Pope Francis has relentlessly pursued joint ecumenical efforts with the hope of achieving Christian unity. For that reason, the very man who often avoids trips to centers of power made a special daylong “ecumenical pilgrimage” to Geneva, Switzerland on 21 June to mark the 70thanniversary of World Council of Churches (WCC).
I was on the plane covering the trip for Crux, and as I wrote prior to the trip, the theme of building a “culture of encounter” has been central to the Francis papacy. Now, in Geneva, it was time for an “encounter of churches,” where Francis joined Christian leaders from around the globe to add an extra booster shot to the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the WCC.
The WCC includes membership of 350 Christian churches from around the world, representing 560 million Christians — effectively making it the most consequential body for the task of Christian unity. While the Catholic Church is not a formal member — primarily owing to its size, which would massively overshadow the other participating churches — it does have permanent representation on one of the major committees of the WCC.
By way of background, working alongside other Christian traditions has been in Francis’ blood since he was a priest in his native Argentina. He famously would preach to thousands of Catholics and Protestants alike at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park stadium.
One of the early memorable ecumenical markers of his papacy came when in January 2014, Francis filmed an iPhone video with a close friend of his, Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, that was screened for thousands of participants at a major Charismatic Christian convention in which Francis issued an impassioned plea for Christian unity.
“Let us allow our longing to increase so that it propels us to find each other, embrace each other and to praise Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history,” he said then. Palmer died in a tragic motorcycle accident that following July, although the Pope’s indefatigable efforts to bring about Christian collaboration have continued.
In October 2016, Pope Francis celebrated a joint prayer service with Archbishop Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, to mark the 50thanniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, which was an initial effort to bridge long standing divides between Catholics and Anglicans. Welby and Francis have met in person on four occasions and are planning a joint trip to the South Sudan in an effort to bring hope and healing to the war-torn country.
Also in October 2016, Pope Francis made a historical ecumenical pilgrimage to Lund, Sweden to sign a joint statement with the global Lutheran leader Bishop Munib Younan on the 500thanniversary of the Reformation. During that meeting, they pledged to work together in hopes of sharing the same Eucharist.
More recently, in February 2017, Francis visited an Anglican parish in Rome, the first time a pope visited an Anglican church in his own diocese.
All this to say, dotted throughout this papacy there have been significant gestures toward healing old wounds of conflict and bridging internal divides in Christianity.
In that spirit, he arrived in Geneva yesterday where at a joint prayer service, Francis said that living the Christian life requires both a loss of individualism and one’s particular party preferences in order to fully live out the gospel.
“To choose to belong to Jesus before belonging to Apollos or Cephas, to belong to Christ before being ‘Jew or Greek,’ to belong to the Lord before identifying with right or left, to choose, in the name of the Gospel, our brother or our sister over ourselves…in the eyes of the world, this often means operating at a loss,” he said.
Later in the afternoon — after an informal lunch with ecumenical leaders that he would go on to speak about with much enthusiasm on the in-flight press conference back to Rome — Francis recast his vision for Christian unity, where he called for a “new ecumenical spring.”
Speaking to the World Council of Churches, he challenged them to become more “missionary” in their work. Francis reminded them that in order for this new ecumenical spring and new evangelical outreach to occur, the Gospel must be first made attractive, not by “tailoring” it to the ways of the world, but instead, by living it on in joy, harkening back to his very first apostolic exhortation as pope, “The Joy of the Gospel,” which is widely considered the blue print for understanding his papacy.
For Francis, the work of Christian unity has long been centered on building the right relationships rather than a reliance on institutions to facilitate the process. While the formal work of the WCC is obviously critically important, Francis was clearly most excited about the opportunity to commune with fellow Christian pilgrims during his time on the ground.
Capping off the day, Francis celebrated a mass for 40,000 Catholics, where despite preaching to the “home team,” he still focused outward by offering the “Our Father,” — a prayer said by all Christians — as a tool for reclaiming shared Christian roots.
“The ‘Our Father’ is the prayer of us, of the Church,” he said. “It says nothing about me and mine; everything is caught up in the you of God… ‘Our Father’: these two simple words offer us a roadmap for the spiritual life.”
While many of Francis’ remarks on Thursday were focused on the specifics of Christian life, starting first with one’s own daily habits and devotions, as the necessary conditions for creating the proper spirit for unity, he didn’t hesitate to enumerate specific challenges for Christians that he said required joint witness and collaboration — among them being protecting the unborn, the elderly, migrants and refugees, persecuted Christians around the globe, and combatting the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
En route back to Rome, many of the questions on the in-flight press conference — now considered the journalistic highlight of the trip for Francis’ free-spirited answers and candor — focused on the broader topics that he enumerated, specifically on the duty to welcome refugees and the challenges of peace.
“Every country should [welcome new arrivals] with the virtue of government, which is that of prudence, because they should welcome as many refugees as they can, educate, integrate, relieve hunger, and help them find work,” Francis said when asked about the duties government’s have to welcome those seeking refuge.
In order to make progress on any of these issues, however, Francis believes a unified church is a prerequisite.
“Our lack of unity is in fact ‘openly contrary to the will of Christ, but is also a scandal to the world and harms the most holy of causes: the preaching of the Gospel to every creature,’ he said during his first address in Geneva.
“The Lord ask us for unity; our world, torn by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for you,” Francis said.
Upon landing in Rome, Francis made his customary trip to pray at Santa Maria Maggiore — entrusting the fruits of his labors to the Virgin Mary — and perhaps, also saying a few lines from the Our Father, that in seeking unity, things may also be “on earth, as it is in Heaven.”