NEW YORK — On the very day Pope Francis was elected in 2013, the head of the World Council of Churches was meeting with colleagues discussing how to “develop a wholeness in our ecumenical work,” when he offered the example of Francis of Assisi.
He is “a role model of what we’re talking about of the faith perspective, of the missionary perspective, of the relationship to nature and to God’s calling to the poor and to people of other faith,” Olav Fykse Tveit recalls telling his team. “Let us use Saint Francis as a model of how God calls us to justice and peace.”
When, hours later, the new pope appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s taking Francis of Assisi as his namesake, Tveit took it to be a providential sign that the two would be great collaborators in the work of Christian ecumenism.
Now, as Tveit, who has led the World Council of Churches (WCC) since January 2010 and just last month finished ten years on the job as general secretary, looks back at his work, he told Crux that one of the things he’s proudest of is the “practical ecumenism” pursued together with Pope Francis.
The WCC was founded in 1948 to bring together various Christian churches to “seek visible unity in one faith and one Eucharistic fellowship.” The project was birthed out of several initiatives following the First World War and then took root after the Second World War, setting up headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
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.
Although the Catholic Church has never been a part of the WCC, it has permanent representation on its Faith and Order Commission, and in June 2018, Pope Francis traveled to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the WCC’s founding.
Soon after arriving in his post, Tveit had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, where at the time he said relations between the WCC and the Vatican were “quite good.” He recalls getting along well with Benedict, who related to him as theologian to theologian, given Tveit’s background work as Lutheran scholar.
The two enjoyed long chats, Tveit recalled, but he also realized there was “unused potential” and that following Pope Francis’ election, a more proactive effort between the two bodies emerged with a focus on practical initiatives defined by the mantra of “let’s do together what we can do together.”
This was Francis’s “very clear message form the very beginning,” said Tveit, who observed that while scholarship and theology are foundational, “we cannot separate theology from the work for peace, the care of God’s creation, to deal with the situation of the poor and migrants.”
“It must be diakonia,” Tveit continued, drawing on the Greek word for service or helping those in need.
This, he says, is the major breakthrough between the WCC and the Vatican during Francis’ pontificate, Tveit says, of an understanding of ecumenism as a diakonia, of “service to the world.”
When Francis traveled to Geneva in 2018, the theme was “walking, working, and praying together,” which Tveit says was meant to offer a “pilgrimage motif” for the occasion.
As pilgrims, ecumenism for both the WCC and the Catholic Church, Tveit says, has to be oriented toward service. In particular, he says that one major area of shared service and collaboration has been in the realm of ecology.
“We are not here to dominate, we are here to be pilgrims together, and I think that has really shown its effect when we talk about how to deal with God’s creation.”
He says that Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, which demands new action to care for the environment, “sums up” what the WCC has been working on for the last 40 years.
Tveit also points to the defense of migrants and resisting the rising tides of nationalism in recent years as example of joint service. All of it, he argues, has been fueled by a renewed understanding that “ecumenism is for the purpose of God’s mission in the world.”
He cites Pope Francis reminder to the two entities cannot “forget that we are together in mission.”
That common mission, Tveit said, “is not for ourselves, but to share the Gospel” — and that understanding, “has become much stronger in recent years.”
When Francis traveled to Geneva, some speculated that it was partially an effort to inch the Catholic Church closer toward membership in the WCC.
Tveit, however, says there’s never been any discussion of that possibility with Francis and, the two bodies probably work best as they do now.
For starters, he notes that the membership of the Catholic Church is more than twice the size of the total membership of the WCC churches combined and could possibly overwhelm the WCC. Plus, since the Vatican is also a sovereign state, Tveit speculates that it could present challenges when the WCC wanted to comment on a particular political situation.
“Would it really work?” he ponders aloud. “I’m not sure. I don’t think we should pursue that now. I think it’s much more important to pursue what we can do together with the framework we have.”
After a decade of leading the WCC, Tveit has now returned to his homeland of Norway, where he has now been elected the head of the bishops’ conference of the Church of Norway, which is affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t able to travel to Rome at the beginning of March for a scheduled farewell visit with Francis, but he’s confident that the work the two have done together will continue.
For starters, he says Francis will “inspire me in my role as a bishop.” Beyond that, however, he takes pride in knowing that the work of ecumenism has been a “step forward” and “not a manifestation of our division.”
“This has been an affirmation for me that we share in the basics of our belief in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen,” said Tveit. “This is what it’s really about — not about institutions, but our call to follow Christ is what’s driving us.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212