RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Pope Francis makes an unlikely trip to Sweden next week. He's helping to kick off a year-long commemoration of the Protestant Reformation, which began as an assault on the Catholic Church.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Five centuries ago, the German monk Martin Luther pinned to his church door 95 theses denouncing the Catholic sale of indulgences and questioning papal authority. That led to his excommunication and the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church reacted with the Counter-Reformation.
And mutual enmity led to decades of religious wars that devastated central Europe. Gerard O'Connell, Vatican correspondent for the Jesuit magazine America, says the pope's participation in commemorating the Reformation is proof of the extraordinary change in Catholic-Lutheran relations.
GERARD O'CONNELL: A recognition that perhaps both sides missed something at the time of the Protestant Reformation - the Catholic Church missed ways of reforming itself. Luther and those around him pressed in a way that just couldn't be taken on board. And so, in a way, both sides misspoke.
POGGIOLI: The animosity and resentments left by the Reformation only began to heal after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s with the start of an ecumenical dialogue - dialogue aimed at promoting Christian unity. There are still some doctrinal disputes.
But Pope Francis says that while theologians iron out their differences, the two churches can work together on social issues, caring for the poor, migrants and refugees and combating persecution of Christians. Jens-Martin Kruse, pastor of the Lutheran Church in Rome, says Francis' approach has been dubbed walking ecumenism.
JENS-MARTIN KRUSE: We are moving together and walking together. We find that we have a lot of things more in communion - as we thought before.
POGGIOLI: In fact, last June, Pope Francis went so far as to praise Luther, once deemed a heretic by the Catholic Church as a great reformer.
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POPE POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) The church was not a role model. There was corruption. There was worldliness. There was greed and lust for power. He protested against this. And he was an intelligent man.
POGGIOLI: There are three remaining areas of division, the question of the universal church and papal primacy, the priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church, and the nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
This last item is of great concern to both churches, as they try to deal with intermarried couples' desire for receiving communion together. A year ago, visiting the Lutheran Church in Rome, Pope Francis opened the door slightly. He suggested to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man that perhaps, if her conscience permitted, she could receive communion in her husband's church.
Briefing reporters at the Vatican, Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said the question of sharing the Eucharistic table or interfaith communion is of prime importance.
MARTIN JUNGE: I really hope that the joint commemoration give us a strong encouragement to be faster, to be bolder, to be even more creative and with a very strong focus on where people feel the lack of unity the heaviest, around the table.
JUNGE: The Swedish city of Lund was chosen for the joint commemoration because it was there that the Lutheran World Federation was founded 70 years ago. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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