Pope Francis greets children as he visits a refugee camp in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29.
Stirring us in the face today is still a divided Christendom – division that Vatican 11 declared: “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature”. (Decree on Ecumenism, No 1). Every Catholic should therefore be interested in any effort of the ecumenical movement to heal the breach and restore Christian Unity. That is why I have chosen to bring to the notice of FIDES readers in this article the recent visit of Pope Francis to Sweden precisely in connection with this quest for Christian Unity. I think it is a significant ecumenical step that deserves a feature in the Catholic press.
From October 31 to November 1, Pope Francis embarked on what was officially described as “Apostolic Journey to Sweden to mark the joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation” (Vatican Radio). It is actually the start of one year long celebration of the Reformation anniversary coming in 2017. Every knowledgeable Christian today knows how the Reformation in the 16th century played a key role in the break-up of Western Christianity. Its spirit and ideas are proximately and remotely at the root of the origin of the various mainline non-Catholic Christian denominations that exist today – Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc. Its commemoration and the re-evaluation of its pros and cons, after many centuries, therefore become important in the ecumenical search for reunification of Christendom. The Pope's visit to Sweden looks in that direction.
It was 499 years ago, on 31 October 1517 that a Catholic priest, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther was said to have gone to a university church in the German town of Wittenberg and nailed to its wooden door, a document - his 95 thesis. These are known to contain views critical of some abuses in the Catholic Church of his time, as well as affirmation that salvation depended on faith alone. Historians attribute the start of the Reformation to Luther's action and ideas. The Lutheran Church, founded on the basic doctrines of Luther, and a breakaway offshoot of the Reformation, has Sweden as the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation, the umbrella body of most Lutheran churches. It is in this context that the Pope's visit to Sweden for the joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration is an important step in the ecumenical movement.
What happened in that trip and how does it advance Christian Unity? According to Vatican Radio, on October 31, “Pope Francis and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation…spent the day together in the Swedish cities of Lund and Malmo, leading thousands of people in a common commemoration of the Protestant Reformation”. There were actually three main events of the visit - two directly in connection with ecumenism. The more important of the two took place in the Lutheran cathedral of Lund where Pope Francis, the Lutheran president - a Palestinian Bishop, and the General Secretary – a Chilean theologian, “presided together at a deeply symbolic prayer service, asking forgiveness for sins committed against each other (i.e the two communions) in the past and pledging to work and witness closer together in the future”. The report states that “Catholics and Lutherans from all parts of the globe” were present for the prayer service.
It is important to note that the pledge above was made in a Joint Statement, signed by the Pope and the Lutheran leaders. In it they expressed gratitude “for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation”. So, the Reformation, even though it unwittingly lit the fuse of separation, was not all negative in retrospect. Pope Francis was to speak of reform and the centrality of Scripture in the Church's life as the key legacy of Luther and the Reformation. The Joint Statement also committed the two churches to continue “moving from conflict to communion”.
The meeting and the statement represent a further step in the Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue which has been on for 50 years and has produced significant documents such as the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Recall that justification was a major theological issue behind the 16th century rift. The Joint Declaration states its intention “to show that on the basis of their (previous) dialogues, the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnation”(No 5).
Under Pope Francis, the Catholic Church with 1.2 billion members and the Lutheran Church with estimated 80 million seem determined to heal the Reformation rift. In the U.S. last August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), said to be one of the 10 largest Protestant denominations in the U.S approved a declaration that brought it further closer to the Catholic Church on central topics of church, ministry and Eucharist.(CRUX, August 16, 2016). The declaration has the title, “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist”. According to a publication from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the declaration was the work of its Committee on Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs. The major sources are dialogues at the global level. But these guide and reinforce dialogues at the local level so that the Declaration has drawn together consensus agreements reached from local dialogues and conversations. Here is an example for Nigeria where I believe, our Catholic theologians engage in ecumenical dialogue with their counterparts from some Protestant churches existing in the country. Are they reaching any appreciable agreements worth publicizing?
Pope Francis has been called a “restless and reforming” Pope. He is certainly restless in following the footsteps of his more recent predecessors, to advance ecumenical out-reach to various other Christian Confessions. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail his initiatives in this line. Suffice it to recall his widely publicized, historic meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the first time a Catholic pontiff and Russia's Orthodox Patriarch had met in person since the Great East-West Schism in the 11th century. At the meeting which took place in Havana, Cuba, on Feb.12, 2016, the two church leaders who said they met “like brothers in the Christian faith” signed a ground-breaking joint 30-point declaration.
Ecumenical theological dialogues will go on among experts. Christian church leaders will go on meeting at the global level and issuing ecumenical declarations. All these help to overcome differences and deepen mutual understanding and trust among Christian churches. But beyond this institutional process, Pope Francis has been emphasizing activity of praying, working and witnessing together by Christians to solve practical, peace and justice problems plaguing society. In an interview he granted in Rome to a Catholic journal shortly before leaving for Sweden, the Pope among other things, addressed ways to overcome obstacles on the ecumenical front and to promote unity among Christians. He said: “Personally, I believe that enthusiasm must shift towards common prayer and works of mercy – work done together to help the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned. To do something together is a lofty and effective form of dialogue”.
Fortunately in Nigeria, member churches of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) do hold common prayer during the official Week of Prayer for Christian Unity every January, and during other times. We should therefore embark on, or intensify this kind of ecumenism that the Pope spoke about.