Almost 500 years ago this week, the Augustinian friar Martin Luther sent his 95 Theses to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. Though no one – least of all Luther – realised it at the time, October 31, 1517 would be remembered forever after as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Pope Francis has gone out of his way to commemorate this occasion. On Monday, he travelled to Sweden, where he marked the start of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary year with Lutheran leaders. This joint observation of an event that split the Western Church disturbs many Catholics. They are particularly unsettled by the idea of giving thanks for Luther, whose actions led (albeit unwittingly) to the death of millions in the European Wars of Religion.

In truth, there has been little effort to assuage these concerns. Church leaders seem content to hail the Pope’s participation as “prophetic”, while failing to communicate the reasons for it to the laity. There is a danger that the papal gesture will only be properly understood by professional ecumenists.

That would be a pity, because there is a rationale for the Pope’s presence at the Reformation commemoration. It begins with Benedict XVI, who arguably knew more about Lutheranism than any pope in history. Before his election he helped to craft a joint declaration stating that Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification – previously considered one of the great dividing lines of the Reformation.

As Pope, Benedict gave a landmark speech at the monastery where Luther studied, in which he identified two elements of the former friar’s legacy worth preserving. The first was Luther’s sincere struggle with the question: “How do I receive the grace of God?” The second was his “thoroughly Christocentric” spirituality.

In Sweden this week Pope Francis built on Benedict XVI’s theological work, as well as 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. That is why he felt able to take part in the commemoration of an event that will never fail to evoke sadness in Catholics.

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