Ecumenism is important to Pope Francis – as evidenced by his one-day visit to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In "journey toward unity," he promotes dialogue and forgiveness.
On the approach to Geneva, center of Christian ecumenism, Francis is doing holding patterns: Over the snow-capped high Alps of the Valais and sunny Lake Geneva. Is this pope moving too fast on ecumenism? For some it may not be fast enough. For others, ecumenism still smacks of heresy.
Right at the beginning of his visit, the pope gives a clear rejection to all fears and attempts at isolation: one could think that ecumenism is "a big losing proposition". But for the sake of unity, which is a commandment of Jesus, it is necessary to put one's own purposes at risk, "which are often closely tied to ethnic affiliations or traditional ideas, whether they are majority 'conservative' or 'progressive'.".
Some participants in the service in the chapel of the Ecumenical Center show understanding smiles or nods. It is not only nationalistic traits of Orthodox churches or charismatic elite consciousness of individual free churches that Francis alludes to. Nearly each of the 350 member churches of the World Council of Churches, as well as the Roman Catholic, has its own ecumenical brakemen.
"I wanted to participate personally"
The third visit of a pope to Geneva – after Paul VI. 1969 and John Paul II. 1984 – applies solely to the World Council of Churches (WCC) on its 70th anniversary. "I wanted to participate personally in the celebrations, also to reaffirm the commitment of the Catholic Church to the ecumenical cause," Francis said. The hosts explicitly acknowledge this: WCC moderator Agnes Abuom speaks of a "sign of hope and encouragement" and a "new quality of cooperation", Metropolitan Gennadios of the fact that Francis' visions inspire and strengthen the cooperation of the churches.
Explicitly thanking those "who have preceded us on the way, choosing the path of forgiveness". To those "who, with the unarmed force of the Gospel, had the courage to reverse the direction of history". Indeed: for centuries, Geneva, once the city-church state of reformer Jean Calvin, was a hotbed of heresy from the Roman perspective. And vice versa. But after World War II and the partial failure of the churches – a cross made of bomb fragments hangs in the chapel – the idea of ecumenism received fresh strength. Here's how the headquarters of intra-Christian dialogue came to be in Geneva, the world's capital of diplomacy.
"More than social work and development aid"
In the former stronghold of the Calvinist Reformation, non-denominational Christians now form the majority, followed by Catholics, who have overtaken Reformed Christians. A strong driving force of ecumenism is also called secularization. That's not the only reason Francis spoke this afternoon of his concern that ecumenism and mission are no longer as closely linked as they were in the beginning.
Church is more than social work and development aid, he says. "What we really need is a new impetus in evangelization," pope urges. That this can and must not go against other churches today, he has made clear several times. Again and again Francis argues with the opposing logic of the Gospel and against worldliness. Likewise, WCC general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit demands from the churches "a response that is different from the response of those in power and that does not put our own interests first.".
Christ at the center
It's about putting Christ at the center, he says. Tveit refers to the tapestry in the congress hall. This shows Christ in the midst of creation and many churches with his commandment written in Greek: That all may be one. Tveit objects to the terse pragmatism of some ecumenism skeptics about whether we can't just live separately from each other. The answer, Tveit said, is simple: the love of Christ commits to unity. Love, he said, is thereby "the realpolitik of the Church of Jesus Christ".
This realpolitik includes political ies. The fact that the pope is meeting an eight-member group of South and North Korean Christians on this day underscores the common concern. Agnes Abuom uses her speech to make an urgent appeal for the church's commitment to women. Like many women, she wears black; "Black Thursday" is a church action against violence against women.
"Journey toward unity"
The difficult terms of ecumenism – ministry and Eucharist – as well as the controversial ies between many churches, such as the ordination of women and sexual morality, are not discussed on this day. Francis stresses need for continued theological dialogue. In any case, mutual forgiveness is always needed, he says at the end of the visit at a Mass with 41.000 believers.
The goal remains clear: "This is a journey toward unity," Francis had declared shortly after the start in Rome. Holdouts or stopovers shouldn't stop ecumenism there.