In a gesture of unity among Christians, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden on Monday to mark the start of commemorations for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformations and the split between Catholics and Lutherans. Francis will be in the southern Swedish city of Lund, where the Lutheran World Federation was founded in 1947.
“It will not be easy to go forward because of the different ways of understanding some theological questions,” Francis told the Jesuit Journal ahead of his visit.
“Personally, I believe that enthusiasm must shift towards common prayer and the works of mercy – work done together to help the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned. To do something together is a high and effective form of dialogue.”
The event marks the latest attempt to bridge the division between Catholicism and Lutheranism that began five centuries ago.
What is the Reformation?
It was in 1517 that rural German monk Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, rejecting several teachings of the Catholic Church, chiefly the selling of “indulgences” to allow people to absolve themselves from sin. Luther, also a doctor of theology, is believed to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door in the German town of Wittenburg after the Catholic Church began selling indulgences to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Viewing several teachings of the Church as corrupt, Luther instead believed that redemption could only be achieved by a gift of Gods’ grace and attained by faith alone.
Francis recently conceded that Luther had grounds for his protests.
“There was corruption in the church, worldliness, attachment to money and power,” the pope told reporters this summer.
The Birth of Lutheranism
Despite coming from a town on the outskirts of Germany, Luther’s message resonated and spread to such an extent that it brought about a split in the Catholic Church that continues to this day. The Lutheran World Federation claims to represent 74 million Christians in 98 countries.
Luther’s protests succeeded in part because of his advanced use of the media. Along with creating pamphlets to be distributed through numerous cities, he embraced the creation of the first printing press, becoming the first to translate the Bible from Latin into German.
Other Reformation Movements
Lutheranism spread through northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, during the 16th century, but it also sparked other reform movements. John Calvin, in Switzerland, was another reformer who disputed the absolute power of the Catholic Church and instead believed that the true authority lay in the Bible.
The Protestant Reformation ultimately led to the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, which took place mainly in Germany and by some estimates cost the country up to 40 percent of its population. It also impacted much of Europe. The signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 effectively ended the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to authority across the continent.
Healing the Rift
It was only in the 1960s that moves were made to try and bring about greater Christian unity with the beginning of ecumenical dialogue. That continued with the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification in 1999 and, in 2013, the joint publication by the Catholic and Lutheran church of a document entitled “From Conflict to Reformation.”