Pope Francis has decided to go Sweden next autumn to pray with Protestant faith leaders at an ecumenical liturgy that will begin a year of events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The one-day gathering will take place on Oct. 31 in the southern city of Lund where the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) was founded in 1947.
The liturgy will be based on a Catholic-Lutheran “Common Prayer” that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and LWF drafted together.
The Vatican made the announcement this past Monday, the final day of the Octave or Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Just hours later the 79-year-old pope led an ecumenical prayer service at the Papal Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, during which he offered a moving apology during his homily.
“As Bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other Churches which has not reflected Gospel values,” he said.
“At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if they, today or in the past, have been offended by other Christians, “ he added.
Francis said it was impossible to “cancel out” faults of the past but he said these should not “continue to contaminate” relations between the various Christian communities.
“God’s mercy will renew our relationships,” he insisted.
During the liturgy at St Paul’s the pope did two other significant things that were specifically aimed at giving a boost to the ecumenical movement.
First, he had the personal representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Canterbury accompany him – shoulder-to-shoulder and as equals – through the basilica’s holy door, the only portal of the four papal basilicas he had not yet traversed.
Second, and more significantly, he asked these two non-Catholic delegates – Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios and Anglican Archbishop Sir David Moxon – to join him at the end of the liturgy in giving a joint blessing.
Both men were caught off guard when Francis motioned for them to come up to the imposing marble throne, used exclusively by the Roman pontiffs and their legates.
Papal servers actually had to fetch the Orthodox bishop after the man next to him – a momentarily confused Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s ecumenical chief – started towards the pope!
The two non-Catholic bishops eventually ascended the steps and took their places on either side of the ornate papal throne. But once more Francis surprised them by insisting that they “come up higher” and stand next to him – again shoulder-to-shoulder – on the very base of the throne.
They then offered the final blessing together.
No doubt, these are only gestures. But they are important ones. They further highlight the Jesuit pope’s desire to redefine what is essential to the exercise of papal primacy. This, in a sense, is jumpstarting a dormant invitation that John Paul II issued to all Christian bishops and theologians in his 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint.
Unfortunately, some Catholics (especially traditionalists) are not happy about any of these ecumenical developments. They, too, need God’s mercy and (if they offend us) our forgiveness.
This is yet another challenge the pope has issued for the Holy Year.
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