Why is the Pope celebrating the Protestant Reformation?

A planned commemoration of the Reformation by Pope Francis and Lutheran leaders is another touchstone in the pope's emphasis on peace through dialogue, especially with other faith communities.

Reuters/Andrew Medichini/Pool
Iran President Hassan Rouhani (L) walks with Pope Francis at the Vatican Jan. 26. The pope has tried to emphasize peace through dialogue, especially with controversial political leaders and members of other faiths, such as a planned commemoration of the Reformation in a Lutheran Church.

The pope is set to commemorate the Reformation in a Swedish Lutheran Church, as he leads into a push to promote interfaith dialogue.

Pope Francis has tried to make such interfaith relations a key part of his papacy, Reuters reported.

For Protestants, the interfaith commemoration is an “extraordinarily positive move” that would have been unheard-of even a few decades ago, Charles Kimball, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Christian Science Monitor.

“Symbolically, it’s a very vivid and moving gesture that will be well-received, certainly among the Protestant world, and I would think among a large number of Catholics as well,” Dr. Kimball says in a phone interview.

He says that by commemorating the start of the Reformation with Lutherans – the first heirs to Martin Luther's break with Catholicism – Pope Francis acknowledges both Luther's concerns during the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the reality that friendship among Christians of different sects is becoming more common and valuable.

“When together the Christians of different churches listen to the word of God and try to put it in practice, they achieve important steps toward unity,” the pope has said, according to The New York Times.

Pope Francis is set to lead a joint worship service alongside Lutheran World Federation President Bishop Dr Munib Younan and General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge on Oct. 31, 2016, as a kickoff commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which will be in 2017.

“I’m carried by the profound conviction that by working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence," said Rev. Junge in a press release.

In an age of increasing distaste for organized religion in many OECD nations, the faith leaders involved said the joint commemoration could demonstrate the promise of Christian unity.

“The ecumenical situation in our part of the world is unique and interesting," Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of the Catholic Church in Sweden, said in a press release. "I hope that this meeting will help us look to the future so that we can be witnesses of Jesus Christ and His gospel in our secularized world."

In the United States as well, an increasing number of people have lost confidence in such a promise, as Pew Research Center has reported that 35 percent of Millennials do not identify with a religion. A feeling that churches promote divisiveness and judgment has contributed to the fact that 30 million Americans – despite keeping their faith – have ended their formal church-going, reported Harry Bruinius for The Christian Science Monitor.

"Many are uneasy with the exclusivity that their conservative traditions lay claim to – in which the denominations assert that they have the right interpretation of Scripture and the prescription for obtaining salvation," wrote Bruinius. "Many are also uneasy with how this exclusivity translates into treatment of those outside the fold – what can feel like a critical judging of 'others.'"

The pope's efforts to unify Catholics and Lutherans where possible could be a counter to these sentiments, but they have not come without criticism from traditional Catholics.

"It is true that since the 1960's, it has become commonplace for Catholic theologians and bishops to praise Martin Luther and the Reformers," wrote the traditionalist Catholic blog Rorate Caeli, commenting on a Catholic-Lutheran "Common Prayer" released earlier in January. "Nevertheless, previous Popes always resisted Lutheran pressure for Catholic-Lutheran intercommunion to be normalized.... Under the present pontificate this resistance looks significantly weaker – if it exists at all."

Pope Francis has visited several Protestant churches in Rome and plans to become the first pontiff to visit the city's mosque, Reuters reported. On Jan. 17, Pope Francis became the third pope in the modern era to visit Rome's synagogue, where he condemned recent violence being perpetuated upon religious adherents by believers of other faiths, the Associated Press reported.

"Violence of man against man is in contradiction to every religion that merits the name, in particular the three monotheistic religions," Francis said, according to the AP. "Every human being, as a creature of God, is our brother regardless of his origins or religious belief.”

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