Pope Francis at the World Council of Churches

Today Pope Francis made a visit to Switzerland that he has described as an “Ecumenical Piligrimage.” It has been a full day of meetings and liturgies, but I’d like to reflect on the fact that the Pope termed this trip a pilgrimage, and highlight some of his comments about ecumenism related to the term.

The trip is structured around three ecumenical meetings, two at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, and the third at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, a project of the WCC that also functions as a graduate school offering Masters’ and Doctoral degrees in ecumenical theology.

Francis is not the first pope to visit the World Council of Churches. Paul VI visited in 1969, and John Paul II in 1982. But the visit is important, not least of which because of how it has been framed. The Roman Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC. Historically, the popes have understood their particular calling to guard the church’s unity to be incompatible with joining an outside organization that aims at fostering this unity.  Nevertheless, the two cooperate in a number of areas, including ecumenical theology through a “Joint Working Group” and via the Commission on Faith and Order. Some of the most important ecumenical work have come out of these joint projects. (Readers might be interested to know that the entire library of Faith and Order Papers will soon be available online.)

Ecumenism has long been described as a journey, and the pope today played up this language. Reflecting on a passage from Galatians 5, (the worship aid is available here), the pope called Christians to the difficult work of walking according to the Spirit.

Together we are called to walk like this: the road passes through a continuous conversion, for the renewal of our mentality so that it adapts to that of the Holy Spirit. Throughout history, divisions among Christians have often occurred because at the root, in the life of the communities, a worldly mentality has infiltrated: first they nurtured their own interests, then those of Jesus Christ. In these situations the enemy of God and of man had an easy game in separating us, because the direction we pursued was that of the flesh, not that of the Spirit.

But even more notably, the pope admonished his hearers to accept that “to walk in this way is to work at a loss.” This is notable admission in a world where admitting that one does not already have the answers – that the Spirit might potentially call to give up something that one values. The pope continued:

We are not afraid of working at a loss! Ecumenism is “a great undertaking at a loss”. But it is a matter of evangelical loss, according to the pathway traced by Jesus: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” ( Lk9:24). Saving one’s own is walking according to the flesh; getting lost behind Jesus is walking according to the Spirit. Only in this way does it bear fruit in the Lord’s vineyard. As Jesus himself teaches, not those who hoard bear fruit in the vineyard of the Lord, but those who serve, follow the logic of God, who continues to give and to give himself (cf. Mt.21.33 to 42). It is the logic of Easter, the only one that bears fruit.

Nevertheless, the stakes are high.  The path will lead either to unity or to destruction, for the church is inherently one, the indivisible Body of Christ. Any choice for something other than Christ will lead to destruction. And if believers choose to be one with Christ, they will come to be one with each other.

In a season which has often been called an “ecumenical winter,” in which not only the churches, but societies and nations have been choosing paths of division, separation, and non-cooperation, it is even more important that the ecumenical movement not be allowed to whither.

The pope ended his remarks by recognizing the WCC not only as fellow pilgrims towards unity, but rejoicing that in his own journey, he found fellow pilgrims already on the road.  In obedience to the one Lord, we can move forward together trusting that on the other side of any death-to-self to which God might call us, Jesus waits to raise the church to new life.


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