On Friday, the Vatican's point-man on interreligious dialogue said Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Geneva, which will have a largely ecumenical theme, is a prime example of just how important the topic is for the current pontificate.
Speaking to journalists about the trip March 2, Cardinal Kurt Koch said “the pope has a very ecumenical heart. Ecumenism, the unity of Christians, is very much in the Holy Father's heart.”
Noting how ecumenism was also a major priority coming out of the Second Vatican Council, Koch said the trip was “an adequate way” to unite the desire of the Council and that of Pope Francis.
For Francis, ecumenism “is not just an ecumenical dialogue,” but, as the pontiff has often said, it means working together, praying together and collaborating in joint initiatives.
Christians, the cardinal said, must do “everything that we can” to work for this unity.
Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, presented the theme, relevant background and expected schedule to journalists following the official March 2 announcement of the trip by the Vatican.
Pope Francis is making the trip, which is set to take place June 21, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches.
Founded in 1948, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is a global fellowship of churches seeking to foster unity among different Christian confessions throughout the globe. It has some 348 members in 110 countries worldwide.
These members represent more than 500 million Christians, including Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist churches, as well as many Reformed, United and Independent churches.
The Holy See is not a member of the WCC, but it is an observer and routinely sends representatives to the organization's meetings.
By visiting the WCC headquarters in Geneva, Pope Francis will follow in the steps of his two predecessors: Bl. Paul VI, who traveled to the WCC in June 1969, and St. John Paul II, who followed suit in June 1984.
John Paul II was the most recent pope to visit Switzerland, having traveled there for a six-day visit in 2004 as one of his last international trips.
The theme for Pope Francis' visit is “Walking — Praying — Working Together.” In his presentation, Cardinal Koch said this theme reflects what the pope has defined as the “ecumenism of walking together.”
“On several occasions, the Holy Father encouraged the churches to journey together in witnessing to their faith and in facing our contemporary challenges,” he said, adding that walking together in this way helps Christians to better appreciate their common heritage and the things they already have in common.
It also allows Christians to understand the differences that still exist, particularly on doctrinal or moral issues, he said. However, while overcoming points of theological divergence is an important part of achieving unity, there is more to the process.
“It also must include collaboration for those who are in need, and for the many victims of wars, injustice, and natural disasters,” Koch said, and stressed the need to pray both for and with one another.
Though the Pope's official schedule has yet to be released, the cardinal said the day trip would likely begin with a courtesy visit to Swiss President Alain Berset, after which Francis will head to the WCC headquarters for a moment of ecumenical prayer in the center's chapel.
He will also attend a special session of the WCC's Central Committee dedicated to the anniversary celebration. Afterward, the Pope is expected to celebrate Mass for the Catholic community in Switzerland before heading back to Rome.
While the majority of the founding members came from Europe and North America, currently the bulk of the WCC membership is in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.
This change reflects wider shifts in the presence of Christians throughout the world, Koch said, and “can be an encouragement for Europeans to rediscover Christianity.”
Also present at the March 2 presentation of the trip was Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, secretary general of the WCC. Speaking to journalists, he said the Pope's trip is “a landmark visit” and “a sign of hope not just for us, but for all who long and work for unity in the world.”
“We see it as a sign of how we as Christian churches can affirm our common calling and our mission of [serving] Christ together,” he said, adding that visits such as this are steps that help build hope for future generations.
“Hope is a critical dimension of our lives that is essential to be able to handle suffering” and the many challenges the world faced, he said, and prayed that the Pope's visit would be a concrete sign of this hope.