Pope Francis seeks ‘unity’ with non-Catholics in Geneva

Pope Francis called on Thursday for deeper unity between the Catholic Church and other Christian faiths as he visited Geneva, a centre of Protestantism, amid Christianity's waning influence in Europe.

Pope Francis seeks 'unity' with non-Catholics in Geneva
Pope Francis (R) greets the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Olav Fykse Tveit. Photo: AFP/Vatican media

“I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace,” Francis told a prayer gathering at Geneva's Ecumenical Centre, shortly after arriving in the City of Calvin.

The pontiff, who was met by Swiss President Alain Berset at Geneva airport, said Christians were called to follow a path with “a clear aim, that of unity.”

Read also: Pope's visit provides financial headache for Swiss bishopric

He came at the invitation of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which was created in 1948 and groups around 350 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches from more than 100 countries around the world, with around half a billion believers among them.

At the start of his one-day visit, he took part in an “ecumenical prayer” for the organisation's 70th anniversary, highlighting his commitment to unity between various Christian denominations.

'Unbridled consumerism'

“In the course of history, divisions between Christians have often arisen because at their root, in the life of communities, a worldly mindset has seeped in,” he told the 230 Christians of various denominations gathered before him.

The pope warned that “indifference prevails in the streets of today's world. Driven by our instincts, we become slaves to unbridled consumerism, and God's voice is gradually silenced.”

Read also: Why the Pope's visit to the Protestant heartland of Geneva is important

“How hard it is to leave behind centuries-old disagreements and mutual recriminations,” he acknowledged, but insisted that “our differences must not be excuses… We can pray, evangelise and serve together.”

“Our world, torn by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for unity,” he said.

Historically, divisions between the Catholic Church and the Protestant confessions have run deep.

The dissenting movement launched by Martin Luther more than 500 years ago and its strict interpretation ingrained in Geneva by John Calvin in the mid-16th century launched centuries of often bloody divisions in Europe.

WCC chief Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran pastor, told AFP prior to the pope's visit that “it is not difficult to find issues that are still dividing Christians,” pointing to attitudes towards “human sexuality and 
family life”.

But he said there was movement towards Christians across denominations becoming “more united, and the pope's visit is a sign of that.”

'Speaks for all Christians'

“I think that many Christians, whether they are Catholics or not, see him as a strong voice for what we want to say as Christians today,” he said pointing to the pope's message of love and inclusiveness.

“In that sense, he speaks for all Christians,” he said.

The Catholic Church is not part of the WCC but Francis is keen to close the gap between its 1.3 billion-strong faithful and the Churches under the WCC umbrella, in particular given the regularity of deadly attacks on Christians.

In April, Egypt sentenced 36 people to death for their role in a string of bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Cairo, Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta between 2016 and 2017 that killed at least 80 people.

The pontiff has at times faced criticism for making ecumenism and interreligious dialogue — most notably with Muslims — one of the priorities of his pontificate. 

He has frequently referred to “ecumenism of blood”, deploring the indiscriminate murder of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

“If the enemy unites us in death, who are we to be divided in life?” Francis asked in 2015.

Swiss guard

In a nod to his Swiss hosts, Francis's plane was met Thursday by two former Swiss guards, the stoic papal soldiers who have vowed to sacrifice all for the pontiff if need be.

The Swiss guard was created in 1506, making it the oldest army in the world, and is made up solely of soldiers recruited among celibate, Roman Catholic Swiss citizens.

Read also: Swiss guards to get new plastic hats made by 3D printer

The pope is due to wrap up his lightning tour to Geneva by celebrating Mass before some 41,000 Catholics at the city's Palexpo convention centre.

In Switzerland, a country of some eight million people, 41 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and around a quarter identify as Protestant.


First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church

There was a riot last time St Pierre's cathedral in Geneva hosted a Catholic Mass in 1535, with clergymen chased out and statues and treasures looted.

First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church
Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the first Catholic Mass in 500 years, poses in front of the St Pierre's cathedral, a bastion of Swiss Reformation, on February 19, 2020 in Geneva. Photo: FA

On Saturday, the first Catholic Mass since that day in what became a centre of the Protestant Reformation promises to be a more sedate affair.

Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the Mass, told AFP he planned to express “respect and gratitude” to Protestant friends for hosting it.

Desthieux said he would also apologise on behalf of all the Catholics who had “disrespected, misjudged and condemned” Protestants over the centuries.

The Reformation triumphed in Switzerland in 1536 under the leadership of John Calvin and the building — which was run by the Roman Catholic Church for 1,000 years — was taken over by the Protestant Church.

The cathedral, which has Calvin's wooden chair on display, “is a symbolic place for all Genevans”, Desthieux said, adding that nearby Catholic churches would be closed to encourage the faithful to go there.

Pastor Emmanuel Fuchs, head of the Protestant Church in Geneva, said the 6:30 pm (1730 GMT) mass was a way of moving forward “on the path of reconciliation”.

“We cannot remain prisoners of history. History has to elevate us, not keep us in a straitjacket,” he said.

In a city where Catholicism is once again the main religion, Protestant and Catholic leaders said the two churches are already co-operating in many areas — including joint chaplaincies for the sick or prisoners.

'No hidden agenda'

Even with widespread approval in both communities, however, Saturday's Mass remains a sensitive issue.

The Vatican and Protestant Churches still do not recognise each other's legitimacy and many Protestants remain highly suspicious of the papacy.

Religious leaders are careful to play down any suspicion that the Mass is an attempt by Catholics to regain lost territory in the land of Calvin.

“Some people are surprised, some disappointed, some may even be quite angry at this initiative,” Fuchs said.

“But we are a Church that has a habit of debating, a church where we take decisions democratically.

I think a large consensus has been achieved.” Desthieux said there was “no hidden agenda” and “no intention to take back the cathedral”.

“We already have our basilica and we have enough big churches,” he said, referring to the Notre-Dame of Geneva basilica. Fuchs said he was sure the Catholic Church would celebrate the Mass “with the intelligence and subtlety that the place and the moment demand”.

Asked whether the experiment might be repeated, Fuchs said “let's see how things go” on both the Protestant and Catholic sides after the mass.

“We will have time to discuss it afterwards, to see what the fruit of this initiative could be,” he said.