The Pope’s visit to Sweden was historic, but the gulf between Catholicism and Lutheranism is wider than ever

Pope Francis and President of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan attending the ecumenical event 'Together in Hope' at the Malmo Arena on October 31 (AP)

The Pope’s visit to Sweden to take part in an ecumenical prayer gathering in the cathedral there, to mark the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, is certainly a historic event. Given that the Reformation represented a revolt against the power of Rome, the enthusiastic welcome given to the Roman Pontiff marks a significant turning point. Perhaps when the history of our times comes to be written, Lund 2016 will be in every child’s textbook. Let us hope so.

While it cannot be denied that the gulf between Catholicism and Lutheranism is now wider than ever, thanks in part to the ordination of women – the Pope was greeted by a female archbishop – and also in part to the wide divergences that have developed in moral teaching, the real question remains, where do we go from here?

For us Catholics, the continuing divisions in Christianity remain a distressing burden. Let’s be clear: schism is the worst of sins, and the existence of schism must surely distress us all, simply because it cannot be for the good of souls.

So we must all work our hardest for reconciliation. This will not be easy given the differences between us and the differences Lutherans have between themselves.

As for our Lutheran brothers and sisters, Lund surely gives them lots of material for reflection. What they have inherited from Luther and the Reformation needs to be seen not in the light of events 500 years ago, but in the light of the situation now. Luther, when he set out to reform the Church, probably did not foresee the emergence of a separate Lutheran Church. He cannot have foreseen the survival, indeed the more than survival, of the Papacy and the Catholic Church, or the reforms of the Council of Trent.

The arrival of Pope Francis in Lund alerts all minds to the fact that the Papacy is now more important and central than ever. The Pope is not simply the bishop of Rome, he is the Universal Pastor, the de facto as well as de jure head Christian of the world. If he weren’t this, he would not have been invited to Lund. Indeed the Lund meeting would have been unthinkable without the Pope.

The Lutheran project of today needs to be rethought in the light of this fact. The Papacy is there; no amount of wishful thinking will make it go away.

Lund Cathedral seems an interesting building, and though much altered, remains the same building built by a Danish King, at the behest of Pope Pascal II, and dedicated to a Roman saint. As such it was a fitting place for this meeting, recalling as it does a period when the Church was united under the See of Rome.

That happy period contrasts strongly with the current religious atmosphere in Sweden, where religious observance is in great decline. Once again, we need to look at the now, and not fight over the past: the main motivation for the ecumenical movement, still in its infancy, let us remember, was the desire to evangelise more effectively. Unity is strength.

Dialogue with Lutherans is only fifty years old. Here’s to the next fifty, and may Lund bear fruit!