Lund and Malmo, Sweden — At a first-of-its-kind ecumenical event marking 500 years of separation between Lutherans and Catholics after the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis on Monday urged members of the two faith communities to "mend a critical moment of our history" by forging new common paths together.
Speaking in a 12th-century cathedral here that was once Catholic and is now Lutheran, the pontiff also praised some of the reforms called for by Martin Luther, whose famous writing of 95 theses led to a fracturing of Christianity across Western Europe.
"We have a new opportunity to accept a common path," Francis told Lutherans and Catholics during a joint ecumenical prayer service at Lund's cathedral with representatives of the Church of Sweden and the Lutheran World Federation.
"We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another," he continued.
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The pope later added that the half a millennia of separation between the two faith groups has "enabled us to understand better some aspects of our faith," noting specifically: "With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church's life."
Francis traveled to Sweden Monday for a two-day trip in a bold gesture to mark the start of yearlong commemorations of the Reformation, which is traditionally dated as beginning with the October 1517 publication of Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses."
The theses, famously nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, questioned the sale of indulgences and the Gospel foundations of papal authority.
There had been some speculation in anticipation of the trip that the pope or Lutheran leaders would use the visit to make some sort of grand overture towards achieving full unity between Catholics and Lutherans, perhaps even with a declaration that members of the two communities could take Communion at each other's services.
Hopes for such a gesture were tempered in a joint statement signed by Francis and the president of the Lutheran World Federation during the prayer service Monday. While the two leaders pledged to work towards intercommunion, they did not indicate it was possible as yet.
"Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity," said the statement from the pope and federation president Bishop Munib Younan. "We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God's redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table."
"We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ," it continued. "We long for this wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue."
Francis gave his remarks at the prayer service following a sermon by Lutheran Rev. Martin Junge, the general secretary of the world federation, who also made a nod toward the issue of intercommunion.
Junge asked that God might see Catholics and Lutherans "building bridges so that we can come closer to each other ... and tables — yes, tables — where we can share bread and wine, the presence of Christ, who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so that the world may believe."
Francis notably spoke of the separation between Catholics and Lutherans caused by the Reformation in the past tense.
"We ... must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge," said the pontiff. "We ought to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God's people, who naturally yearn to be one."
Lund, a small city of about 80,000 in southern Sweden, was chosen as the location of the joint prayer service because it is where the Lutheran World Foundation was first founded in 1947. The federation, a global communion of Lutheran churches headquartered in Geneva, now has 144 member church bodies in 79 countries.
Related: "Lutherans and Catholics chart path to unity" (Oct. 19, 2016)
Younan, the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, has been the president of the group since 2010.
The ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation continued later Monday with an event in Malmo, a city about ten miles southwest of Lund at the very southern tip of Sweden.
The Lund and Malmo events were given the joint theme "From Conflict to Communion, Together in Hope." The two programs were structured around the topics of thanksgiving, repentance, and a commitment to joint witness and service.
The last commitment was highlighted specifically at the Malmo event, during which Caritas Internationalis, the global umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies, and the Lutheran World Federation World Service, which serves more than 2.3 million refugees globally, signed an agreement of cooperation.
As part of the event Younan and Francis also heard four testimonies from people working on justice issues around the world, including on climate change, against violence, and for refugees.
Responding to a testimony from a South Sudanese woman who left her country at the age of eight, Younan explained that he too had been a refugee as a Palestinian.
"All refugees are my sisters and brothers in humanity," said the Lutheran leader. "My family was poor and displaced, but the church embraced us."
Also speaking at the event was Antoine Audo, the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Syria, which has been besieged and bombed in recent weeks in fighting between the Syrian government and rebel forces.
Audo praised the agreement between the Lutheran and Catholic aid groups, saying it "gives us the necessary strength and courage to get through this grave Syrian crisis."
As part of the earlier prayer service in Lund, both Catholic and Lutheran leaders apologized for their historic treatment of each other.
At one point, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that in the past both groups had "accepted that the Gospel was mixed with the political and economic interests of those in power."
"Their failures resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people," said Koch. "We deeply regret the evil things that Catholics and Lutherans have mutually done to each other."
Francis and Junge were reflecting in their homilies during the Lund service on a reading from John's Gospel. The Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala Antje Jackelen, who is a woman and the primate of the Church of Sweden, read the Gospel aloud at the service.
In an exchange of peace during the service, Francis and Jackelen embraced in a hug.
Just before his visit to Sweden, Francis said in an interview released over the weekend with an Italian Jesuit magazine that he prioritizes ecumenical encounters to show that while the different Christian churches may be formally divided they can still work and pray together.
"If we don't do it, we Christians hurt ourselves by division," he told La Civilta Cattolica.
In the run-up to the visit the pope has also offered praise to Luther, who was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. In a press conference in June, Francis called the German Augustinian priest and theologian a church reformer and said his intentions "were not wrong."
Story updated at 1:05 p.m. CT, Oct. 31.