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Pope on why he’s going to Sweden: ‘Closeness does all of us good’

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By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis said he wanted his trip to Sweden to focus purely on promoting Christian unity, although in the end, he added a day to the visit so he could respond to the “fervent request” by the country’s small Catholic community that he celebrate a Mass for them.

Accepting his responsibility as “pastor of a flock” of Catholics, he decided to add the Mass Nov. 1, although he insisted it be celebrated in a location different from the ecumenical events, he told Jesuit Father Ulf Jonsson, director of the Swedish Jesuit magazine Signum.

The interview was released in Italian and English Oct. 28 by the Italian Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica. Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Sweden Oct. 31-Nov. 1. The first day, marked as Reformation Day by Lutherans and other Protestants, was to include an ecumenical prayer service and a larger event focused on Catholic-Lutheran cooperation in charity, justice and humanitarian work. All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, the pope was to celebrate Mass before returning to Rome.

Pope Francis said his goal for the trip is to come “closer to my brothers and sisters” in the Lutheran community. The trip will include an ecumenical launch of a year of events before the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

“Closeness does all of us good,” he told Father Jonsson. “Distance, on the other hand, makes us bitter.”

Asked about his personal experience with the Lutheran Church, Pope Francis said the first time he ever entered a Lutheran church was when he was 17 and went to a co-worker’s wedding.

Later, as a Jesuit and professor at the Jesuit school of theology in Argentina, he said he had frequent contact and exchanges with professors at the nearby Lutheran school of theology.

“I invited a professor of spiritual theology from that faculty, a Swede, Anders Ruuth, to hold lectures on spirituality together with me,” the pope said. It was “a truly difficult time” for the pope personally, he said, “but I had a lot of trust in him and opened my heart to him. He helped me a lot in that moment.”

Friendships and formal exchanges with Lutheran pastors and leaders continued while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and now as pope, he said.

Asked what Catholics can learn from Lutherans and what they should value of the Lutheran tradition, Pope Francis responded, “Two words come to my mind: reform and Scripture.”

At a “difficult time for the church,” Martin Luther tried “to remedy a complex situation,” the pope said, but for a variety of reasons, including political pressure, his reform movement triggered the division of the church. But Luther’s intuition was not altogether wrong, the pope said, because the church is called to be “‘semper reformanda’ (always reforming).”

In addition, he said, “Luther took a great step by putting the Word of God into the hands of the people” and giving them the Bible in their language, rather than in Latin.

Pope Francis also reiterated a point he frequently has made in the last few months: In the search for Christian unity, “theological dialogue must continue.” However, he said, “personally, I believe that enthusiasm must shift toward 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.”

“Look,” he said, “in ecumenism the one who never makes a mistake is the enemy, the devil. When Christians are persecuted and murdered, they are chosen because they are Christians, not because they are Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Catholics or Orthodox. An ecumenism of blood exists.”

In September, he said he met with 400 people who survived or lost loved ones in the July terrorist attack in Nice, France. “That madman who committed that massacre did so believing he did it in God’s name,” the pope said. “Poor man, he was deranged! Charitably we can say that he was a deranged man who sought to use a justification in the name of God.”

Sweden, although nominally Lutheran, has a reputation as one of the least religious countries in the world. Without faith, he said, people do not develop their natural capacity for transcendence.

“The path of transcendence gives place to God, and in this the little steps are important, even that of (going from) being an atheist to being an agnostic,” he said. “The problem for me is when one is closed and one considers their life perfect in itself, then one closes in on oneself.”

To help another open up to the possibility of transcendence and then to faith, he said, words and speeches are not necessary and sometimes not helpful. But seeing another person who lives with faith, who is open to God, speaks for itself.

A lack of faith, he added, is closely “tied to affluence. Restlessness is rarely found in affluence. This is why I believe that against atheism, that against closure to transcendence, prayer and witnessing are truly worthwhile.”

Father Jonsson also asked Pope Francis who Jesus is for him. “Jesus has given meaning to my life here on earth and hope for the future life,” the pope responded. “He looked at me with mercy, he took me, he put me on the road.”

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