Pope Francis visited Geneva, Switzerland, on June 21 for a one-day apostolic journey in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, the largest and broadest ecumenical fellowship in the world. Since the mid-20th century, the WCC has served to unite Christians and spread the Gospel.
While he is not the only pope to visit WCC headquarters — Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II visited during papal visits to Switzerland — Pope Francis is the only pope to specifically visit in recognition of the WCC. “Walking, praying and working together” was the pope’s motto for his ecumenical pilgrimage. This gesture represents a desire to further strengthen the already strong relationship of the Catholic Church with the WCC after 50 years of cooperation between both parties.
“I wanted to take part personally in the celebrations marking this anniversary of the World Council,” Pope Francis said, “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.”
During his 23rd apostolic visit abroad, the pope met with the president of the Swiss Confederation, attended and spoke at an ecumenical prayer service and an ecumenical encounter, exchanged gifts with students and WCC leaders at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey and celebrated Mass for pilgrims from Switzerland, France and nearby countries.
Ecumenical prayer service
Accompanied by the leadership of the WCC, Pope Francis attended an ecumenical prayer service, which included songs from the Protestant traditions, as well as the Catholic Church’s theme song for the Jubilee of Mercy. Participants offered a common witness of faith in reciting the Nicene Creed. Representatives from the Catholic Church and other Christian communities alternated readings, including a prayer of repentance, asking God’s forgiveness for disunity among Christians and failure to serve God and all his children.
“Just as in the early days, preaching marked the springtime of the church, so evangelization will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical spring. … 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. Let us ask the Father to help us walk together all the more resolutely in the ways of the Spirit.”
— Pope Francis during his afternoon speech at the ecumenical encounter
Exchange of gifts
Pope Francis met with other Christian leaders to exchange gifts with students of the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute at Bossey near Geneva. In the exchange, the pope presented an icon to the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, and other Christian leaders at the Institute. The Holy Father received a wooden cross carved by Kenyan Karim Okiki. Engraved on the cross were symbols representing those who suffer disabilities of sight, hearing and physical abilities, a subject close to Okiki’s heart as one among the deaf and speaking impaired community.
|“Ecumenism made us set out in accordance with the will of Jesus, and it will be able to progress if, following the lead of the Spirit, it constantly refuses to withdraw into itself. One might object that to walk in this way is to operate at a loss, since it does not adequately protect the interests of individual communities. … (It means) choosing in the name of the Gospel, our bother or our sister over ourselves.”
— Pope Francis during his morning homily at the ecumenical prayer service.
To conclude his visit, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for an estimated 40,000 attendees at Geneva’s Palexpo convention center. In his homily, he focused on three words found in the Our Father: Father, bread and forgiveness. Knowing God is our Father unites all in one family and provides a reminder that no one is an only child in his divine family. “This includes the unborn, the older person who can no longer speak, the person we find hard to forgive, the poor and the outcast,” the pope said, and we are called to guard this family. Bread reminds us to live simply, to practice a “sober lifestyle, free of unnecessary hassles” and to rediscover “the courage of silence and prayer.” Thirdly, forgiveness makes us a new creation and should be a gift. The pope called everyone to examine their hearts and find the stones — the difficult people and situations — that block their hearts and present them to God, asking him for the grace to forgive.
About 38 percent of Switzerland’s 8.3 million people are Catholic.
|“There is no greater novelty than forgiveness, which turns evil into good.”
— Pope Francis during Mass homily.
|“Our daily bread is Jesus himself. Without him, we can do nothing. He is our regular diet for healthy living. Sometimes however, we treat Jesus as a side dish.”
— Pope Francis during Mass homily.
|History of the World Council of Churches|
The World Council of Churches (WCC) is an ecumenical fellowship seeking to promote Christian unity in order to fulfill Christ’s call of spreading the Gospel to all nations. Comprised of 350 member churches from more than 110 countries and territories around the world — two-thirds coming from Eastern countries — the WCC represents over 500 million Christians, including most of the world’s Orthodox Churches. While the Roman Catholic Church is not part of the WCC, a working relationship formed following the Second Vatican Council, which includes annual meetings between both groups.
While the idea originated as early as the 19th century, the council did not officially form until after the Second World War and met for the first time in 1948. The WCC meets every six to eight years and discusses themes including racism, justice and peace, the Christian role in creation, service, renewal of mission, women’s rights and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian church, addressing the needs and challenges Christians face in a changing world. This year’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the council was held in Geneva, Switzerland, from June 15-21.