By Robin Gomes
The visit of Pope Francis to Geneva next week will be his 23rd foreign trip. Even thought it is primarily an ecumenical pilgrimage, the Pope is also visiting his flock in Switzerland.
The daylong visit to the Swiss city intends to to be a step forward in the Church’s continuing quest for unity among Christians, and to confirm the faith of the Catholic faithful of Switzerland who form 38% of the population.
WCC’s 70 years and ecumenism
Pope Francis is going to Geneva to join in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), an event that he considers of great ecumenical importance given the good relations between the WCC and the Catholic Church through the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.
With 350 member Churches in more than 110 countries and territories, the WCC, founded in 1948, is the largest umbrella group of Christian denominations in the world. The WCC represents over 500 million Christians and includes most of world’s Orthodox Churches, a large number of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed Churches, as well as many United and Independent Churches.
Even though the Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, they maintain good relations between them with exchange of visits and sending observers to their respective meetings and events. One important ecumenical activity in which they come together in a special way is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January.
Since 1968, the resources and material used in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity have been jointly prepared year by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC.
Geneva has a special place in the history of the Protestant Reformation, where John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor led the reformation in the 16th-century. Today the Swiss city is the centre of encounter and dialogue, home to the second largest United Nations office after the New York headquarters, as well as numerous international organizations, including the Red Cross.
Next week’s visit is yet another step by the Argentine Pope on the ecumenical path, in line with his trip to Lund, Sweden in 2016, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, with the ongoing fraternal relations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, or with the historic meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana, Cuba on 12 February 2016.
Popes in Geneva
June 21 trip will be the 4th time a pope is visiting the Swiss city. It will also be the third time that the WCC will become the destination of a papal trip.
Blessed Paul VI visited Geneva on June 10, 1969, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO) but he also visited the WCC headquarters.
Pope St. John Paul II visited Geneva on June 15, 1982, during which he visited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and representatives of the Conference of International Catholic Organizations. Two years later, on June 12, 1984, he visited the WCC and the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey.
Christians from North Korea
During his visit to the WCC, Pope Francis will also meet a delegation from North Korea which, together with the Christians of South Korea, are participating in the great Central Committee meeting, June 15-21. The Korean Christians will be present when the pope arrives.
As the spiritual head of the worldwide Catholic Church, Pope Francis will also have time for the Swiss Catholics. He will celebrate Mass at the Palaexpo for Catholics from all over Switzerland.
Pope Francis is scheduled to deliver three speeches during the June 21 visit, including his homily at Mass.
Division among Christians
What started as a small undivided community in the eastern Mediterranean soon after the Ascension of Christ into heaven, Christianity quickly grew in size and influence to become the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. Long after Emperor Constantine transferred the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople, the Roman Empire's Greek East based in Constantinople, and the Latin West centered in Rome, began drifting apart.
The growing estrangement from the 5th to the 11th century, between the two centres came to a head in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism, which split the followers of Christ into Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. This bitter split resulted in mutual excommunication or expulsion of the other from their respective communions.
Later in the 16th century, another major split came about in the form of the Protestant Reformation within the Catholic Church spearheaded by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others.
The bitterness and animosity of the East-West Schism of 1054, continued for more than 900 years. The desire to heal the bitterness and animosity of the past, came from the Catholic Church in the 20th century. Its commitment to re-establish unity among Christians was launched by the Second Vatican Council, 1962 to ‘65.
Since then, great leaders from either side of the divide, particularly Blessed Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide, played important roles in healing the past.
Today, the three largest groups in Christianity are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the various Protestant Churches.