Work in progress in Geneva in the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, where Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive on June 21. Preparations for the visit are in full swing but the details are yet to be defined. One thing is sure: Pope Francis’ visit at the WCC “is a sign of hope for justice and peace in a torn, divided world.” We addressed the subject with WCC Secretary General Rev. Olaf Fykse Tveit, following the press conference in the Vatican press room where Rev. Dr Tveit and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, presented the event. The Pope will travel to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the ecumenical organism founded in 1948 on the ashes of the Second World War as a sign of unity and reconciliation. Today the WCC counts 348 member Churches –Protestant, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox churches– representing 500 million Christians. The theme of the visit is “Walking, Praying, Working Together”.
70 years of history. It could be said that the foundation of the WCC corresponds to the birth of the ecumenical movement. It was 1948 and Europe was recovering from the Second World War. What was the “dream” that led its founding fathers to establish a World Council of Churches? It would be more accurate to say that it dates back to many years before the outbreak of the Second World War. In fact in 1910, in Edinburgh, a missionary Conference invited the Churches to bear joint witness to Christ in the world and identify paths of unity. A few years later, in 1920, the then Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople called upon the Churches to strengthen their mutual cooperation, and in 1937 leaders of various Christian Churches – Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox – agreed to set up a Council. Thus when the WCC was founded in 1948, the dream of visible unity of the Churches had already been thriving for a long time before. But when that dream came true Europe was recovering from the tragedy of a world war and Christians were aware that they were divided and thus so was their Christian witness in the world. The WCC was born against this backdrop:
to build peace on the ruins of the war and bear joint witness to Christ in a divided world.
The establishment of a Council of Churches was the ideal path leading to the accomplishment of that dream.
Circumstances today are very similar. The world is torn apart by conflicts, Pope Francis warns us of a third world war fought piecemeal. Is that dream of Churches’ visible unity still thriving? It is, we see it every day. We see it in all those people actively working for unity. We see it in the Churches’ joint commitment in many conflict zones across the globe. We see it in all those who believe in the values of the Kingdom of God in a divided world. This vision of unity is not only for the Church but for the whole of humanity.
The WCC is actively engaged in many of the world’s hottest fronts, ranging from Syria to North Korea, to South Sudan… What is the WCC’s mission today? It contributes to reconciliation and peace, carrying out its commitment in various conflict zones where human beings kill other human beings and where human life seems to have lost its value. In these contexts we seek to encourage the peoples to find non-violent solutions to the conflicts. The WCC feels that its mission today is to support the Churches in these areas of tension and contribute to the onset of peace especially in areas where it is most seriously threatened, as in Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, Nigeria. WCC carries out its commitment also in Europe, encouraging Christians to create bridges and build peace.
Pope Francis will travel to Geneva for the 70th anniversary of the WCC. Did you invite him or was it his own initiative? We have invited him. We wished to avail ourselves of this opportunity, namely the 70th anniversary of the WCC, to reaffirm the strong bond existing between the Churches and with the Catholic Church, as he has always done in his speeches, letters and especially with his personal commitment to cooperate at many different levels. This visit will be a further witness to our unity in the mission and to our joint service to humanity to Churches across the globe. It is no coincidence that the theme chosen for the visit is: “Walking, Praying, Working Together”.
Why is the visit important for you? It’s important for each of the 348 member Churches of the WCC worldwide. It’s important to see the many fruits of the work done over the past 70 years in the path towards unity. The Catholic Church, although she is not a member of the WCC, has given a great contribution. This visit will thus be an affirmation of reality, of our commitment and of the progress made so far, but it will also be an invitation for the future, perhaps an inspiration to continue bringing forth this commitment and proceed along this path. It is also meant as a sign of hope for the world:
Namely, to show that it is possible to live out differences in a reconciled manner.
In Lund Pope Francis signed a joint statement for social cooperation with the Lutheran World Federation. Something similar is being planned for Geneva. It is said that you will launch a joint initiative for peace. Could you tell us something more about this? In which direction are you working? The details of the visit will be released at a later stage, also because they are still being defined. As compared to Lund, this is a different event. In Lund Catholics and Lutherans came together for the first time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. The WCC is a Council of Churches. We are called to find the ways to cooperate together.
The world is experiencing one of the most critical periods in human history. Conflicts, migrations, nuclear threats, climate changes. What can the Churches do together? If I may, I would like to reverse the question because there is nothing that the Churches cannot do together. Why shouldn’t we work together to fight poverty? Why shouldn’t cooperate for negotiations and for peace? Why shouldn’t we work together to strengthen relations between Christians and Muslims? Why shouldn’t we work together for peace in Jerusalem? Why shouldn’t we all be jointly committed to overcome the crisis of climate change and why shouldn’t we be united to ensure a better future to our children? What I want to say is that today’s challenges are far too complex to be solved on our own. Our greatest contribution today is to work for humanity and do so together and with whoever shares our values.
Promoting processes of political change is certainly important, but changes start with people, with communities, and the Churches are significant players.