Pope Francis visits Sweden to honour Martin Luther

Historic ecumenical service in Lund anticipates 500th anniversary of Reformation

 Security  preparations outside Lund Cathedral  ahead of the pope’s visit. Photograph: Emil Langvad/EPA

Security preparations outside Lund Cathedral ahead of the pope’s visit. Photograph: Emil Langvad/EPA


Pope Francis will on Monday make yet another historic and symbolic trip when he flies to Sweden to join Lutheran leaders in a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Even though the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther, arguably the founding father of the Reformation, nailed his famous 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, the 500th commemoration events get under way a little early in the southern Swedish city of Lund. Lund has a special relevance for Lutherans since the Lutheran World Federation was founded there in 1947 while the years 2016-2017 mark the 50th anniversary of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. 

Francis’s two-day trip to Sweden has both an ecumenical and Catholic aspect to it. On Monday he will participate in an ecumenical service in Lund Cathedral during which he will recall the Reformation and give thanks for improved relations between Catholics and Lutherans. Afterwards, he travels to Malmo for another ecumenical event attended by Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of besieged Aleppo and Syrian refugees.

Originally, the Pope had wanted to make a one-day trip to Sweden, concentrating exclusively on ecumenical concerns. However, when faced with requests from Swedish and Norwegian Catholics for an encounter, Francis agreed to celebrate Mass in Malmo football stadium. He requested that the Mass for the Catholic community be celebrated on Tuesday rather than Monday, in order to distinguish that event from his overall ecumenical mission.

Inter-faith gestures

This has been a year rich in inter-faith and ecumenical gestures from Pope Francis. So far in 2016, he has visited the Synagogue in Rome, he has met the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill in Cuba and he has twice met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. In addition, last month in Assisi he met Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, Zoroastrians and others at the 30th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace called by Pope John Paul II in October 1986.  

Inevitably, Monday’s ecumenical event does not please everyone. German cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a book interview last March: “Strictly speaking, we Catholics have no reason to celebrate October 31st, 1517, the date that is considered the beginning of the Reformation that would lead to the rupture of western Christianity.”

Comments like that from a senior figure such as Cardinal Muller are unlikely to deter Francis. Asked about the signficance of his trip to Sweden on the flight back from Armenia in June, the pope said:

“I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer . . . at that time, the church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power . . . and he protested against this.”