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Ecumenism and Global Governance: Pope Francis in Geneva.

Ecumenism against the Backdrop of Global Governance

At 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 June 2018, flight AZ4000 departed Fiumicino airport in Rome heading for Geneva with Pope Francis, his entourage, and accredited members of the press on board. This was Pope Francis' 23rd international journey. He is the third pope to have set foot in Switzerland, following Paul VI and John Paul II. For the first time, a Chinese correspondent was among the journalists on the papal plane. (1)

As Francis said when he wished the journalists a pleasant flight, this was "a journey toward unity." (2) The journey marked the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), founded in Amsterdam on 23 August 1948. (3) The pope described the aim of the visit as being 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." (4)

The Ecumenical Centre, where the headquarters of the WCC are located, is also home to many other church and religious organizations, among them the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), and the Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (ECLOF). The centre is surrounded by a garden containing several memorials, including a section of the Berlin Wall. Among the many works of art within the centre and its chapel is the Cross of Reconciliation, made of fragments from Second World War bombs.

The ecumenical institution also reflects the climate of international cooperation that is palpable in Geneva. Home to the United Nations, the city hosts a large number of international bodies, institutions, and organizations, as well as NGOs. Effectively, it is the natural point of reference in fields such as peace, security, disarmament, humanitarian action and law, human rights, and migration. As we will see, these two elements--ecumenism and global governance--need to be held together to understand the meaning of Francis' visit to the city of John Calvin.

Overview of the Visit

The pope's day--inspired by the theme "Walking, praying and working together"--included three public appearances in just over 13 hours: common prayer in the Ecumenical Centre, an afternoon meeting at the centre's Visser't Hooft Hall, and then mass at Geneva's Palexpo exhibition centre for Switzerland's Catholic community. The day also included a cordial encounter with the president of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset; lunch and a meaningful exchange of gifts with the leadership of the WCC; and finally a meeting with the Swiss Roman Catholic bishops.

This was, then, a short visit, but one with a clear objective: encounter. During the press conference on the return flight, the pope summed up the visit as a "day of encounters. Multifaceted. The right word for the day is encounter, and when a person encounters another and feels pleased with the encounter, this always touches the heart." (5)

In this sense, lunch was a particularly important moment, also because it took place at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, an international centre for dialogue and ecumenical formation under the auspices of the WCC. (6) Here the pope was welcomed by, among others, the institute's director, Fr loan Sauca, a Romanian Orthodox priest, and the institute's new academic dean, Fr Lawrence Iwuamadi from Nigeria, the first Catholic to take up this role. The Ecumenical Centre, on the other hand, was the setting for the pope's public appearances--the ecumenical prayer in the morning and the moment of reflection in the afternoon. These events brought together representatives of the 350 member churches of the WCC. The wealth of diversity within the WCC was evident from the origin and languages of those in attendance, from the differences in ecclesiastical dress, as well as from the intercessions and prayers led by Christians from Ethiopia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Jamaica, Egypt, Argentina, and Samoa.

In the morning, the pope was welcomed by Dr Agnes Abuom from Kenya, the moderator of the WCC's central committee, and by the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit from Norway, the WCC's general secretary, who highlighted the "common commitment to the challenges facing today's world" and to "common witness." (7) Prayers of intercession appealed to the Lord to "Come into the brokenness of our lives and our lands." (8)

Francis' visit was an acknowledgement of the work of the WCC. While the WCC does not claim to reach a consensus on all matters, it remains an ecumenical platform where churches respect one another and work together.

"Come into the Brokenness of Our Lands!"

What was the starting point and inspiration for the visit of Francis? It was his vision of a world divided and broken, and his understanding of the gospel as a force for integration and unity. For the pope, reflection on ecumenism cannot spring from abstract issues or theological disputes, but must start with genuine contemplation of the world. In a divided world, ecumenism is a prophetic sign that not only Christians, but also nations and peoples, must seek greater unity. Dr Abuom confirmed this, too, at the very beginning of her address in the afternoon: "Our shared hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the common witness of the churches are antidotes to despair and indifference at a time of fragmentation and powerful self-interests that tend to triumph over solidarity, justice and peace." (9)

Pope Francis knows the real danger today is fear, which manages to galvanize the masses and is even rewarded with electoral success. The more that fear is instilled in people's hearts, the easier it becomes to conquer the spaces of power, multiplying division and hatred. On his return flight, the pope talked about the dangers of populism combined with fundamentalism. (10)

Those who believed in ecumenical dialogue, however, Pope Francis said in his afternoon address, "did not allow themselves to be mired in disagreements, but instead looked courageously to the future, believing in unity and breaking down barriers of suspicion and of fear" (11) Therefore, "we are heirs to the faith, charity and hope of all those who, by the nonviolent power of the Gospel, found the courage to change the course of history, a history that had led us to mutual distrust and estrangement, and thus contributed to the infernal spiral of continual fragmentation" (12) In these words, we find not only a reflection on our own times, but also an appeal to change the course of history--and not just the history of Christianity, but also of the world.

