(from a Protestant point of view)
This talk was given to the international gathering of True Life in God in Jerusalem, May 1998
I have been asked to speak from a Protestant point of view about the Unity of the Church and Our Lady. First I must say something about being a Protestant or Lutheran.
The Church of Sweden as a whole was severed from the Church of Rome and the Pope during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It was the king who wanted to be the sole ruler of his country and he did not want any interference from abroad, that is from the Pope and the bishops who really had a good deal also of worldly power.
The teachings of Martin Luther suited the king’s purposes very well. The king took the place of the Pope. From Germany, the mainland of the reformation, was imported the most important of the reformation confessions – the Augsburg Confession, which was critical of abuses in the late medieval Church but was otherwise very traditional, with no intention of teaching anything new, but only being a witness to the faith of the one, holy, catholic (also Roman) and apostolic Church. The Augsburg Confession is today considered, by the official Catholic and Lutheran Ecumenical Commission, to have a catholic intention and an ecumenical will.
There certainly was a great change of the Church in Sweden and for the faithful in the reformation time, but there was also a certain continuity. Some priests and bishops left the country, but some stayed and saved what could be saved.
After the turmoil of the reformation there was just one Church in Sweden. There still were bishops and priests, who by now could be married. The Mass was celebrated, but it was in Swedish instead of Latin and the people could now communicate also from the chalice. Mary and the saints soon disappeared. And so did the monasteries, often by violence. The Bible was translated and there was catechetical work in the schools. For three hundred years there was no alternative. Being a Swede meant being a Lutheran.
Today, despite a radical secularisation, most Swedes belong to the Church which is no longer governed by the king but by democratically voted politicians and their parties. I cannot call myself a Protestant or a Lutheran, but I belong to the Church of Sweden.
I don’t think the reformation in Sweden, from a religious point of view, could be justified or was necessary or for the good of the Church, but I can see some good things in it, despite the undisputedly bad things, and also what these good things came to mean for the future.
The Bible, read within the horizon of the old tradition and the Augsburg Confession, was kept as the first and last authority for the faith. This is what preserved the Church in Sweden as a fairly orthodox Christian Church, despite its severance from Rome. But you can imagine what happens today when the Bible, at least in practice, is no longer an authority and if it is taken notice of at all, it is interpreted according to the opinions of the day.
In the example of the Church of Sweden you can see, both positively and negatively, the vital necessity of the unity of the Church, both in space and time, being in communion with all the other local Churches all over the world, in the bishops unity with the Bishop of Rome, but also being in communion with the saints of all times, which means an active remembrance of the tradition. When a Church both has lost its memory and is cut away from the universal Church it is exposed to the pressure of the world and modern secular opinion without the God-given defence and corrective. I believe only the reunion with Rome could save and preserve the Church of Sweden as a Christian Church.
This is said as an example. Now something more general about Christian Unity. There certainly are many things that keep all Christians together, also from different denominations. We believe in and pray to the same triune God. We believe in the incarnation of God the Son. We all believe in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are baptized with the same baptism, Even if all Christians can’t go to communion together we believe that we receive and are joined to the one and same body of Christ in the different churches. With slight variations we share the same beliefs. Isn’t that enough? Our Lord prays to the Father, in his priestly prayer in St. John’s seventeenth chapter and says: “May they all be one … so that the world may believe it was You who sent me.”(v.21)
The unity that Jesus prays for is not only a spiritual unity, but a visible unity in this visible world, “that the world may believe”. The Church certainly is an instrument in God’s hands for the salvation of the world. It is God’s Church. He has made it according to his plan and for his purposes. That the Church should be one and visibly one is certainly part of the founder’s will and intention. The visible unity belongs to the nature of the Church and is very important – a top priority. Visible unity demands a visible center of unity. For the local community there is the parish priest. For the diocese the bishop. For the patriarchate there is the patriarch. And for the whole fold, for the universal Church, there is the Pope.
That there should be a pope is part of Christ’s plans for his Church. This is not what was in dispute from the beginning by the reformers, only the misuse of the papal power. That there is and should be a petrine primacy is clear from the gospels. And as certain as there is an apostolical succession from the apostles to the bishops, there is a petrine succession from St. Peter to his followers on the apostolic throne in the Church of Rome.
Can a Protestant really say so? There are liberals who wouldn’t, because they would say the papacy is part of a patriarcalistic structure. There are others who would reiterate the confessional formulas from the sixteenth century and would eventually say the pope is the antichrist. But if by ‘Protestant’ you mean a person who wants to be true to the Bible, read with the glasses of the old orthodox and catholic tradition, a Protestant certainly could say that the papacy is instituted by Christ.
In the papal encyclical letter from 1995, “Ut Unum Sint”, John Paul II asks the non-Roman Catholic Church leaders to consider with him the forms in which the Petrine Primacy could best serve its mission, “that they all may be one … so that the world may believe ..” With regard to the Church of Sweden and the Anglican Churches this invitation should have been very interesting three years earlier, but in 1995 there had already happened things in these churches that made dialogue seem impossible.
The ecumenical dialogue between The Church of Sweden and Rome was for some years, between 1989 and 1993 very promising. The Swedish archbishop declared from the high altar in St. Peter’s in the presence of John Paul II: “The moment has come to declare that the denunciations from the time of the reformation are no longer valid.” The Pope visited Sweden and Cardinal Cassidy the head of the Papal secretariat of Christian Unity wanted an examination of and a dialogue about the apostolic succession in the Churches of Finland and Sweden, to see what was needed for a full recognition.
