Ecumenical papal trip also will show pain of division, Lutheran says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The extension of Pope Francis’ trip to
Sweden by one day to accommodate a papal Mass for the nations’ Catholics does
not detract from the ecumenical power of the trip, but actually highlights the
need for Christian unity, said the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.

Initially, Pope Francis had planned to make a day trip to
Sweden Oct. 31 to take part in two ecumenical events launching a year of
commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But at
the urging of local Catholics, the pope decided to spend the night and
celebrate Mass Nov. 1 before returning to Rome.

The Rev.
Martin Junge, general secretary of the LWF, told reporters at the Vatican Oct. 26 that the
Lutherans fully understand the desire of Catholics in Sweden to have Mass with
the pope and the pastoral responsibility of the pope to fulfill that request.

“Of course,” he said, “it is also going to
reveal that we are not yet united; it is going to reveal a wound that remains
there” since the divisions between Catholics and Lutherans mean that in
general Eucharist sharing still is not possible.

While Rev. Junge and other Lutheran leaders have accepted an
invitation to attend the Mass, the fact that they will not receive Communion
“is going to be a strong encouragement to continue working toward unity,”
he said.

Both Rev. Junge and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the biggest breakthrough
in Lutheran-Catholic relations was the signing in 1999 of a joint declaration
on justification, or how people are made righteous in the eyes of God and
saved. But before eucharistic sharing and full unity are possible, they said,
further agreement must be found on Catholic and Lutheran understandings about
the church, the Eucharist and ministry.

Cardinal Koch said marriages between a Protestant and a
Catholic are a pastoral concern for both churches, particularly in finding ways
to encourage continued church participation and in dealing with the question of
going to Communion together.

As a pastor in Switzerland, where about half the population
is Catholic and half is Protestant, Cardinal Koch said he began studying
ecumenical theology specifically to understand how to best minister to such
couples. “It’s a most pastoral concern and, I think, very close to the
heart of Pope Francis.”

A year ago, during a visit to a Lutheran church in Rome, a
Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man asked Pope Francis what she and her
husband could do to receive Communion together; the pope said he could not
issue a general rule on shared Communion, but the couple should pray, study and
then act according to their consciences.

“We sense that our ability to come with relevant
responses and answers to the very complex questions around sharing the
Eucharist table has an urgency in the life of the people,” Rev. Junge told
reporters at the Vatican. “I really hope the joint commemoration (of the
500th anniversary of the Reformation) gives us a strong encouragement to be faster,
to be bolder, to be more creative” in addressing remaining differences,
“with a very strong focus on where people feel the lack of unity the
heaviest: around the table.”

Asked if there were any plans for Pope Francis to lift the
excommunication of Martin Luther, Cardinal Koch said no because
“excommunication ends with the death of a person.” It is a penalty
imposed by the church during a person’s lifetime with the hope of getting the
person to return to full communion with the church.

Briefing reporters on the logistics of the trip to Sweden,
Greg Burke, Vatican spokesman, said that because the trip does not include
Stockholm where the nuncio and the only Catholic bishop live, Pope Francis
would be staying at Igelosa,
a medical research company near Lund where the Scandinavian bishops have stayed
during their annual meetings.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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