said in Georgia in early October.

While Sweden is known as being one of the most secular countries in Europe, friendship is flourishing between Lutherans and Catholics.

For example, Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, the country’s only Catholic bishop and the first native Swede to hold the post since the Protestant Reformation, said his growing diocese does not have enough churches and so many Catholic masses, especially in rural areas, are celebrated in Lutheran churches.

More than 60 per cent of Swedes are baptized members of the Lutheran Church of Sweden and just over one per cent are registered members of the Catholic Church. In surveys, less than a third of Swedes describe themselves as religious and even fewer participate regularly in church services.

While it took centuries for theologians to untie the political and theological knots the churches had tied, the friendship of “walking ecumenism” can heal memories of the past and create healthy ones in the present and future through joint prayer and action.

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change,” says the document, From Conflict to Communion.