‘New life to the quest for Christian unity’



Some of you may remember a column I wrote last year about two historic events in the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) both locally and nationally.

The first woman elected to the post of ELCA presiding bishop in 2013 at their ELCA Churchwide Assembly was Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton. She was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1981 and elected bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod in 2006. Her husband, the Rev. T. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest, is vice president for advancement and church relations at Bexley Seabury Federation. They are parents of two adult children, Rebeckah and Susannah.

Another historical milestone for Lutherans locally was the election of the first woman bishop of the ELCA Synod of New Jersey in 2013. The N.J. Synod has 172 congregations with over 60,000 members. Prior to her election Bishop Bartholomew was assistant to Bishop Roy Riley until his retirement and her election. She is married to a Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Dan Whitener, and they have two children.

Now another historic chapter in Lutheran Church history occurred when Archbishop of Uppsala, Sweden, Antje Jackelen, led a delegation of Lutherans to the Vatican, meeting personally with Pope Francis. She is the first woman to lead the Lutheran Church of Sweden and, born in Germany, the first foreign archbishop since the 12th century. Archbishop Jackelen is the first female bishop to be welcomed to the Vatican for an official papal audience. Her visit came as a shocking yet welcomed surprise by many ecumenists throughout the world.

Pope Francis warmly welcomed Archbishop Jackelen and reminded her that last year was the 50th anniversary of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism. In his formal address to the archbishop, he said that the Decree on Ecumenism, “expresses a profound respect and appreciation for those brothers and sisters separated from us, to whom in daily coexistence we at times risk giving little consideration. In reality, they are not perceived as adversaries or as competitors, but instead acknowledged for what they are: brothers and sisters in faith. Catholics and Lutherans must seek and promote unity in dioceses, in parishes, in communities throughout the world.”

During this private audience, Pope Francis stressed that unity must be compelled by charity toward those suffering from poverty and violence and those in need of mercy. He said that the call to unity implies, “a pressing exhortation to joint commitment at the charitable level, in favor of all those who suffer in the world as a result of poverty and violence, and have a special need for our mercy; the witness of our persecuted brothers and sisters in particular drives us to grow in fraternal communion.”

Archbishop Jackelen in her address to Pope Francis spoke about the progress made between Catholics and Lutherans in their joint dialogues. She spoke about the joint document, “From Conflict to Communion,” and the joint commemoration of the start of the Reformation. She also spoke about the challenges facing the world, including poverty, injustice, the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the death of migrants in the Mediterranean and climate change.

In his response to her address, Pope Francis said that in the area of promoting unity of Catholics and Lutherans, such as in “visible unity in faith” and sacramental life, “there is still much to be done.” He added that, “we can be certain that the Spirit Paraclete will always be light and strength for spiritual ecumenism and theological dialogue.”

He also acknowledged the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, as well as the joint document “From Conflict to Communion” published by the Lutheran-Catholic commission for unity. He expressed his hope that “all Catholic faithful” will “take up and recognize the signs of the times, the way of unity for overcoming divisions among Christians.” He thanked the Lutheran Church in Sweden for taking in South American migrants who fled from dictatorships. He also mentioned his admiration for Pastor Anders Root who, the pope said, helped him in his spiritual life.

After the meeting Archbishop Jackelen tweeted, “Grazie @ Pontifex for a good meeting today! Veni Creator Spiritus.” Yes Pope Francis continues to bring new life to the quest for Christian unity!

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.