Why The Pope's Historic Trip To Sweden Is So Significant

The Pope prays during his visit to the Lutheran church in Rome. He will travel to Sweden next week to mark 500 years since the Reformation.Tony Gentile/Reuters

The Pope travelling to Lund in Sweden next week ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is "a matter of great symbolic significance," according to a veteran of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue who is accompanying him on the trip.

Bishop William Kenney, the co-chair of the dialogue talks, was speaking to Christian Today before the trip, which comes 500 years to the day after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

The visit is the first by any pope to Scandinavia since John Paul II visited Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden in 1989 – visits coordinated by Kenney, who speaks fluent Swedish.

"Pope Francis is a man of the symbol – he is going to travel – so this is a matter of great symbolic significance," Bishop Kenney said.

"The Lutheran-Catholic dialogue has progressed in leaps and bounds since the 1999 document," Kenney added, referring to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed between the two Churches. That agreement "removed most of the things that people thought caused the Reformation – the excommunications on the Catholic side, and the condemnations on the Lutheran side – and we said sorry, both sides got it wrong. This left us with the big reasons for the Reformation not being there but it's [about] finding out what that means."

Kenney described last year's follow-up document, From Conflict To Communion, as "more popular and easily read" adding that "it lays out some of the ways in which we are coming towards each other".

He added: "Pope Francis is saying yes, the theological dialogue must continue but it's not enough – we must do things on a much more popular level and show that Catholics and Lutherans are human beings. We are getting there but we need to do more."

Kenney is a former president of Caritas Europe and lived in Sweden for 37 years. In 2013 he was appointed by the Holy See as co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.