The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is an opportunity for both Protestants and Catholics to place Christ at the center of their relations, Pope Francis told an ecumenical delegation from Germany on Monday.

"This year of commemoration offers us the opportunity to take a further step ahead, looking at the past without rancor, but in accordance with Christ and in communion with Him, to re-propose to the men and women of our time the radical newness of Jesus, the limitless mercy of God: precisely what the Reformers in their time wanted to stimulate," the Pope said Feb. 6.

"The fact that their call to renewal gave rise to developments that led to divisions among Christians was certainly tragic," he added. "Believers no longer felt they were brothers and sisters in faith, but rather adversaries and competitors; for too long they bore hostility and engaged in struggles, fomented by interests of politics and power, at times even without scruple about using violence against each other, brothers against brothers."

The ecumenical delegation included Catholic leaders and leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany, a federation of Lutheran, Reformed, and United ecclesial communities in the country. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Evangelical Churches in Germany, headed the delegation with Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German Episcopal Conference.

The Roman Pontiff voiced gratitude to the delegation, saying they intend to approach the painful aspects of the past with humility and freshness. He noted their plans for an ecumenical function of penance and reconciliation, which would provide an opportunity for purification and spiritual renewal to help bring Christ to mankind.

For Pope Francis, decades of ecumenical progress have resulted in the ability for both Protestants and Catholics to deplore the failures of unity in the Reformation and subsequent developments.

"At the same time, in the reality of the single baptism that makes us brothers and sisters, and in our joint attention to the Spirit, we know, in a now reconciled diversity, how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation," he said.

He cited the words of Benedict XVI, who in 2011 had met with representatives of the Evangelical Church in Germany. Benedict had said that for Martin Luther, "'the deep passion and driving force of his whole life's journey" was the question of "how to receive the grace of God."

The Roman Pontiff also cited his Oct. 31, 2016 visit to Lund, Sweden on the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. He reaffirmed his call "to bear witness together to the Gospel and to follow the path towards full unity."

Continued differences in faith and morality are challenges towards unity and are sources of suffering, especially for husbands and wives from different religious confessions, the Pope noted.

"In an astute way we need to apply ourselves, with fervent prayer and with all our strength, to overcoming the obstacles that still exist, intensifying theological dialogue and reinforcing collaboration between us, especially in the service of those who suffer the most and in the protection of creation, which is under threat," he said.

"Jesus' urgent call to unity challenges us, and the entire human family, in a period in which we experience serious lacerations and new forms of exclusion and marginalization," the Pope continued. "For this reason too, our responsibility is great!"

Pope Francis closed his remarks with a prayer that the Holy Spirit may fortify Christians on their path to unity. He asked the members of the delegation to pray for him and invited them to say the Lord's Prayer together.