ROME — If Wittenberg, Germany is where the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, Geneva, Switzerland is where it took root. Nearly 20 years after Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral doors enumerating his theological objections to Roman Catholicism, the French Reformer John Calvin was welcomed to Geneva as the spiritual leader of the then city-state.

Now — nearly 500 years later — on Thursday of this week, the head of another religious city-state, Pope Francis, will arrive in Geneva to celebrate the once-fraught prospect of Christian unity.

In what will mark his 23rd visit outside of Italy since becoming pope, Francis will make a day trip to what is arguably the world capital of diplomacy to engage in some spiritual diplomacy of sorts, as he marks the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches.

Dubbed as an “ecumenical pilgrimage,” Francis will be the third pope to visit the country — though previous trips have taken place over several days. Yet for Francis, the singular intention appears to be to give a booster shot to ongoing ecumenical efforts between various Christian communities. If the past five years of his papacy has been dedicated to the theme of building a “culture of encounter,” it seems fair to summarize this particular visit to Geneva as an “encounter between churches.”

An Encounter of Churches

Francis will depart Rome at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday on what will be one of his shortest international flights to date, landing in Geneva at 10:10 a.m. local time.

After a private meeting with the president of the Swiss confederation, Alain Berset, his first stop in the country will be at the World Council of Churches (WCC), where he will deliver a homily at an ecumenical prayer service.

Founded in 1948, the WCC began as an effort to bring together various Christian churches in the search for greater Christian unity to “seek visible unity in one faith and one Eucharistic fellowship.”

While the first gathering took place in Amsterdam in August 1948 to consolidate several ongoing ecumenical efforts that began after World War I and were interrupted by the chaos of World War II, the WCC found its permanent home in Geneva, which also serves as the site of the second-largest office of the United Nations.

At its founding, the WCC included the membership of 147 churches primarily from Europe and North America. Today, its membership has nearly doubled to include 348 member churches from over 110 countries on six continents, representing 560 million Christians.

While the Roman Catholic Church theoretically could join, it has never joined as an official member — not least because it would in some respects become the elephant in the room, with its dominant representation of 1.4 billion Christians around the globe.

Even so, the Catholic Church has participated in a number of initiatives with the WCC, including having permanent representation on its Faith and Order Commission.

In an interview with Crux, Father Andrzej Choromanski, an official of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and a member of that commission, said “the fundamental message [of this trip] is to say that the Catholic Church recognizes the great contribution of the World Council of Churches in the development of the modern ecumenical movement.”

Choromanski described that collaboration as not merely theological and doctrinal, but also practical.

During recent ecumenical outreach efforts, Francis has used such occasions to announce joint statements or initiatives, such as his September 2017 joint statement with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for the World Day of Prayer for Creation and his October 2016 joint statement with the Lutherans in marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian Protestant theologian who Francis tapped to become the editor of the Argentinian version of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, in 2016, said that while it remains to be seen what concrete initiatives will come from Thursday’s gathering, there are several areas on which we expect specific attention from the pontiff, namely immigration, the poor, and integral ecology.

“We can expect these lines to not only script documents, but open new roads, not only theological, but for me, open roads and ways that we can work together for effective solutions around the world,” Figueroa told Crux.

Personal Encounters over Institutional Action

Following the morning prayer service, Francis will have lunch at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey with the leadership of the WCC. Located just outside of Geneva in an 18th century château, the Institute was founded to be a place of reconciliation aimed at helping facilitate peace after the devastation of World War II.

While Francis usually takes advantage of sharing meals with marginalized members of society — the sick, victims of trafficking, or prisoners, there will be no such occasion on this visit, perhaps a sign of how much he values the occasion to physically break bread and share a meal with his ecumenical counterparts.

After lunch, Francis will once more address the WCC in a more formal speech — an opportunity for him to outline his broad vision for Christian unity.

Similar to his visit to Lund, Sweden, in 2016, the pope’s remarks will likely focus on the future, rather than the past and will reflect an idea of ecumenism driven first and foremost by relationships rather than by institutions.

According to Odair Mateus, director of the Faith and Order Commission for the WCC, Francis’s day in Geneva will be marked by an example of “lived ecumenism.”

“For Pope Francis, lived ecumenism is an encounter in mutual cooperation, emphasizing the importance of being together,” Mateus told Crux.

