Ten weeks after Pope Francis visited the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva as “a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace,” church leaders of different churches representing the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church are meeting in Germany this week to continue their task of “walking, praying and working together.”
Members of the Joint Working Group (JWG) between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC are meeting 3-7 September near the ancient Bavarian city of Augsburg, heartland of the Reformation, and also the site of the 1999 signing of the reconciliatory Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
The meeting, located at an ecumenical centre run by the Focolari movement and members of an Evangelical Lutheran fraternity, will discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the papal visit to the WCC on 21 June.
WCC general secretary, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, recalled both the joy and the responsibilities brought by the June visit: “The whole day with Pope Francis was truly a sign of hope for all who want Christians to be and to act as one in Christ,” said Tveit. “We will not stop here. The Joint Working Group has an important task in front of it because we can do much more together for those who need us and we can show how this contributes to greater unity.”
Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke of the challenge facing the ecumenical movement. “At the WCC, Pope Francis challenged the whole ecumenical movement to go beyond inward-looking debates and hesitancies, and not to use our differences to justify our staying apart and refusing to work together to bring the saving power of the Gospel to a broken world,” he said.
Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairperson of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, reflected on the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. “Is Christ divided?” This question of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians compelled Bedford-Strohm, in 2010, to propose that the Reformation anniversary in 2017 should become a “Feast of Christ”, focusing on the centrality of the Gospel of Christ and not just the Lutheran heritage.
“It was a great experience to see how doors and hearts opened, friendships grew on the way, and Christians from different church traditions could celebrate together, healing memories and building new relationships. This must go on!” said Bedford-Strohm.
The work ahead
The JWG, led by Orthodox Metropolitan Nifon of Targoviste in Romania and Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in Ireland, will also continue to work on two documents highlighting ecumenical cooperation in peace-building and pastoral care of migrants and refugees.
Preparation of these texts has included cooperation with experts from the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. These offices of the Holy See are also working closely with the WCC on the preparation of a conference to be held in Rome 18-20 September on migration, xenophobia and politically motivated populism.
More than half a century on from its foundation, the JWG will also discuss the future direction of Catholic-WCC relations and review a digitalisation project to make its rich historical archives available online.
The WCC is a global fellowship that includes 350 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and independent churches representing more than 550 million Christians in over 120 countries. The Catholic Church is not a full member, but cooperates closely with the WCC.