Milestones in Papal Ecumenism: Part Four

On October 31, Pope Francis will take part in a historic vespers service in Lund, Sweden. This service will be the inaugural service for the year leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.  

Every day until then, Pray Tell will be running a feature highlighting papal ecumenical gestures to frame this historic event. 

The long pontificate of John Paul II was filled with ecumenical encounters and profound gestures of love and dialogue. This first entry covering his extraordinarily long reign will cover roughly the first ten years of the reign, with a second covering the following seventeen. A special entry will be dedicated to his rich history with the Orthodox Churches.


Above: Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie praying at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. 

From November 15-19 1980, the pope made a trip to West Germany, the first of his pontificate to a predominately Lutheran Nation. Despite not initially setting time apart for meeting with the Lutheran bishops and the fact that the Roman Catholic bishops of West Germany issued pamphlets that were derogatory toward Luther, when the planning was done for the trip, it was decided that it would have an ecumenical focus.image The West German Bishop’s Conference apologized for the pamphlets and John Paul met with leaders of the Lutheran Churches, thanking them for the hospitality shown toward the Roman Catholics in areas where they are minorities and in Mainz, he spoke of himself a pilgrim to the leaders of the Lutheran Churches. The Pope also met with leaders who spoke frankly about such divisive issues as mixed marriages, the ban on protestants Receiving communion at a Roman Catholic Mass, and the Roman Catholic ban on “ecumenical Sunday services.” The meetings, though, were understood to be mainly symbolic. The Christian Science Monitor notes that the Suddeutche Zeitung noted “The atmospheric rapprochement doesn’t make a theological and canonical rapprochement… Nobody understands as well as this Pope how to approach someone cordially, without coming closer to him in substance.” Some seven years later, the tone was markedly different. On May 3, 1987, at a Mass in Augsburg he stated: “’Wasn’t it perhaps even necessary, we might ask here in Augsburg, in accordance with God’s unfathomable wisdom, for religious schisms and religious wars to occur, in order to lead the church to reflect on and review its original values?” The next day, he went on to celebrate an ecumenical service in the Augsburg Cathedral with bishops from the Lutheran Church in Germany. His ecumenical relations with the Lutherans extended to Rome where, on December 11, 1983, he took part in an ecumenical celebration marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth at the Christuskirche, the Evangelican Luthern church in Rome, where he delivered a homily.

In his 1982 pastoral visit, the first of a pope to the United Kingdom, oriented toward the Roman Catholic population, but ecumenism was a key focus. The Pope was greeted not only by the Roman Catholic prelates but also the Anglican bishop of the diocese where the airport was located. The second day of his visit, May 19th, was focused on Canterbury and the ecumenical relationship between the two churches. Highlighted by a prayer service, John Paul and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most. Rev. Robert Runcie processed in jointly. pope-john-paul-ii-canterbury_large-2
The New York Times
reported that upon arriving at the doors, Runcie formally greeted John Paul by saying: “Your Holiness, beloved Brother in Christ, in the name of the Lord, we greet you, a greeting that was echoed by the assembly. After this greeting, the website commemorating this event states that:

People broke into spontaneous applause as the two spiritual leaders entered by the West door. They knelt together in prayer at the Nave Altar. Dr. Runcie summed up the sense of history surrounding the meeting: “I rejoice that the successors of Gregory and Augustine stand here today in the church which is built on their partnership in the Gospel.” Unity was the focus of Pope John Paul II’s words which followed those present renewing their baptismal vows: “We intend to perform this ritual, which we share in common as Anglicans and Catholics, as a clear testimony to the one sacrament of Baptism by which we have been joined to Christ.”

pope-john-paul-ii-canterbury_largeAfter jointly professing their shared baptismal faith and praying at the spot where Thomas Becket was martyred, the liturgy proceeded and the Pope preached a homily based on the call to communion based in the love of Christ. The service marked the issuing of a Common Declaration announcing the continuation of dialogue between the two churches and another round of ARCIC dialogues, begun in 1970 and ending in 1981. Then, the jointly gave the benediction.

pope-john-paul-ii-canterbury_large-1This second round of ARCIC would be highlighted in 1989 by another joint service and another Common Declaration, this time at St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Though more inter-religious than ecumenical, one of the most profound gestures of this period in his pontificate was the World Day of Prayer for Peace held in Assisi on October 27, 1986. Gathering more than 150 leaders of Christian denominations and other religions together, the leaders fasted and prayed jointly for the advent of peace in the world. Speaking to the leaders of these faiths, the Pope stated that:

jpiiecumeThe coming together of so many religious leaders to pray is in itself an invitation today to the world to become aware that there exists another dimension of peace and another way of promoting it which is not a result of negotiations, political compromises or economic bargainings. It is the result of prayer, which, in the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacities alone…

These days of prayer for peace would be repeated in his pontificate in 1993 and again in 2002.


  1. The top picture is the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury praying at what appears to be the Nave Altar, but it is definitely not the Martyrdom, as the place where St Thomas was martyred is called.

    1. Good catch! I had the picture of the martyrdom there and then I went to put the picture of the high altar above it and accidentally replaced it without realizing it thanks! Here is a link to the the pictures of them praying at the Martyrdom, from Canturbury Historical Society’s website. They are grainy, which is why I decided to move them from a large banner style picture:

      There is also now a marker there where the prie Dieu was set up for them.

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