LUND, Sweden (AP) — Pope Francis marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on Monday by traveling to largely secular Sweden to pray alongside the country’s Lutheran church leaders in a historic show of unity commemorating the schism in Western Christianity.
Francis arrived to applause, hymns and tolling bells at the Lund cathedral for the service, which featured alternating prayers by the pope and the heads of the Lutheran World Federation in the presence of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.
They lamented the divisions and guilt of the past and asked forgiveness for the deaths and pain that their divisions caused.
And Francis prayed that the Holy Spirit “help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.”
After the Reformation began five centuries ago, Sweden became such a grim place for Catholics that those who rejected the new Lutheran faith were punished with deportation or death. As Protestantism spread, religious wars erupted, including the Thirty Years War in 1618-48, one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts.
As a result, the visit initially raised eyebrows. But the Vatican and the Lutheran church both insist the event is no celebration of Luther’s revolt. Rather, they say, it’s a solemn commemoration to ask forgiveness for the schism in Western Christianity and rejoice that relations have improved in the last five decades.
Francis has prioritized these deeply symbolic encounters to show that even while divided on dogma, the Christian faithful can and must work together and pray together, especially in times of religious persecution.
“If we don’t do it, we Christians hurt ourselves by division,” Francis said in an interview this weekend with a Jesuit journal.
After the Lund event, the Vatican and Lutheran delegations were to ride together in a bus to attend an event highlighting both churches’ peace-making and humanitarian efforts. Testimony from refugees and the Catholic bishop of besieged Aleppo, Syria, top the list of speakers.
Francis continues his visit on Tuesday with a Catholic Mass in the Malmo sports stadium, added in at the last minute after Sweden’s tiny Catholic community balked that Francis was ignoring them and coming only for the Protestant commemoration.
“I wanted to insist on an ecumenical witness,” Francis said in the interview. “Then I thought about my role as pastor to a Catholic flock” and added in the Mass and an extra day.
The Protestant Reformation started in 1517 after Luther nailed 95 theses on the church door in the town of Wittenberg, denouncing what he saw as the abuses of the Catholic Church, especially the sale of indulgences.
Pope Leo X excommunicated him, but the church couldn’t stop his teachings from spreading throughout northern Europe or the world. Catholics persecuted Protestants and vice versa for hundreds of years.
Years ago, Francis spoke harshly of the Protestant reformers. But in the run-up to the trip, he has had only words of praise for Luther. He recently called the German theologian a reformer of his time who rightly criticized a church that was “no model to imitate.”
“There was corruption in the church, worldliness, attachment to money and power,” Francis told reporters this summer.
They are the same abuses Francis has criticized in the 21st-century Catholic Church he now leads.
Olsen reported from Malmo, Sweden. Winfield reported from Rome.
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