‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.

Martyrium

We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.

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Communion – Understanding Pope Francis

EDIT: At the bottom of this post, I have added some thoughts about the story Pope Francis told about a bishop he knew, a story that initially caused some confusion.

During a question round in the Lutheran church community in Rome, yesterday, Pope Francis was asked about the sensitive topic of receiving Communion as a non-Catholic. The person asking the question was a Lutheran lady with a Catholic husband, and she wondered when it was possible for them to receive Communion together. As both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have this sacrament, it is unclear if she was referring to receiving in a Catholic Mass or a Lutheran service. Basically, she could have been asking how she, a Lutheran, could receive Communion in a Catholic Mass, or how her husband, a Catholic, could receive the bread in a Lutheran service. Both are different situations, but revolve around the same problem: receiving the sacraments while not fully accepting the belief that comes with it.

pope francis lutherans

Pope Francis’ answer, provided here by Rocco Palmo*, is quite difficult to follow. The Holy Father is sometimes a challenge to understand (that’s  what you get with a man who speak from the heart, and often spontaneously – and this is not a slight against him), but now he left me scratching my head. In short, he leaves the decision to receive Communion to the woman’s conscience, but also mentions that the choice should be made “only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has”. In other words, with a formed conscience. There is no mention of the importance of truly understanding what Communion in Catholic teaching is. This could possibly be off-putting in this context, but on the other hand, we can’t  go around pretending that Communion, the receiving of the very Body and Blood of the Lord, is a matter that can be decided by people individually… With that I mean that, while every person must make an examination of conscience and decide whether or not to receive, no one can decide that he or she can receive in circumstances that another can not.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Francis immediately stated that he is not competent to decide if a non-Catholic can receive Communion in a Catholic Church. Well, if the Pope can’t, who can?

This underlines how important an issue this is: we are talking about the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the honour and worship that this is due. Not allowing people to receive is neither a matter of denying a right to them, nor a punishment for sins committed. It is not rooted in human failings, but in the honour of glory of God, whom we should not receive without accepting Him fully. There are no ifs and buts in allowing the Lord to make us His own. To receive Him conditionally, which is what we do when we known that He can not fully inhabit us (because there are certain obstacles in our path towards Him), disgraces both Him and us. We are called to so much more than that.

This leaves open another question that Pope Francis asks: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together?” In other words, is it a prize at the end of the road, or a support to help us walk the path? Maybe Communion is just the start of a path, of a journey with God? We all know that no one who receives Communion is automatically perfect, not even when they have made an examination of their conscience and found there is nothing to prevent them come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. There are very few saints walking back to the pew afterwards. For us, in our imperfections and failings, Communion is a viaticum. But even a viaticum must be allowed to work. And, this is important, God’s mercy and support is not limited to Communion. In the debates about who should and should not receive, it often seems as if God’s mercy takes the exclusive form of consecrated bread and wine. It does not.

As a final aside, we also receive Communion as part of the community. Our coming forward and receiving, our saying “Amen” after the priest holds up the host with the words “The Body of Christ”, is an acknowledgement of our belief in that dogma and the entire faith that comes from that – the Eucharist, after all, is the source and summit of our faith. Someone who is a faithful Protestant with significant differences in belief, can’t pretend to acknowledge the Catholic faith. Neither can a Catholic acknowledge the faith of another church community with teachings that disagree fundamentally with those of the Catholic Church.

* The translation provided by Zenit offers more clarity than the one I linked to above, not least about what the Pope said about a bishop he knew: “I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian Bishop, 48, married, with two children, and he had this anxiety: his wife was Catholic, his children were Catholics, he was a Bishop. On Sundays he accompanied his wife and his children to Mass and then he went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went on, the Lord called him, a righteous man.” This would then be Episcopalian Bishop Tony Palmer, who had the desire to become Catholic. He was good friends with Pope Francis and died after a motorcycle accident in 2014. Previously, it was assumed that the Holy Father was referring to Argentine Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who married and was subsequently removed as bishop and barred from exercising his priestly ministry. On his deathbed in 2000, then-Archbishop Bergoglio reached out to him, the only Argentine prelate to do so. A friend refers to the following passages from magisterial documents that are relevant in this context: Ecclesia de Eucharistia 46 and 46, Ut Unum Sint 56 and Sacramentum Caritatis 56. These texts discuss the existing possibility for members of other church communities to receive the Eucharist, when they “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (Ut Unum Sint, 46).

Some have said that Pope Francis only spoke about the Lutheran Last Supper, but the example of Bishop Palmer, who accompanied his wife and children to Mass (there is no mention of him receiving communion, so the Pope carefully steers clear of commenting on that). This is undoubtedly similar to the problem faced by the woman who asked the question. The Pope does not just speak about Catholics receiving sacraments in other Church communities, but just as much, if not more, about non-Catholics receiving Catholic sacraments.

Christian unity, conversion and transformation by God

During his general audience, two days ago, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a topic whose goal sometimes seems almost impossible to achieve by mere mortals. But, the pope says, it is not in our hands, but “in the hands of the Risen Christ”. Which, obviously does not mean we need not do anything to work towards full unity between all Christians. Quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Ut unum sint, the Holy Father shows that ecumenism and the road to full communion lies “at the center of the Church’s life and work”.

If we fail to recognise this, we may gather from these words, the damage that the division among Christians does to the proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord will remain.

Go read my translation of the entire address.

Photo credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile