Pope Francis and the World Council of Churches

Pope Francis shakes hands with Agnes Abuom of Kenya, moderator of the WCC central committee, during an encounter at the World Council of Churches’ ecumenical center in Geneva June 21. Also pictured is Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima, vice moderator of the central committee.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

A significant “pilgrimage” took place on June 21 with Pope Francis attending the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, Switzerland. This 70th anniversary of the WCC takes place shortly after the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, when the pope visited Lund, Sweden in 2016. His visit to the WCC follows the example of two of his predecessors Blessed Paul VI in June 1969 and Pope Saint John Paul II in June 1984. He also made this trip to visit and celebrate the liturgy with the 38 percent of the population of Switzerland that is Roman Catholic.

The WCC is comprised of 350 member churches in more than 110 countries and territories. The organization was founded in 1948 and is the largest umbrella group of Christian denominations in the world. The WCC represents over 500 million Christians and includes most of the world’s Orthodox Churches, a large number of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed Churches, as well as many United and Independent Churches. While the majority of the founding members came from Europe and North America, currently the bulk of the WCC membership is in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.

In spite of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, we maintain good relations with them through the exchange of high leadership visits and sending observers to their respective meetings and events. One important ecumenical activity in which we come together each year is through the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January. Since 1968, the resources and material used in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity have been jointly prepared yearly by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, which Catholics belong to as members.

Of course, Geneva plays an important place in the history of the Protestant Reformation, where John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor, led the reformation in the 16th century. He was a principal figure in the development of the Protestant theology called Calvinism. Some of the aspects of Calvinism that most are familiar with are his doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. Today the Swiss city is the center of encounter and dialogue, home to the second largest United Nations office after the New York headquarters, as well as numerous international organizations, including the Red Cross.

Upon his arrival in Geneva on June 21, Pope Francis was greeted with joy by Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist and Orthodox leaders. He then joined them for an ecumenical service among many different Christian faiths at the offices of the WCC. Worshippers sang songs from England, Germany, as well as a rousing hymn from the Lumka song book from South Africa. American Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the United Methodist Church greeted Pope Francis saying, “It’s so great to have you here!” During the service Bishop Mary Ann said the pope’s ecumenical work was “inspired, enthused and has strengthened the relationship and cooperation with the World Council of Churches on the common journey of the pilgrimage of justice and peace.”

Prior to this historic visit, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said to journalists, “The pope has a very ecumenical heart. Ecumenism, the unity of Christians, is very much in the Holy Father’s heart.” He added that for Pope Francis, ecumenism “is not just an ecumenical dialogue,” but, as the pope has often said, “It means working together, praying together and collaborating in joint initiatives. “Christians,” said Cardinal Koch, must do “everything that we can do to work for this unity.”

At the gathering in Geneva, Pope Francis said, “Not only God, but today’s broken, divided world is begging for unity among Christians.” He said, “Our differences must not be excuses, because as Christ’s disciples, Christians can still pray together, evangelize and serve others.” “Our lack of unity is not only contrary to God’s will, it is also a scandal to the world.” “The Lord asks us for unity; our world torn by all-too-many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for unity.” Let us all pray for and work toward the unity that Christ desires of all the baptized.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.