GENEVA — In an address to nearly 150 Christian leaders from around the world on Thursday, Pope Francis called for a “new ecumenical spring” to redefine efforts towards unity — one marked not by tailoring the faith to “worldly ways of thinking,” but rather, one made possible by an attractive witness to the joy of the Gospel.
While Francis paid brief tribute to those who have been engaged in the work of ecumenism, his was a forward-looking address in which he called on Christians of all confessions to embark on a “new evangelical outreach.”
Among other points stressed by Francis as examples of forces drawing the various Christian confessions together, he drew attention to the plight of Christians suffering from persecution around the globe, particularly those in the Middle East.
“May we never forget that our ecumenical journey is preceded and accompanied by an ecumenism already realized, the ecumenism of blood, which urges us to go forward,” Francis said.
The pontiff arrived in Geneva Thursday morning. He participated in an ecumenical prayer service where he said Christian identity requires abandoning ethnic preferences or party lines as one’s identity.
He then shared a common table — rectangular in size, with no head seat — for a lunch of grilled fish and sautéed vegetables with ecumenical leaders present to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), a global conglomerate of churches working to promote Christian unity that he said was founded in response to the core question at the heart of ecumenism: “How can Christians proclaim the Gospel if they are divided among themselves?”
Noting that he was present in Geneva not only to affirm the Catholic Church’s commitment to the cause, but also to encourage continued work together, Francis offered a reflection on the trip’s motto of “walking, praying, and working together.”
The task of walking, he observed, must have both a direction in mind, but also be defined by movement. He went on to suggest that the movement of ecumenism must be “in and out”: an inward movement in which the body of Christ moves together toward the center in unity, and outward, to take the Gospel out to the rest of the world.
In typical Francis fashion, he used the occasion to remind the Church not to become self-referential to its own interests, but to examine both individual and collective consciences.
“We might ask ourselves whether we are walking in truth or simply in words, whether we present our brothers and sisters to the Lord out of true concern for them, or if they are removed from our real interests,” he heeded.
Prayer, according to Francis, “is the oxygen of ecumenism” — adding that “without prayer, communion becomes stifling and makes no progress, because we prevent the wind of the Spirit from driving us forward.”
For Francis, the goal of Christian unity has long been centered on the work of the Holy Spirit and less on institutions. His approach has been to focus attention on building relationships so that the Holy Spirit may have the freedom — or to use his language on Thursday, the “oxygen” — to move.
While the pope praised the efforts of the various bodies of the WCC and its collaboration with the Catholic Church as “ecumenical team spirit,” he did not hesitate to enumerate challenges facing the world that could be better addressed by a more unified Christian witness.
“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,” he said.
“The more vulnerable are increasingly marginalized, lacking their daily bread, employment and a future, while the rich are fewer and ever wealthier,” he continued. “Let us be challenged to compassion by the cry of those who suffer: ‘the program of the Christian is a heart that sees,’” he said, citing Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Deus Caritas Est.
Those shared trials were also echoed by Reverend Olav Fyske Tveit, who serves as general secretary of the WCC and also offered remarks on his vision for Christian unity.
He spoke of the need to aid refugees, address issues of poverty and economic justice, and issues related to climate change and the environmental degradation, as tangible ways in which Christians can work together.
Tveit maintained, however, that “the realpolitik” of the Church of Jesus Christ is always a matter of love.”
“It is the beginning and the end of all we should say and do together. It is the motivation given by God for the one mission of God — pursued in the ecumenical movement,” he continued. “We should not let anything or anybody—and particularly not our differences as churches—deter us from aspiring to and doing what fulfills this missional imperative.”
Prior to heading back to Rome, Francis will celebrate a Mass for an anticipated 40,000 participants.
Geneva is the second most populous city in Switzerland, home to approximately 3 million Catholics in total, or nearly 40 percent of the population. While the city is known for its Calvinist roots — once a stronghold of Protestantism following the Protestant Reformation, by some estimates the city once again has a majority Catholic population due to an influx of Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish immigrants.
Yet despite concluding the day in front of a Catholic audience, Francis savored the time he had in front of the ecumenical crowd, using his final moments to compel them not to “absolutize certain cultural paradigms” or “get caught up in partisan interests” that could overshadow the work they are called to do in unison.
“Let us help men and women of good will to grow in concern for events and situations that affect a great part of humanity but seldom make it to the front page,” Francis said.
Even so, he reminded them, “we cannot look the other way.”
As he wrapped up his remarks, there were joint affirmations of “Amen.”
“Let us help one another to walk, pray and work together, so that, with God’s help,” he concluded, “unity may grow and the world may believe.”