In the question of the important reformation doctrine of “Justification by faith” a consensus has been reached between Rome and the Lutherans. A dialogue at least as promising was also going on between Rome and the Church of England. But in both cases it came to an end because of new divisive developments. John Paul II declared at Pentecost 1994 that the Church has no right whatsoever to ordain women for the priesthood and that this decision is definitive for all the faithful in the Church. Only four and a half months later the Bishops and other leaders in the Church of Sweden declared that “You cannot be ordained to the priesthood unless you acknowledge women as priests.”
The Lutheran World Federation declared that they would not be without or sacrifice women priests for the sake of unity. After this, two women have been made bishops in Sweden and more women than men are ordained and on their way to ordination. There is also a very vocal feministic theology, which makes new interpretations of the faith and also, of morals. This development has made a total relativism necessary. You cannot criticize and say that it is not according to the Bible. They will answer: It is just pictures and symbols and anything will do. You could just as well say that God is our mother as our father.
This development (in Sweden and England and also in other countries) has made divisions within the Churches of Sweden and England seem necessary and groups are now trying to find their way. The eyes are of course on Rome. The situation is felt to be so serious for the Church of Sweden that many people ask whether it will survive at all. My personal feeling is that only being with the Church which Christ has built on Peter could save us from being transformed into something else than a Christian Church or from annihilation. Only a Church in communion with Peter could rightly put its trust in the promise of Christ: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it” (Mt,16:18)
Our Holy Mother Mary is together with the Pope, by the typical Protestant, considered to be what is typically Catholic, and therefore to be shunned. The Pope was by one blow of the sword severed from the Church in Sweden. Mary probably remained in the hearts of the faithful of the first reformation-generation. That was a thing the king couldn’t do anything about. But as the Rosary was forbidden and most of the Marian statues were removed, neither was there any place for our lady in the Protestant Swedish hearts. You can only speculate about what this has meant. To live without the Mother Our Lord has given to his Church.
Typically enough in liberal Protestantism Jesus is not Immanuel, that is God with man, but he is man with God and that is what Mary in reality is. To live without Mary as mother and ideal has made Protestant Christianity more of a teaching to understand, than a life to live. The Church in the reformation became more of a school than a place for prayer and adoration. At the same time it must be said that Mary wasn’t banished from the Church’s teaching, although her place was very much in the background.
So you can find in the confessional writings, in the hymns and in the writings of Martin Luther, sentences that in one way or other affirm the teaching of all the Marian dogmas, although not as dogmas. This, together with other similar catholic elements, has not been without consequence for a Marian renaissance in the Church of Sweden and it has also made it possible to remain in the Church of Sweden with a Catholic faith, without a conflict with the official teaching.
As there are no problems with Peter and the pope, there are no difficulties for a biblical Protestant, of what our old ecumenical archbishop Nathan Sderblom called the evangelical-catholic tradition, to share the catholic and orthodox beliefs about Our Lady. The problem with present day Protestants is that very many of them, I speak first of all about the Church of Sweden but perhaps it could be said also about Lutherans and Anglicans in Western Europe and the USA, that they don’t seem any longer to believe in Gods revelation nor in the Bible as the Word of God. But if The Word of God is a lamp to your feet and a light to your path, it will lead you to honour and bless Mary.
We can take it for certain that all of Our Lord’s actions and words had a meaning, not just for the singular situation in which they were performed or uttered, but were meant for the Church he founded and therefore had a universal meaning and were to be valid until the end of time. Therefore it is very natural to see that Jesus, from the Cross, gave Mary to be the mother not only of John, but of all the apostles and of all the Church in all times and places.
Next we are led by the word of God to see with John “the great sign which appeared in heaven: a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown”. Of course this is Mary. She is alive, She is taken up to heaven with her body and crowned to be the Queen of heaven and earth. We can turn to her and ask for her motherly care and her prayers for us. Mary is the Mother of the Church, but she is also The Church – Our Mother. She is a personification of the Church. In her everything that we are waiting for is already fulfilled and she is already there, where we hope to meet her and her Son, in heaven.
In this way I could go on, from the Bible to the Catholic dogma. And in the case of, for example the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, where it isn’t absolutely self-evident, from the Bible, that “Gratia Plena” – “full of grace” – means that there was not ever any place for sin in Mary, I am fully confident that the Holy Spirit has led the Church to the complete truth according to the promise of Jesus. (Jn,16:13)
Among the many titles of our Lady and among all the things She is, let us ask her to be, for the Church, the Mother of Unity. That unity which Jesus prayed for and which seems to be so very difficult, sometimes even impossible. Let us confide it to her care and to her prayers, that it may come soon, at that time and in that way which is according to the will of God.
I have also been asked to say why I support the messages of True Life in God. If somebody had told me about Vassula before I myself had heard her or had read the messages, I would probably have been uninterested, supposing it was another silly sect. I would not have said it was impossible with prophesies, revelations or messages like these, but I never had met anything like it. But since I for the first time heard Vassula in Rome in march 1995 I have been convinced that it is all true.
Perhaps I could say that I recognized the voice, I was very moved and had tears in my eyes. Since then I have read the messages and I have never come across anything that sounded strange or foreign to what I have learned from the Bible and the tradition of the Church. What has meant most to me is of course the intimacy of the messages. The important position of Mary. The centrality of the unity of the Church around the Pope and also the admonitions to be one with John Paul II. As you may have understood, I think I have seen instances of that apostasy, which Jesus has spoken of in the messages. What is not unimportant to me is also the fact of Vassula not being formally a Roman Catholic, but living a Catholic life and having the catholic faith. That is my situation also and with me many in the Church of Sweden.