Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church, beginning the Protestant Reformation that led millions to break with the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in more than a century of conflict and war.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service in Sweden this October, kicking off a series of events planned for 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The effort to mend relations with Protestants has been on the agenda of many popes before Francis, but it is a delicate endeavor. The worship service in Sweden was billed by its sponsors, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, as a “commemoration,” not as a “celebration,” in order to avoid any inappropriate note of triumphalism. Some Catholics have criticized the notion of a pope celebrating the anniversary of a schism.
Francis addressed the troubled history between the Christian churches as he led an ecumenical vespers service at a basilica in Rome on Monday to mark the closing day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. He appealed for forgiveness for “the sin of our divisions, an open wound in the Body of Christ.”
He added that “when together the Christians of different churches listen to the word of God and try to put it in practice, they achieve important steps toward unity.”
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