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Dialogue with Finnish Lutherans: towards full communion

The ecumenical dialogue of the Catholic Church with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland continues to move forward. The crucial issue to be studied further with the Lutherans is sacramental ministry. 

Raimo Goyarrola-March 5, 2020-Reading time: 5 minutes

Three years ago I had the opportunity to have a personal conversation with Pope Francis. Among other things, he asked me how ecumenism was going in Finland. I answered him that it was going very well, because in Finland there is much grace from God. I went on to say that Jesus is especially present in Finland because precisely the last word that the Lord said before He ascended to heaven was "Finland. He smiled at me with a surprised expression. I explained that Jesus said to his apostles: "I will be with you all the days until the end of the world." End of the world is Fin-land. The Pope laughed and exclaimed: "No, no, the end of the world is Argentina.". I replied that it was Finland and he said no, it was Argentina. We came to an agreement: there were two "ends of the world"In the north Finland, and in the south Argentina.

The ecumenical dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is going full steam ahead. The breath of the Holy Spirit is unstoppable, both on a personal and institutional level. In recent discussions the following question has been put on the table on several occasions: could the Catholic Church recognize the Lutheran Church as a sister church in the same way as it recognizes the Orthodox Church? 

It seems to me a very important question, especially because of the sincerity of the Lutheran request. Before answering this question, we would like to point out that the Catholic Church has never asked to be recognized as a Church by the Lutheran side, which we consider a very significant and no less obvious fact. Moreover, a terminological precision should be made: it is not the Catholic Church in general who recognizes the Orthodox Church as her sister, but the local Church of Constantinople would be the sister Church of the local Church of Rome. In any case, let us not forget that from the Catholic point of view the local Church of Constantinople would be a wounded Church, precisely because of its lack of unity with the Church of Peter and Paul where the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, has his seat. The Catholic Church in general cannot be a sister, but rather a mother.

From this perspective of sister Churches, we answered the Lutherans with another question: in this hypothetical recognition as a sister Church, would we face the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church or the whole of the Lutheran World Federation? And, before they answered, we added: would the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church be willing to reach agreements with Rome, and even a possible communion, even if this decision did not involve the other Lutheran communities or Churches? 

On the road to unity

They are - we are - at this crucial point. My experience in these years is that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is unique, unparalleled by any other Lutheran Church, ecclesiologically and sacramentally. We are on the road to unity. And on every road there are potholes, pebbles, puddles... We are not naïve. There are fundamental issues that remain open: unity and indissolubility of marriage, ordination of women, morality of life, and so on. 

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church there are two currents that we also feel in our own Catholic Church: the current that leads to Jesus and his Gospel (the current of fidelity), and that other current that is perhaps apparently easier and more integrating but which in the end leads away from God and from others, which is worldliness. If we want to continue on this path of ecumenism, that is, of full visible unity, we need courage, honesty and much grace from God. Fidelity. 

In Finnish Lutheran churches there is a crescent-shaped kneeler in front of the altar where the faithful receive communion on their knees. According to what I have been told, this kneeler is crescent-shaped because on one side is the visible Church here on earth, and on the other side is the invisible community of the faithful who already enjoy full communion with Christ in Heaven. I think this is a marvelous interpretation. With the confidence that comes from friendship, I have added that this visible crescent here on earth lacks the full communion with the Catholic Church to close a perfect circle of visible and invisible communion already on earth and in Heaven.

Sacramental ministry

What would be missing, then, to close this complete circle of communion? This is what we are talking about. Through baptism we become part of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. This, for some Lutherans, would be enough: the Church of Christ would be the communion in the same baptism of the members of all the present churches and communities regardless of their lack of factual and visible unity. 

For other Lutherans, it is not enough to be part of the Body of Christ by baptism alone. And so it is. It is necessary to be connected to the heart of that Body in order to receive arterial blood, filled with the oxygen of the Holy Spirit. And through the heart to be united to the other members and to the head who is Christ himself. This union with the heart passes through a sacramental ministry that makes possible the realization of the miracle of the Eucharist, the center and root of the Church's life. United in the visible heart of the Church in Rome, it is possible to celebrate fully and fruitfully the one Eucharist of the Body and Blood of our Lord with a universal dimension, for the whole body and with the whole body.  

Therefore, the crucial topic to be studied in more depth with Lutherans is sacramental ministry. Moreover, to see how this ministry is linked to the Eucharist which is Christ himself. Unity in the universal ecclesial body cannot be understood without universal unity in the Eucharistic Body, and vice versa. There is only one Corpus Christi, ecclesial and eucharistic. Moreover, only validly ordained ministry makes possible the liturgical action of the Eucharistic mystery. We must continue to study this ministry in its sacramental and ecclesial dimension, and within this ministry how to understand the Petrine ministry of unity.

There is an important saying that reflects a reality that is no less important: lex orandi, lex credendiThe law of what is prayed is the law of what is believed. Faith is reflected in the preaching of the Word of God and the celebration of the sacraments. The rubrics and the way of celebrating the Eucharist speak to us of that faith. That is, faith is seen in the liturgy. And liturgy becomes spirituality, which leads to liturgical prayer as well. In this sense, I believe that the effort that is being made in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church to put the Mass at the center of the life of the community and of the people, in the spirituality and in the liturgy can help to better understand not only the reality of the Eucharist but also the sacramental ministry as an element of vertical connection with Heaven, and horizontal with the other members of the ecclesial body of Christ and of his Eucharistic sacramental body. 

Our dialogue continues. Firm and determined. The next step would be the in-depth study of the meaning of sacramental ministry and the role of the successor of Peter in this ecclesial and Eucharistic communion that we are called to form in the one Church of Christ. Our dialogue will continue, precisely because in Finland it is possible to reach full communion, because in Finland God's grace abounds. Jesus keeps repeating to us constantly: "I will be with you every day until the end of the world, even in Finland.".

The authorRaimo Goyarrola

Omnes correspondent in Finland.

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