VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis urged Lutherans to set aside doctrinal differences Thursday and work with Catholics to care for the poor, the sick and refugees as he laid out his vision for greater communion before his visit to Sweden later this month.
Francis greeted about 1,000 Lutherans who were visiting the Vatican on an ecumenical pilgrimage. They had arrived in Rome from Germany, where Martin Luther famously sparked the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to a church door to challenge the abuses of the Catholic Church.
Francis will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation with his October 31-November 1 visit to Sweden, where he will participate in an ecumenical service with the Lutheran World Federation.
Like his predecessors, Francis has reached out to Protestants, Orthodox and other Christians to try to heal Christianity's divisions. But unlike his predecessors, Francis has said theological differences should be put aside so Christians can work together on issues of pressing social concern, including caring for the poor and the environment and helping Christians under assault in Iraq and Syria.
'God's mercy unites us'
"While the theologians work for dialogue in the doctrinal camp, it's up to you to search insistently for occasions to meet, know one another better, pray together and offer help for one another and all those in need," Francis told the delegation. "Putting ourselves at the service of the neediest gives us the experience of already being united: God's mercy unites us."
Francis' outreach to the Lutherans, in particular, has been criticized as going too far. In November, he seemed to suggest a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man could receive Communion, saying: "Speak with the Lord and go forward." He stressed, however, that he had no authority to grant such permission.
In January, a Finnish Lutheran delegation visiting Rome reported that its members received Communion offered by Catholic priests in St. Peter's Basilica. A Catholic Church spokesman in Finland said that it was a mistake.
Francis has roiled conservatives and traditionalists over his interpretation of core doctrine about access to Catholic sacraments, including for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.