Such an emphasis on the personal, said Figueroa, is due in large part to Francis’s Argentinian background.

“We have to understand Pope Francis in the way he came from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in Latin America. This is a city in a country in a continent that lived ecumenism with all the brothers and sisters of the other traditions,” Figueroa told Crux.

“He lived that. He received in Buenos Aires this ecumenism of culture and religion as part of his life. It’s very natural. I feel that when Pope Francis said that when he first talked about being elected as a pope from the ends of the earth. He always sees the world from his personal perspective.”

Vatican II Catholicism takes Center Stage

Before closing out his ten hours on the ground, Francis will celebrate Mass for Swiss Catholics — the first papal Mass to take place in the country since John Paul II visited in 2004.

Geneva is the second most populous city in Switzerland, home to approximately 3 million Catholics in total, or nearly 40 percent of the population. Nearly 70,000 attended the 2004 papal mass, and organizers have said that the site of this Mass at the Palexpo convention will be able to accommodate even more.

In celebrating Mass for Swiss Catholics, Francis will be joined by Bishop Charles Morerod of the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg — who has his own history of being steeped in the realm of dialogue.

Prior to being named bishop, Morerod, a Dominican, served as rector at the Angelicum and, notably, since 2009, has been a member of a Vatican team aimed at reconciliation with the Society of Saint Pius X, the breakaway traditionalist Catholic fraternity established in 1970 after rejecting elements of the Second Vatican Council.

Those realities of Vatican II will be alive and well on Thursday, which served as a major turning point in which the Catholic Church reoriented itself from standing apart from other forms of Christian communion to seeking a deepening of mutual respect and dialogue.

“The day he will spend in Geneva will be very much focused on the conservation of this ongoing cooperation,” Mateus told Crux.

“It will be very ecclesial as it will be an encounter with other churches that are not in communion with Rome, but with which, Rome is in dialogue, so the atmosphere will be one of thanksgiving, celebration, and the growing aspiration of continued cooperation between the Catholic Church and other churches.”

A “New Spring” for Christian Unity

In a recent interview with the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, general secretary of the WCC, Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, described the current state of ecumenical relations as a “new spring” under Francis.

Yet despite the hope of things to come, Tveit acknowledged internal tensions within the WCC, noting that while there was unity within the WCC on working together to combat matters such as poverty, hunger, and climate change, there was still serious tension between member churches of other more neuralgic issues, such as that of human sexuality.

Even so, there is far more that unites Christian communities than there is cause for rupture, he maintained.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who serves as a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, also echoed similar sentiments ahead of this week’s ecumenical pilgrimage to Geneva.

“I’ve said over and over again, and our Holy Father says this in the way in which he carries out his responsibilities, that we Christians have much more that unites us, when we look at the secular world, than divides us, and we have to be conscious of that all of the time,” he told Crux.

I think our Holy Father’s trip to Geneva simply underlines that,” said Wuerl. “He’s a Second Vatican Council pope and here we are all those years later, celebrating the World Council of Churches at their headquarters saying ‘we’re very pleased to be able to welcome you as a sign of our efforts together.’”

Francis will depart for Rome from Geneva at 8 p.m. on Thursday, and will engage in his customary in-flight press conference where he is likely to face some of the thornier questions of ecumenism — such as that of intercommunion for Protestants or the role of women in the Church — yet as Choromanski told Crux, they should not overshadow the central theme of the trip, which is that of “walking and praying together.”

Rather than being viewed as roadblocks for “dynamic ecumenism,” according to Choromanski, “We must take on these challenges together.”

Yet along with that commitment to working together, Wuerl also used the occasion to note that amidst the celebration, the task of Christian unity is a journey and Geneva should merely be viewed as an encouraging signpost of promising things ahead, rather than a finish line.

“The ecumenical state of the relations of Churches is very good,” said Wuerl. “My caution is, that we may be taking it for granted, that we’ve been at this for so long, and we’ve made such progress, we may be just taking it for granted and think ‘okay we can turn our attention to other things.’”

“But no, no,” he insisted, “The trip to Geneva is going to remind us that this has to still be a front burner issue.”

Crux’s Christopher White will be traveling on the papal plane with Pope Francis on Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212 for continued updates and stay tuned at