Speaking to Pope Francis, Bishop Åstrand stressed the dimension of journeying on an ecumenical pilgrimage – resonating both with Pope Francis’ visit to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva in 2018 and the WCC’s ongoing Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity – observing that pilgrimage is a growing trend in the Nordic countries and the joint ecumenical pilgrim meeting in Trondheim in 2030.
Recalling the biblical passages about a man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho and the good Samaritan, Åstrand also reflected that “Christ sends us all out into the world,” noting that “as pilgrims, we are called to walk together in this world, in the name of compassion, reconciliation, and in the service of peace.”
The audience with the Pope on 19 January is part of a larger delegation visit of Finnish church representatives to Rome led by Bishop Bo-Göran Åstrand; including Karin Åstrand, deacon; Father Martti Savijoki SCJ; Rev. Mari Puska; Metropolit Arseni Finnish Orthodox Church; Dr Kimmo Kääriäinen, Executive Director National Church Council, Department for International Relations, World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee member Maria Mountraki from the Orthodox Church of Finland; Bishop Raimo Goyarrola from the Roman Catholic Church, and Rev. Lucas Snellman, head of communication for the Swedish communication department.
Pope Francis thanked the Finnish delegation for their presence, saying that “this meeting with you is a living sign in the midst of the present Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”
“Let us ensure,” Pope Francis added, “that this annual ecumenical encounter continues to flourish and expand.”
Pope Francis stressed in particular the importance of always "welcoming our poor and forgotten brothers and sisters" during the Week of Prayer, including "those who feel abandoned by God or have strayed from the path of faith and hope.”
Historic roots, warm traditions
Bishop Åstrand reflected that the meeting is an important expression of existing ecumenical collaboration in Finland and visiting Rome particularly during the Week of Prayer is an important tradition in terms of long-term relations between the churches.
On the phone directly from Rome after the audience to Pope Francis, Bishop Åstrand explained to the WCC News: “In fact, this is the 39th visit to the Vatican on 19 January, the day of Saint Henrik to celebrate his life and work. The ecumenical tradition was established by Archbishop John Vikström and the local Catholic bishop. Every year one of the Lutheran bishops is asked to lead the delegation to meet with the Pope and the staff in the Vatican.
“This year it’s my turn to lead the ecumenical delegation to Rome. ”
Saint Henrik was the one who brought Christianity to Finland. According to legend, he entered Finland together with the king, Saint Eric of Sweden and died as a martyr, becoming a central figure in the local Catholic Church.
Bishop Åstrand underlined the importance of bringing the historic roots with us and the tradition to have this annual meeting in Rome with the open door to meet with Pope Francis and bring an ecumenical delegation to Rome, to meet with Cardinal Kurt Koch and his team, to celebrate the service together in one of the churches in Rome.
Praying for unity
Åstrand mentioned especially the warm and genuine conversation with Pope Francis and the delegation about the role of the churches today in a fragile and polarized world. “We have a special call to the world towards unity and togetherness. Even if the situations seem to be very difficult, we have to ignite the hope to the people to take action together.”
Bishop Åstrand also emphasized the importance of ecumenical work, locally, regionally and globally. “I served for many years as local pastor and I have seen the importance of the global dogmatic documents, but always combined and the most important is the vibrant local ecumenical life where the churches are working together, whenever its possible. Because together are we much stronger.”
As the Bishop of the Diocese of Porvoo where the Porvoo agreement was established in 1992, “I feel the responsibility to live and act in the spirit of the agreement. It’s a very important tool when it’s coming to the local life, handling sacraments, recruitment, and established stronger ties to the other sister churches in, for example, the UK, Ireland, and in the Nordic countries.”
Bishop Åstrand is very grateful for the warm welcome in Rome and mentioned especially the warmth in the dialogue with the Pope, and now he is on his way to prepare for the evening service with the local choir from Porvoo and his Catholic colleague Raimo Goyarrola. The final question in our call: What can we pray for you and for your church?
The bishop answered: “I would like to pray for and ask others to join me in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. ‘You shall love the Lord your God ...and your neighbour as yourself…,’ to pray for unity, for togetherness and collaboration in a wounded world. We are as churches called to act for the sake of the world.”