To focus his message, the pope explored the symbolism of the number 70, the number of years since the foundation of the WCC. This is the number of the "disciples whom Jesus, during his public ministry, sent out on mission (cf. Lk 10:1), and who are commemorated in some Churches of the Christian East." But this is not a random number. It "reflects the number of the world's peoples found in the first pages of the Bible (cf. Gen. 10)." What does this then suggest, "if not that mission is directed to all nations"? (13) The church exists for the world, for all people and in their service. Ecumenism is rooted not in debate but rather in mission to a divided world. "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?" We are called upon to be united "so that the world may believe" (John 17:21). (14) E, cumenism and mission are a couplet: they must always go hand in hand. Thus, ecclesial communities and peoples, the church and the world belong together.

"I am convinced," the pope said, "that an increased missionary impulse will lead us to greater unity. Just as in the early days, preaching marked the springtime of the Church, so evangelization will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical spring." (15) Without mission, ecumenism is reduced to polite conversation or theoretical reflection.

Once again, Francis returned to the image--now applied to all ecclesial communities--of a church facing outward "towards the many existential peripheries of today's world, in order to join in bringing the healing grace of the Gospel to our suffering brothers and sisters." The churches possess a great treasure: "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings (Phil. 3:10)...This is the treasure that we, though earthen vessels...must offer to our world, so beloved vet so deeply troubled? We would not be good guardians of this treasure, the pope continued, "if we tried only to preserve it, burying it for fear of the world and its challenges." (16)

Dr Abuom picked up the same theme, addressing the pope with these words: "You came from Rome to Geneva. We hope that we can move on with you as fellow pilgrims, on our way: visiting the wounds of those who are suffering; celebrating God's gift of life; and engaging together in transformative actions that lift up the lives of people wherever there is need for justice and peace. Our prayer is that we can journey together to build bridges and create spaces for the divided and isolated people to reconnect and experience mutually enriching relationships. The world is waiting for us Christians to be together actors for justice and peace, putting those at the periphery at the centre." (17) In this regard, Dr Abuom mentioned the work of the WCC in South Sudan, Colombia, Korea, and Burundi.

It is worth noting that among those who greeted Francis before his afternoon meeting was a delegation of four representatives from South Korea and four from North Korea, the latter on behalf of the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) and the Korean Religionist Association. An international ecumenical delegation, comprising representatives from the WCC and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), visited Pyongyang from 3-7 May 2018, having been invited by North Korea's KCF.

Walking through History in the Footsteps of God

For Francis, the best question to ask in an ecumenical context is: What can we do together? During the afternoon meeting, the pope stressed that the
credibility of the Gospel is put to the test by the way Christians
respond to the cry of all those, in every part of the world, who suffer
unjustly from the baleful spread of an exclusion that, by generating
poverty, foments conflicts. The more vulnerable are increasingly
marginalized, lacking their daily bread, employment and a future, while
the rich are fewer and ever more wealthy.

This was followed by a stern warning that it is "problematic when Christians appear indifferent toward those in need." (18)

The pope continued by making a clear, direct, and uncompromising attack on the so-called theologies of prosperity, particularly popular in the United States, that interpret worldly success as a divine sign: "Even more troubling is the conviction on the part of some who consider their own blessings clear signs of God's predilection rather than a summons to responsible service of the human family and the protection of creation." (19)

This reflection can help us to better understand the appeal made by Francis in the morning, in the context of prayer, to walk "always in search of something greater," with perseverance, method, constancy, and patience--not as a "strategy," but as an "act of obedience." (20) God moves and calls us with spiritual consolation, which is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). To move forward is to be moved by this consolation, being quietly "led where God would have us." (21) The walk toward unity is not a "strategy." It is to "lose everything in the footsteps of Jesus...playing our part in history but in God's good time." It is to walk not with the heavy footsteps of prevarication but with a steady step measured by the "one commandment: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'" (22)

Divisions among Christians have occurred throughout history "because at their root, in the life of communities, a worldly mindset has seeped in. First, self-concern took priority over concern for Christ." (23)

It might be objected, Pope Francis said, that to "walk in this way is to operate at a loss, since it does not adequately protect the interests of individual communities, often closely linked to ethnic identity or split along party lines, whether 'conservative' or 'progressive.'" Ecumenism itself, therefore, is "a great enterprise operating at a loss." (24)

Father, Bread, Forgiveness

Meeting the Catholic community for the mass at Palexpo, the pope picked out three words from the gospel that can lead us to the heart of faith: "Father, bread, forgiveness." Their meaning has a direct bearing on the life of our societies.

"As Christians, we do not pray to some generic deity, but to God who is, before all else, our Father. Jesus told us to say 'Our Father, who are in heaven," not 'God of heaven, who are Father.' Before all else, even before his being infinite and eternal, God is Father... Those words solve the problem of our isolation, our sense of being orphans." (25) They render us children of one father, and therefore establish a radical fraternity. And this is of great value within our "often rootless" societies. Here, Francis returns to the theme of fear that poisons our coexistence: "Where the Father is present, no one is excluded; fear and uncertainty cannot gain the upper hand." Our awareness and our perception of God's fatherhood "give us new life and make us one large family." (26)

Within this awareness of human family, injustice and poverty are revealed as scandalous: "Woe to those who speculate on bread! The basic food that people need for their daily lives must be accessible to everyone."

