Pope Francis has given a strong message about the ecumenical journey during a visit to the World Council of Churches’ headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In a homily during a prayer service in the Ecumenical Centre, Pope Francis spoke about the journey towards Christian unity and the pitfalls on the way. “For us as Christians, walking together is not a ploy to strengthen our own positions, but an act of obedience to the Lord and love for our world,” he said. “Let us ask the Father to help us walk together all the more resolutely in the ways of the Spirit.
“I wanted to take part personally in the celebrations marking this anniversary of the World Council, not least to reaffirm the commitment of the Catholic Church to the cause of ecumenism and to encourage cooperation with the member churches and with our ecumenical partners.
“Whenever we say ‘Our Father’, we feel an echo within us of our being sons and daughters, but also of our being brothers and sisters. Prayer is the oxygen of ecumenism.”
The visit by Pope Francis is the landmark event in a number that have been held to mark the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches.
On his arrival in Switzerland, Pope Francis held a brief private meeting with the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, at Geneva’s international airport before heading to the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre.
The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, which brings together around 50 million Christians from Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed churches. But the Roman Catholic Church works closely with the WCC and is a member of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission.
“The World Council of Churches was born in service to the ecumenical movement, which itself originated in a powerful summons to mission: for how can Christians proclaim the Gospel if they are divided among themselves?” Pope Francis said. “The missionary mandate, which is more than diakonia and the promotion of human development, cannot be neglected nor emptied of its content. It determines our very identity.”
The Anglican Church of Kenya’s Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC’s central committee, was present during the ecumenical prayer service, as was the WCC general secretary, the Revd Olav Fykse Tveit, and committee vice-moderators Bishop Mary Ann Swenson from the United Methodist Church in the US, the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada Mark MacDonald, and Metropolitan Gennadios from the Greek Orthodox Church in Italy. They were joined by members of the central committee, one of WCC’s main governing bodies.
Official contacts between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC date from the early 1960s, following the decision by Pope John XXIII in 1959 to convene the Second Vatican Council.
In his homily, Pope Francis said human beings are constantly on the move, while noting that walking is a discipline needing “patience and exercise, day after day.” He cited the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (5:16) saying, “We can either walk in the Spirit along the path opened up by our baptism or else we can ‘gratify the desires of the flesh.’
“Driven by our instincts, we become slaves to unbridled consumerism, and God’s voice is gradually silenced.
Other people, especially those who cannot walk on their own, like children and the elderly, then become nuisances to be cast aside. Creation then comes to have no other purpose than to supply our needs,” he said, speaking the day after World Refugee Day.
“Ecumenism made us set out in accordance with Christ’s will,” he said, “and it will be able to progress if, following the lead of the Spirit, it constantly refuses to withdraw into itself.”
Stephen Brown, editor of the WCC’s quarterly journal The Ecumenical Review, travelled with the Pope on the plane from Rome’s Fiumicino airport. “About 35 minutes into the 90 minute flight, Pope Francis appeared in the section of the airplane reserved for journalists where he thanked them for their work and their contribution to the success of the visit,” Brown said in an article for the WCC website.
“It’s a journey toward unity, the desire for unity,” the Pope told journalists in Italian, before greeting the journalists individually.
Pope Francis’ visit is the third by a Pontiff to the WCC, but the first dedicated to the ecumenical organisation. “When Pope Paul VI visited in 1969 it was part of a trip to Geneva to mark the 50th anniversary of the International Labour Organisation,” Brown notes, “and in 1984 Pope John Paul II was undertaking a pastoral visit to Switzerland.”
The Vatican correspondent of the French daily La Croix, Nicolas Senèze, was also on the Papal aeroplane. He told Brown that the Pope wanted to make a dedicated visit to the WCC. There were, he said, a number of organisations in Geneva the Pope could have visited as well, “but he specifically wanted to dedicate this visit to the World Council of Churches,” said Senèze. “It was a personal choice of the pope who clearly wanted to avoid any other issue eclipsing the ecumenical dimension of this day in Geneva.”