On Monday, as the pope prepared to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation together with the Lutheran World Federation, crowds had gathered outside the Cathedral in Lund, Sweden despite cold temperatures and a steady drizzle. A couple blocks away at the town’s central square, a few hundred people watched on a large screen.
But the majority of them were not there for the ecumenical gathering. They were there to see the pope. “I love Påven!” said an old Swedish Lutheran who had booked train tickets three month in advance to catch a glimpse of Francis.
“This might be my only chance ever to see something this important,” one student told me as he queued to get past security.
“It’s like we are coming out to see the American president,” said another.
When I asked them why Sweden, consistently ranked one of the most secular countries in the world, was taken with Pope Francis, they seemed to suggest that he was one of their own. “The pope seems very modest, and in Sweden, everyone likes modesty. So, Swedes think that he’s a good guy,” one student told me.
If the commemoration at the cathedral, closed to all but select dignitaries, felt like a spectator sport, the celebration at Malmö later that day was far more participatory. Thousands of people lined up for the event, which featured several music performances on a large cross stage that jutted out into the audience. Eventually, the pope and the Lutheran Federation arrived from Lund, 14 miles away.
Audience members heard testimonies related to refugees, climate policy and peace from people around the world. It felt like a global festival, both in the speaker lineup and the vaguely Euro-vision-like staging and music. Lutherans and Catholics seemed genuinely glad to be there, singing and praying together.
In the lobby, I met Christina Jonk, a woman originally from North Dakota who had lived in Sweden for 20 years. “It hasn’t been as easy to practice my faith as it was in the United States. Because the Swedes are very personal in their faith and don’t talk about it daily, it’s been hard for me to raise my children in the faith in the same way.”
But she was delighted to be in Malmö at the ecumenical service. “It warms my heart to be here with Catholics from my church and other Swedes who share my Christian faith,” she said.
An Impromptu Interview
Shortly after, in the cathedral, Pope Francis urged unity between Lutherans and Catholics. “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” he stated.
But what does moving beyond entail, and is it even possible?
Swedes are not a terribly optimistic bunch; no surprise, then, their expectations for the aftermath ranged from dour to vaguely optimistic, particularly among theologians and priests.
Gösta Hallonsten, emeritus Professor of Theology at Lund University told me he “would like to get more focus on what we can do together to evangelize” rather than focusing on the current impossibility of intercommunion between Lutherans and Catholics. “I hope this manifestation in the cathedral and the pope’s personality and charism could help us to come to something like that.”
Jakob Wirén, the theological secretary for the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, was hopeful. “I hope that it will lead to future collaborations and actions. I think that we cannot but have a united Christianity in dealing with the situation we face.”
Others were less optimistic. “We human beings in this ecumenical movement are unable to establish some sort of collaboration or greater visible unity ourselves,” said Frederik Heiding, a Jesuit Priest and editor of the theological journal Signum. “There are still tensions and quite significant ones. So the very idea that we are moving from ‘Conflict to Communion,’ we are not there yet. I would suggest that what we need is some sort of divine aid.”
Another Swedish Catholic priest told me he expected things to get a lot worse between the two churches on the national level as the Church of Sweden attempted to redefine itself now that it is no longer a state church.
Most of the crowd gathered outside the Cathedral in Lund was skeptical when I asked if there would be any lasting effects for Sweden. “I don’t know man,” one person said. “Sweden is not religious at all. But many people in Sweden are proud that [the pope] is here.”
As the event in Malmö drew to a close on Monday evening, I went out into the arena’s lobby. Thinking I’d do one more interview before I headed home, I started talking to a young woman and her grandmother, what one might describe as typical Swedes. “Why did you come?” I asked the woman.
“Eh, my mom asked me to come with my grandmother,” she said sheepishly. When I asked if there would be more lasting ecumenical might coming out of this ecumenical event, both women seemed skeptical, but then the young woman said something that I first thought naive and then thought wise: “We give it a chance—and give ourselves a chance to try, to do better.”
The old woman suddenly sprang to life. “I talked with a priest today, and it’s very interesting, but it probably takes 50 years—then we’ll know.”
Compared to 500 years, that doesn’t seem so bad.