Forgiveness, finally, is the key phrase of the Our Father. Pope Francis stresses that ecumenism is a prophetic sign recognized throughout Christian history: "Forgiving one another, rediscovering after centuries of disagreements and conflicts that we are brothers and sisters, how much good this has done us and continues to do!" (27)

Changing the Course of History

The pope's visit to Geneva had a clear objective: to appeal to the common commitment of Christians to proclaim the gospel and its saving grace in a world of--and these were his key words--challenges, torment, suffering, fractures, tragedy, and exclusion. The city of Geneva--which, together with New York, constitutes the centre of the world's multilateral diplomacy and global governance--acted as a backdrop to this appeal. Francis travelled to the "centre" to talk about the challenges of the peripheries and the margins, just as he had done in Strasbourg, metaphorically arriving from his previous journev to Albania.

To commemorate the Reformation, Francis travelled to Lund, in Sweden, in 2016 and not to the centre, in Germany. (28) This time, however, Francis travelled to Geneva, the centre of the institution that brings churches into dialogue, but also the centre of global multilateral diplomacy. In this way, he sent another message: harmony in today's pluralistic society is impossible as long as we fail to embrace faith and continue to encounter each other only on a human level, excluding the transcendent. The gospel, however, is a force for harmony and commitment to a better world.

In the pope's view, what leads to division is a "worldliness" that blinds us with fear and the thirst for power. Among its consequences are the rise of "ethnicism" and the risk of fundamentalism. Instead, the path to be taken is that of "obedience" to the "consolation" of the Spirit that leads us to act together for the life of the world.

Like the leaders of the WCC, Francis spoke with a sense of realism, while focusing determinedly on a prophetic stance and the future path. The burning reality of the world we inhabit requires us to seek the greatest possible unity. To be disciples of Christ is to actively collaborate with God in transforming the world.

In his final address, the bishop of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg, Charles Morerod, thanked Francis with these words: "Thank YOU, tor not allowing us to sleep comfortably among those who are 'certain,' while neglecting the thousands of people for whom Christ gave his life." (29)

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

Antonio Spadaro, SJ, is director of La Civilta Cattolica, published in Rome. He travelled with

Pope Francis to the World Council of Churches in June 2018.

(1) This is an edited translation of an article that first appeared in Italian in La Civilta Cattolica 4033 (2018), 77-84, and in English in La Cirilta Cattolica (English edition) 1808 (2018), 60-68.

(2) Pope Francis, "Greeting to Journalists on the Flight to Geneva," 21 June 2018, nevra.html.

(3) The significance of the WCC as an institution and the expectations surrounding this visit were explored in an in-depth interview with Pastor Martin Robra, published in various languages by La Civilta Cattolka and widely shared by the WCC itself. See Antonio Spadaro, "Pope Francis at the World Council of Churches: An interview with Pastor Martin Robra," La Civilita Cattolka, 31 May 2018, and

(4) "Address by His Holiness Pope Francis," Ecumenical Review 70:3 (October 2018), 570;

(5) Pope Francis, "Press conference on the return flight from Geneva," 21 June 2018,

(6) The Institute is based in the 18th-century Chateau of Bossey, located in the countryside approximately 25 kilometres from Geneva. Founded in 1946, the institute welcomes students and researchers from around the world for specialist training in ecumenical theology, missiologv, and social ethics. The staff is made up of teachers from different religious confessions and theological backgrounds. The institute's courses are based on an educational approach that combines academic research, intercultural learning through community life, and spiritual experience.

(7) See the order of service, "Walking, Praying and Working Together: Ecumenical Prayer in the Chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva," 21 June 2018, 1-2.

(8) Ibid.

(9) "Address by Dr Agnes Abuom, Moderator of the WCC Centra] Committee," Ecumenical Review 70:3 (October 2018), 566;

(10) See Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,"

(11) "Address by His Holiness Pope Francis," 568. All italics in the papal speeches quoted have been added by the author.

(12) Ibid., 569.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid, 570.

(16) Ibid, 569.

(17) "Address by Dr Agnes Abuom," 567.

(18) "Address by His Holiness Pope Francis," 571.

(19) Ibid.

(20) "Homily by His Holiness Pope Francis," Ecumenical Review 70:3 (October 2018), 561, 563;

(21) Ibid., 362.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ibid., 563.

(25) Pope Francis, "Homily of" his Holiness," Palexpo, Geneva, 21 June 2018,

(26) Ibid.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Sec Giancarlo Pani, "Il viaggio del Papa in Svezia" [The Pope's voyage in Sweden], La Civilta Cattolka 3994 (2018), 381-92,


DOI: 10.1111/erev.12410
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Author:Spadaro, Antonio
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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