500 Years After Reformation, Catholics And Lutherans 'No Longer Strangers'

Pope Francis with Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, at the Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden, October 31, 2016.Reuters

Catholic and Lutheran leaders signed a joint declaration to mark the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation on Monday.

Pope Francis travelled to Lund in Sweden for an ecumenical prayer service and urged Christians on both sides of the divide to "move beyond" past controversies and towards unity. The event marked the start of 12 months commemorating the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses that heralded the foundation of Protestantism.

The Pope said what united Protestants and Catholics was greater than what divided them and they had a "new opportunity to accept a common path".

The declaration was signed by Francis, as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, and Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation. It read: "Through dialogue and shared witness we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

"While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalised for political ends."

Francis was careful not to offer any further suggestions that inter-communion was on the agenda. The Catholic Church has insisted that while the anniversary can be marked through prayer and commitments to working together for the poor, sharing the Eucharist will only be possible when full unity has been reached.

But Rev Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, expressed a hope that a shared communion could be held sooner. "Jesus Christ calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation," he said urging Christians to build "bridges so that we can draw closer to each other, houses where we can meet together and tables – yes, tables – where we can share the bread and the wine, the presence of Jesus Christ who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so the world may believe".

The joint statement acknowledged: "Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table as the concrete expression of full unity." It vowed "the goal of our ecumenical endeavours" was a shared communion.

The service in Lund Cathedral on Monday afternoon also marked 50 years of cooperation between the two Churches in an effort to overcome divisions of the past.

Francis prayed that the Holy Spirit would "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".

In his homily he said both Churches had "undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past 50 years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church."