by Elise Harris
Ahead of his upcoming trip to Sweden for the joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Pope Francis granted a lengthy, wide-ranging interview to a Jesuit magazine in which he talks about his expectations, and Catholic-Lutheran unity.
When asked about his hopes for his upcoming trip to Sweden, Pope Francis said “I can think of only one word to say: to come close.”
“My hope and expectation is that of coming closer to my brothers and sisters,” he said, explaining that being close “does all of us good. Distance, on the other hand, makes us bitter.”
When we are distant from one another, “we close within ourselves and we become individual entities, incapable of encountering each other. We are held back by fears.”
He stressed that we need to learn “to transcend ourselves to encounter others,” noting that if this doesn’t happen, even Christians “become sick because of our divisions.”
“My expectation is that of being able to take a step of closeness, of being closer to my brothers and sisters in Sweden.”
The interview was conducted by Fr. Ulf Jonsson S.J., director of the Swedish Jesuit magazine “Signum,” at the Vatican’s Saint Martha Guesthouse Sept. 24, in the late afternoon, and lasted about an hour and a half.
Published Oct. 28, it came out just three days before Pope Francis’ Oct. 31-Nov. 1 visit to Sweden.
It will be the first time a Pope has traveled to Scandinavia since St. John Paul II’s 1989 visit. Though only two days, the trip will include an ecumenical moment of prayer at Lund’s Lutheran cathedral, which will be followed by the larger, primary ecumenical event at the Malmö Arena in Malmö.
The two ecumenical events will be followed by an outdoor papal Mass the next day at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö marking All Saints Day, which was not originally in the schedule, but was added later upon the request of Sweden’s small Catholic community.
Francis, who has faced criticism for his initial decision to not hold Mass, explained in the interview that he originally decided not to because he wanted to promote unity, and avoid sectarian divisions.
“You cannot be Catholic and sectarian. We must strive to be together with others,” he said, explaining that “‘Catholic’ and ‘sectarian’ are two words in contradiction,” which is why he wasn’t planning to have Mass during the trip.
“I wanted to insist on an ecumenical witness. Then I reflected well on my role as pastor of a flock of Catholics who will also come from other countries, like Norway and Denmark. So, responding to the fervent request of the Catholic community, I decided to celebrate a Mass, lengthening the trip by a day.”
The Pope said he intentionally scheduled the Mass so it didn’t take place on the same day as the ecumenical encounter in order to “avoid confusing plans.”
“The ecumenical encounter is preserved in its profound significance according to a spirit of unity, that is my desire.”
Pope Francis also spoke at length about his relationship with Lutherans while still in Buenos Aires, which were overwhelmingly positive. When asked what Catholics can learn from Lutherans, he responded with two words: “reform and Scripture.”
Referring to the first word, Francis noted how at the beginning of the Reformation Martin Luther’s intention was to reform in a “in a difficult time for the Church.”
“Luther wanted to remedy a complex situation,” he said, explaining that the gesture “also because of the political situations… became a ‘state’ of separation, and not a process of reform of the whole Church, which is fundamental, because the Church is semper reformanda (always reforming).”
When it comes to Scripture, the Pope said Luther did an important thing by putting the Word of God into peoples’ hands, adding that “reform and Scripture are two things that we can deepen by looking at the Lutheran tradition.”
Although the fervor for unity that arose during John Paul II’s visit to Sweden in 1989 has somewhat died down, Pope Francis said that in his opinion, the best way to promote unity now is, in addition to continuing theological discussions, a shared enthusiasm for “common prayer and the works of mercy.”
“It is important to work together and not in a sectarian way,” he said, stressing that “to proselytize in the ecclesial field is a sin.”
“Proselytism is a sinful attitude,” he continued. “It would be like transforming the Church into an organization. Speaking, praying, working together: this is the path that we must take.”
He also spoke of the ecumenism of blood and the recent prayer encounter in Assisi, insisting that you can never use God to justify violence.
“You cannot make war in the name of religion, in the name of God. It is blasphemy, it is satanic,” and referring to the truck attack that took place earlier this year in Nice, France, said the “madman” who committed the massacre did so believe he was justified by God.
“Poor man, he was deranged,” Francis said, explaining that “charitably we can say that he was a deranged man who sought to use a justification in the name of God.”
He was also asked about critics who point to religous conflicts and say the world would be better off without religions.
In response, Francis sand that “idolatries that are at the base of a religion, not the religion itself!”
“There are idolatries connected to religion: the idolatry of money, of enmities, of space greater than time, the greed of the territoriality of space. There is an idolatry of the conquest of space, of dominion, that attacks religions like a malignant virus.”
Idolatry, he said, is “a false religion” and “wrong religiosity.”
On the other hand, true religions “are the development of the capacity that humanity has to transcend itself towards the absolute,” he said, adding that the religious phenomenon is transcendent and it has to do with truth, beauty, goodness and unity.”
When asked for a final word on his upcoming trip, Pope Francis said that what came to him spontaneously to say “is simply: go, walk together! Don’t remain closed in rigid perspectives, because in these there is no possibility of reform.”