VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis will visit Sweden, one of the world’s least religious countries, for a joint celebration in October between Lutherans and Catholics to launch commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
During the Oct. 31 visit to Lund, in southern Sweden, the pope will take part in a joint ceremony of the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, the Vatican said in a statement on Monday (Jan. 25).
The announcement was timed for the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which Francis concluded at a vespers service Monday evening with Protestant and Orthodox church leaders in which he asked forgiveness “for the sins of our divisions.”
As the leader of the Catholic Church, he continued, “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values.
“We cannot erase what happened before, but we do not want to allow the weight of past wounds to continue to contaminate our relations,” Francis added at the service, held at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Word of the visit to Sweden was first reported last week by Christopher Lamb of The Tablet, who said the trip “should be one to watch given that the pope raised the hackles of conservatives when during a visit to a Lutheran church in Rome he suggested that there might be occasions when a Lutheran could receive Communion in the Catholic Church.”
That episode in November was one of a number of statements and meetings that show how dedicated Francis is to the cause of ecumenism, or promoting unity among Christian churches.
But some critics have questioned whether Francis could undermine distinctive Catholic teachings in the process.
Francis will not be the first pontiff to visit Sweden: Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1989 as part of a tour of Protestant countries in Scandinavia that included Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark.
The Church of Sweden had been the official state church until 2000; most Swedes are members, but very few attend services. Last year, the country was ranked in a Gallup poll as “the least religious in the Western World,” with 78 percent describing themselves as not religious or as convinced atheists.
Leading the event along with Francis will be Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, and the Rev. Martin Junge, the federation’s general secretary.
The ceremony will be held in Lund cathedral and will follow the “Common Prayer” liturgical guide, published jointly earlier this month by the federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The guide says that presiders are instructed to lead a prayer that laments “that even good actions of reform and renewal had often unintended negative consequences.”
Celebrations in October anticipate the 500th Reformation anniversary in 2017, which will also mark 50 years of international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.
Archbishop Antje Jackelén, head of the Lutheran Church in Sweden, said the occasion “will contribute to Christian unity in our country and throughout the world.”
Junge described the pope’s upcoming trip as one that could have a significant impact globally.
“I’m carried by the profound conviction that by working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence,” he said in a statement.
Other confirmed foreign tours on the pontiff’s agenda include Mexico next month and a July trip to Poland, where he will attend World Youth Day.
(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)