“Dear Brothers in Christ: Nostro nome è Pietro (Our name is Peter).” This was how Blessed Paul VI addressed the World Council of Churches in 1969. Paul VI was the pope of firsts – and visiting Geneva was a first by any previous Roman pontiff. The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will travel to Geneva a week from today to mark the seventieth anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Francis will, in fact, be the third pontiff to visit the WCC (John Paul II appeared in there 1984). Following in the footsteps of his predecessors by visiting the WCC is meant to express “continuity.”
What will happen in Geneva? Will Francis go as “Peter” or as simply “Francis”? Will Francis be as clear as Paul regarding the role of St. Peter and the Catholic Church in modern ecumenism? Will his visit make the Catholic Church’s full membership in the WCC more likely to happen soon?
The initial purpose of Paul VI’s 1969 visit was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the International Labor Organization (ILO). His speech to the ILO staff focused on two pillars: service and the common good, two theological fundamentals of Catholic social teaching.
Paul VI’s message to ILO explored Catholic theology as presented in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. After this first Geneva encounter, Paul VI visited the WCC headquarters at the invitation of the then-general secretary, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake. The pope took the invitation as an opportunity to open new avenues of communication and reciprocal information exchanges with the Protestant churches, building on common ground and beliefs.
In the city where Calvin lived and died, otherwise known as the “Protestant Rome,” he was invited and was welcomed as Roman pontiff. Paul VI’s visit was a moment of ecumenism in action; he turned a new page in ecumenism and Protestant-Catholic relations.
Paul VI was, however, connected to Geneva on another, more spiritual and intimate level. Geneva’s former Catholic bishop, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), was near and dear to Paul VI’s heart and spirituality. The saint was Montini’s “great model” for “sweetness and magnanimity.”
Montini had been influenced by Salesian spirituality since he was very young and admired the bishop of Geneva’s ability to dialogue with people, which included non-Catholics, i.e., Protestants, “in a firm but calm and respectful manner, recognizing the good faith in his interlocutors.”
This was St. Francis de Sales’s patient dialogue in search of truth that Montini had made his own. He wrote in 1926: “St. Francis de Sales is a great model of an apologist, indeed the best Catholic apologist for Protestantism and particularly Calvinism.” Montini adopted de Sales’ method of dialogue and appreciated the saint for: “his loyalty, gentleness, and magnanimity, for his tendency to respect the good faith of others but never to give in his own (faith) … for his great faith in the work of Providence . . . for humility in his conquests . . . for his never to win but convince” attitude.
Paul VI noticed harmony between Salesian dialogue and Vatican II’s principles of ecumenism in the primacy of charity, the universal to call to holiness, and the mystery of the Church. This is, in a nutshell, how Paul VI conceived his role in visiting the WCC and his ecumenical-dialogical approach.
Behold therefore among you. Our name is Peter. The Scripture tells us what meaning Christ wanted to attribute to this name (Peter), what responsibilities He prescribed: the responsibilities of the Apostle and his successors. But allow us to remember also other names that the Lord wanted to give to Peter to signify his other charisms. . . . Peter is a fisherman. Peter is a shepherd. As for us, we are convinced that the Lord has granted us, without any merit on our part, a ministry of communion . . . of desire and hope for the re-establishment of unity among all Christians. . . . It is this supreme desire of Christ, it is the profound need of believing and redeemed humanity, who hold Our soul in a constant tension of humility and of sorrow for the divisions that exist among the disciples of Christ; of desire and hope for the restoration of unity among all Christians.
Paul VI’s speech was lucid, theologically sound, and firm in its view of the Petrine Primacy as a point of unity and dialogue between Catholics and Protestants in their collective search for Christian truth. The pope clearly presented the Petrine ministry of service, explaining the significance of “Our name is Peter” in ecumenism and Christian unity.
What did Paul VI accomplish in Geneva? He continued in the vein of Pope John XXIII and his 1959 encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, addressing Protestants as “Our brethren and sons who are separated from the Chair of Blessed Peter,” which was significant in recognizing Protestants as legitimate dialogue partners. Paul VI demonstrated this by his actions. Overall, his visit to Geneva was a respectful openness to Protestants without relinquishing or diluting Catholic teaching on the Petrine ministry.
What will Pope Francis accomplish in Geneva? In his 1985 lecture published in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s 2014 book Chi sono I Gesuiti. Storia della Compagnia di Gesù (“Who are the Jesuits. The History of the Society of Jesus”) Bergoglio explained the Ignatian approach, which “does not impose on history, but rather dialogues with it . . .”
Pope Francis will attend the WCC celebration with what he describes as Ignatian “inner creativity,” which might bring surprises.
Pope Francis might take a step forward in Catholic membership in the WCC. But full membership does not seem feasible in the near future given the many differences that remain. Francis will most certainly open new channels of communications, as Paul VI did in 1969.
But will Pope Francis be as clear as Paul VI in explaining the role of St. Peter in Christian unity, describing a Catholic Church that sees herself as the Church of Christ in this world established by Christ’s commission to St. Peter? That remains to be seen.
*Image: Delivery of the Keys by Pietro Perugino, 1481-82 [fresco in the Sistine Chapel]