This week (January 18-25) marks the annual celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Around the world there are various prayer services and programs offered to engage in conversation about the issues that continue to divide the church, which is fundamentally all the baptized, and the Spirit’s role in reconciliation. Pope Francis, following the tradition of his predecessors, has welcomed several delegations and representatives from other Christian churches to the Vatican.
In address today to an ecumenical group from Finland, which has been coming to Rome on this occasion for over thirty years, Pope Francis said, “True ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer. If we draw close to him, we draw close also to one another. During these days let us pray more fervently to the Holy Spirit so that we may experience this conversion which makes reconciliation possible.”
Pope Francis recalled the significant milestone of his visit to Sweden last year on October 31, which is often known as “Reformation Day,” to engage in a public conversation reiterating the points that both churches agree on while also recognizing the ways in which the church still remains broken.
On this path, we Catholics and Lutherans, from several countries, together with various communities sharing our ecumenical journey, reached a significant step when, on 31 October last, we gathered together in Lund, Sweden, to commemorate through common prayer the beginning of the Reformation. This joint commemoration of the Reformation was important on both the human and theological-spiritual levels. After fifty years of official ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, we have succeeded in clearly articulating points of view which today we agree on. For this we are grateful. At the same time we keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults. In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her. The gathering there gave us the courage and strength, in our Lord Jesus Christ, to look ahead to the ecumenical journey that we are called to walk together.
It is particularly refreshing to see Pope Francis directly acknowledge the good intentions of Martin Luther, who has been maligned by Roman Catholics for centuries. Indeed, the former Augustinian friar was legitimately concerned about a number of theological, pastoral, and practical issues that were in need of reform. Some of which were addressed at Trent, others would wait another four centuries until Vatican II to be reformed. It is a powerful testament to the commitment of ecumenism and dialogue that in 1997 the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches were able to promulgate a Joint Declaration on Justification, essentially agreeing on the subject that was Luther’s largest theological concern.
Pope Francis reiterated today the importance of celebrating the mutual Christian witness of faith in the modern world that Catholics and Lutherans share, stating that this year marking the 500th anniversary of the reformation is “a privileged occasion to live the faith more authentically, in order to rediscover the Gospel together, and to seek and witness to Christ with renewed vigor.” He added, “In doing so, as Christians we are no longer divided, but rather united on the journey towards full communion.”