Lutheran bishop who met with Francis: “The ecumenical movement has never been an easy journey”

Bishop Irja Askola was part of a delegation of Finnish Christians who met with the Holy Father during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

For many years now, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (from January 18, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, until January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul), an ecumenical delegation on pilgrimage to Rome from Finland is received by the Holy Father. The visit typically takes place on January 18, the day before the feast day of St. Henrik, the evangelizer and patron saint of Finland.

This delegation normally consists of the representatives of the three main Christian denominations in Finland, this year in the persons of the Lutheran Bishop Irja Askola, who was the head of the delegation, Metropolitan Ambrosius of the Orthodox Church of Finland, and Bishop Teemu Sippo of Helsinki, Finland’s only Catholic diocese.

Bishop Askola is the first female bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland; she was elected bishop of Helsinki in 2010.

In his address to the Finnish delegation the Pope expressed thanks for the fruits of dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, in particular the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. “Building on these foundations, your dialogue is making promising progress towards a shared understanding, on the sacramental level, of Church, Eucharist, and ministry,” he went on. “These steps forward, made together, lay a solid basis for a growing communion of life in faith and spirituality, as your relations develop in a spirit of serene discussion and fraternal sharing.”

At the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation announced that Pope Francis will travel to Sweden in October for an “ecumenical commemoration” of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

During her visit to Rome, I had the chance to meet the Bishop Askola and ask her few questions about her trip and her encounter with the Holy Father.

“I am honored to meet the pontiff, whose thought and numerous symbolic acts have inspired me personally,” Askola said. From her visit to the Vatican she expected “to learn more and more about how the Christian churches and other religions in these turbulent times can work together for peace and sustainable development.”

“Ecumenism is not an option, but is an integral part of the Christian identity,” Askola said.

About Pope Francis, Askola said, “He was very present, he was very warm…and it was also very moving that in the end of the meeting he called on us to wind up by praying together that prayer that unites us, the Our Father. Of course, we all prayed in our own language, but it was a really touching moment.”

“I think that in his way of delivering his message, he has this special understanding of symbolic acts, in the sense that the way he does something speaks more than 100 pages of any kind of communication, statement, or book,” Askola said. “And the direct approach whereby he speaks about the defense of human rights or address the climate change issue, or in his personal initiatives to interact with ordinary people and hear their stories, I think this is something the Finnish people also appreciate, and they have a some kind of new understanding of what does it mean to be spiritual, rather than being institutional.”

It was her first time on the annual ecumenical pilgrimage to Rome, and she said the warm reception she received is a sure sign of commitment to the ecumenical cause.

“In globalized Europe and the world at large,” she said, “there is so much hatred, fear, and so many prejudices, and I think that now the Church leaders should really give concrete signs that we need each other, we need to meet each other in the spirit of respect and mutual learning.”

Regarding possible future unity, she is convinced we should never lose this goal, “but of course the ecumenical movement has never been an easy journey, though it involves a lot of joy, also shared celebrations and all that.”

Next year, 2017, will mark the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation: how is Finland bracing for this commemoration? “In Finland we are preparing it in a very ecumenical spirit, but not in the spirit of glorification of Luther or only looking backwards to the past. Rather, the idea is to use it as an occasion to ask ourselves, what does reformation actually mean today to us as churches and Christian communities? In a nutshell, we want use this year also for evaluation, for self-criticism.” 

Was there anything else she said to the Holy Father during their encounter? “I also told the Holy Father that although Finland is a [predominantly] Lutheran country and the Roman Catholic community is very small, the Pope is much known in Finland, not only that, the Pope is also much appreciated, respected, and very much loved by the Finns.” 

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.