For much of the previous week, I had the privilege of representing Mennonites at meetings of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. I stood in for Mennonite World Conference General Secretary César Garcia, who is on sabbatical.
I had an unexpected emotional response when the Holy Father entered the morning worship space on June 21: My eyes filled with tears. Several hundred people were snugly gathered into the gorgeous modern chapel. The music was wonderful, and I knew a some of the songs:
- Santo, santo, santo. Mi corazon te adora . . .
- Masithi! Amen, siyakadumisa . . .
- Kyrie eleison (Orthodox, Kiev)
But the song that we were singing as Francis entered evoked a longing in my soul for the unity of the church. I had spent this week with Protestants of all kinds, Orthodox of several varieties, Mennonites and others — church leaders representing 500 million Christians. And as the pope, representing more than a billion Catholics, entered the hall, we sang, “The church’s one foundation . . .”
This is the successor of Peter who seeks the unity of the church, who stands in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, who refuses to live in the Apostolic Palace at Rome because it’s too posh. Now on this day he meets with Protestants and others in Geneva, great Reformation city of Calvin, where the painful division of Protestant and Catholic was especially evident. We all together are singing,
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation by water and the Word. . .
Elect from every nation,
yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation:
one Lord, one faith one birth . . .
One Lord! One faith! Bring us together, O God.
The 266th pope seems fragile. He looks friendly and kind, but tired. At age 81, he is a picture of humility and vulnerability. Illness as a young adult left him with only one lung. He rests on the arm of WCC General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit as he climbs to the podium (Tveit is the tall guy smiling at far left on the photo). There is no throne for the pope in this mostly-Protestant room — just another chair in the row of dignitaries on the platform. Someone holds a mic to his mouth, and Francis intones, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Yes, Trinitarian faith is something we all have in common. But division in the body of Christ has been painful and long. I’m grateful for diversity, and do not idealize a homogenized church. But nastiness and condemnations have been evident too long, and here is a pope working to heal the wounds.
I thought (wrongly) that I might have chance to greet him personally. I would have thanked him for the current trilateral conversations (Mennonite, Catholic, Lutheran) over baptism. I would have wanted to thank him for taking environmental issues seriously, for recognizing and naming bigotry in politics, for caring about refugees, for commitment to disarmament and global peace.
The title of Francis’ sermon was “Walking in the Spirit means rejecting worldliness.” That’s a title to get the attention of a Mennonite! In his gentle, pastoral manner, the Holy Father switched to Italian: “We can either walk in the Spirit along the path opened up by our baptism or else we can ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’ ” (Gal 5:16).
“What does this last expression mean?” he asked. “It means thinking that the way to fulfillment is by acquiring possessions, selfishly attempting to store up here and now everything we desire.
“Rather than letting ourselves quietly be led where God would have us, we go our own way. . . The thirst for material things blinds us to our companions along the way, and 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. Other people, especially those who cannot walk on their own, like children and the elderly, then become nuisances to be cast aside.”
The service is not long — under an hour — and then Francis leaves. On the way out he stops by two persons in wheelchairs. He converses with each, blesses them, and then heads out with dignitaries of WCC for lunch.
Security is extremely tight around WCC headquarters. The day before the papal visit, police put up a sturdy metal fence completely around the building, with sections chained and locked together. All of us at WCC who planned to attend had to get a special photo ID. When we arrived at the building (two hours before Francis), we went through security like at an airport. Scores of armed guards patrolled the grounds, some with automatic weapons. You got frisked when you went to the bathroom.
In the afternoon we gathered for a second meeting with Francis, with hundreds watching by video in the room next door. Among other words of challenge and blessing, Francis said:
“I am convinced that an increased missionary impulse will lead us to greater unity. Just as in the early days, [when] preaching marked the springtime of the Church, so evangelization will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical spring. As in those days, let us gather in fellowship around the Master . . . and, together with Peter, let us say to him: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’ ”(John 6:68).
Then the pope added, “I wanted to take part personally in the celebrations marking this anniversary of the World Council, not least to reaffirm the commitment of the Catholic Church to the cause of ecumenism and to encourage cooperation with the member churches and with our ecumenical partners. . .”
Not since 1984 has a pope visited WCC headquarters. It’s a big deal in Switzerland: The postal service issued a commemorative stamp for this visit of Francis that is only hours long. From meetings with us at WCC, the pope headed to conduct a Mass for 41,000 people, then on to the airport.
I never got a personal word with Francis, but I got a blessing. The man has enemies, including people within his own church who want him gone. I don’t agree with everything he says and does, but at a time when too many church leaders have had moral failing or contemptible political alliances, he’s a pastor for the global church who restores dignity and integrity. I’m grateful.
J. Nelson Kraybill of Elkhart, Ind., is president of Mennonite World Conference and President Emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.