Pope Francis visits Sweden to mend a nearly 500-year-old schism

Almost 500 years after Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis is trying to mend the divide between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

Osservatore Romano/Reuters
Pope Francis and Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven attend a welcoming ceremony at the Malmo airport, Sweden, on Monday.

On Monday, Pope Francis landed in largely secular Sweden, planning to visit with political leaders and greet faithful Catholics in the country. But for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the main goal of the visit is to help mend a rift dating back five centuries.

The centerpiece of the Sweden trip will be a commemoration of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in the southern city of Lund. Until the Reformation, the papacy wielded near-universal power and influence in Western Europe until the church split in two, paving the way for multiple Protestant sects to splinter away from Catholicism. The repercussions of this split are still being felt today, and now, nearly 500 years later, Francis' reputation as a reformist pope is being cemented by a historic show of reconciliation between the Catholic and Lutheran churches.

On Oct. 31, 1517, exactly 499 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther nailed the so-called "95 Theses" on the door of All Saint's Church in Wittenberg, Germany, outlining number of grievances with the Catholic Church. Luther objected mainly to the sale of indulgences, which allowed sinners to buy certificates that would guarantee lighter or deferred punishment for certain sins after death. These grievances would eventually form the basis for the Protestant Reformation and lead to the creation of the Lutheran church. Though Luther had not initially intended to start a new church, the Reformation soon led to the creation of dozens of protestant sects.

"The Pope's visit comes after 50 years of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and communities," Kevin Ahern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "This effort started with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). With the Council, 50 years ago, the church committed itself to work for Christian unity (a fundamental call of Jesus in the Gospel). To this end, several dialogues were established. The Lutheran Catholic Dialogue group has been one of the most productive and helpful."

During Francis' tenure as pope, he has continued to make headlines as a strong adherent of a Christian-unifying philosophy, pushing for openness and reforms within the church and making overtures to other non-Catholic denominations. In February, Francis became the first pope to meet with a patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split during the Great Schism of 1054. Francis has also met with other non-Christian denominational leaders such as Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the highest religious authority of Sunni Muslims.

"Francis is a reformist, and his recent words on the reform by Luther ... have changed the way popes talk about reform in the church," Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, tells the Monitor. "Francis is the pope that is most comfortable talking about church reform and does not need to use other, less 'dangerous' terms such as renewal, update, etc. Francis recognizes the contributions of Luther and of the Reformation to the growth of the Christian tradition."

After Luther's Theses, the Catholic Church responded harshly to the Reformation, often through the persecution of Protestants. One early group that was involved in this Counter-Reformation was the Jesuit order, which implemented various programs to restore Catholicism to its pre-schism glory. Dr. Ahern finds some irony in the fact that Francis is the first pope from that order, though he points out that a lot has changed in almost 500 years.

"Like the Catholic Church as a whole, the Jesuits have strongly embraced ecumenism over the past 50 years," says Ahern. "Like other Jesuits today, the Pope clearly does not find his identity and role in countering another point of view, but rather in what they are for and mission."

Francis has had criticisms 16th-century Protestant reformers in the past. But more recently, he has offered praise for Luther, calling him a just and necessary reformer, telling reporters this summer that "[t]here was corruption in the church, worldliness, attachment to money and power," according to CBS News.

Both Lutheran and Catholic officials say that the jubilee in Lund is to ask forgiveness for the split in Western Christianity and celebrate 50 years of improving relations between the two churches.

"Francis brings something new because he is a non-European pope and does not see the Reformation in terms of rupture of the unity of the continent," says Dr. Faggioli. "[And] because Francis frames the ecumenical issue in terms of the call of Christians to be Christians today, as members of a servant church in a world facing huge emergencies," including the refugee crisis and global climate change.

Lund, Sweden, is located in one of the most secular countries in Europe, and acts as a kind of neutral ground of sorts, in comparison to many Western European countries that have a clearly dominant Catholic or Protestant presence. Lund is also auspicious as being the birthplace of the Lund Principle in 1952, when the World Council of Churches, a Christian ecumenical organization, created the principle as a guide for the member religions to act together as a unified whole. The Catholic Church is not a member of the council, but the Vatican does send observers to their conferences.

While Francis' show of unity with Lutheranism during this trip will be largely symbolic, it may open the door to a consideration of more consequential theological points, including the role of women in the Catholic Church, according to Ahern.

"The Lutheran Church, in some (but not all) places, has embraced women pastors and bishops," says Ahern. "Last year, the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelén, visited Pope Francis at the Vatican. This was an amazing sight to see: a woman archbishop at the Vatican."

In addition to attending the jubilee, the Pope also intends to hold a mass for Sweden's growing Catholic population in a nearby football stadium.

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