World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

General secretary's report

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia: Celebrating Life - a festa da vida

15 February 2006

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia

Celebrating Life - a festa da vida

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ.

1. How wonderful it is to be here in Brazil! How wonderful it is to be together! Let me add my words of welcome to all of you to this first WCC Assembly in the 21st century and the first to take place in this region. Special thanks to our Brazilian hosts, for their overwhelming hospitality, and excellent preparations for this assembly.

2. God, in your grace, transform the world! This theme has come alive to me during my visits to member churches in the past two years. And, as we meet here on this continent, we celebrate with the people in South America the recent election of Mme Michelle Bachelet as the first woman President of Chile and Evo Morales as the first Indigenous President of Bolivia. Commenting on these historic developments, one Latin American ecumenical friend told me, ‘this signifies that the seeds of peace, justice and democracy which were planted twenty or thirty years ago have grown up through the years and are now blooming'. He went on to thank the WCC for contributing to the struggles that led to the fruits they are now reaping.

3. That reminded me of the moving experiences I had during my visit to South America in November of 2004. One particular moment was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The leadership of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo told me that under the dictatorships of the mid-1970s churches and ecumenical organizations provided the "safe place" where the relatives of those who disappeared could meet to share their sorrow and hope. One of them could not hold back her tears as she narrated what the support of WCC had meant to them. She said if it had not been for such accompaniment, most likely she would not be there to tell her story. But what was really impressive for me were the testimonies of those mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared persons. For over thirty years they have lifted up the flame of hope seeking truth and justice. The crucible of their spirit is matched only by their incredible resilience.

4. In my travels I have witnessed again and again such surprising signs of hope. People celebrate life in places where humanly speaking one could only see death and despair. It is this capacity to celebrate together and to strengthen life in community that has kept Africa going. It reminds me of what links my own experiences as an African with the history of Brazil and of this continent. In the lively and vital celebration of the carnival, I catch glimpses of the African heritage!

5. As a Christian, I discern the gift of God's grace in those moments, when life is transformed and a glimpse of hope becomes reality. It is against such a backdrop that I dream of an ecumenical movement as a movement of people who are messengers of God's grace, a people open to each other and discovering the presence of Christ and of God's grace in the other. To see Christ in the other is so much stronger than all that separates us. The reward in the search for visible unity of the churches in Christ is to discover the presence of the grace of God in each other on the common journey as we walk together.

6. In my report to you today, I would like to make five assertions of an ecumenical movement open to these signs of God's transformative grace as movement of life. I will talk a bit about this assembly and essential dimensions of the challenge that the WCC is engaging. I speak of an ecumenical movement which:

  • is grounded in spirituality

  • takes ecumenical formation and youth seriously

  • dares to work for transformative justice

  • puts relationships at the centre

  • takes risks to develop new and creative ways of working

An ecumenical movement, daily grounded in spirituality

7. We come together here in Porto Alegre to reflect, to deliberate, to discuss, and to make decisions. But most of all, we come together to pray for unity of the churches and for the world, to rejoice in the shared experience of glorifying God in Christ, and to affirm the deep spiritual bond that holds us together across many divides. Imagine a time ten years from now when this assembly has long been over, when the reports have been written and the decisions duly noted. What will you remember above all else? Most probably, the common prayers in the worship tent, the murmur of the Lord's prayer being said in 100 different languages; and the exhilarating feeling of this assembly, in all of its glorious diversity of those who have come together to praise God, the one who has given us life.

8. I invite you to think of the spiritual base of the ecumenical movement as the festa da vida - the feast of life. The invitation to the feast comes from God and we are all welcome. This feast, this festa, comes to us as grace. The wonder of grace is that it is a gift, which we don't deserve, a reward which we don't earn, but it is freely given and is ours for the partaking. In the Christian tradition, grace is defined as a spiritual, supernatural gift which human beings receive from God without any merit on their part. Grace can better be defined as signs and, indeed, acts of divine love. Grace reveals itself as God communicating God-self.

9. In an Easter sermon, the father among the Saints, St. John Chrystom, said it wonderfully:

The table is full, all of you enjoy yourselves. The calf is fatted let none go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of the faith. All of you enjoy the richness of God's goodness… Let no one bewail their faults: for forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let no one fear death: for the Saviour's death has freed us.

10. Festa da vida. Fiesta de la vida. The feast of life. Fête de la vie. Fest des Lebens. Karamu la maisha!

11. As churches, we celebrate the life-giving presence of God among us in the Holy Eucharist. It is at the Lord's table that the broken body of Christ and the blood shed on the cross create a new community reconciled with God. This Eucharistic vision of the world, reconciled and united with God in Christ, is at the heart of the visible unity of the church which we seek. This vision is rooted in faith.

12. Spiritual discernment is essential for our way towards unity. When I talk of spirituality, I want to make it clear that I am not referring merely to contemporary religious or quasi-religious responses to the felt lack of a deeper meaning in the values of affluent societies - although the spiritual hunger in those societies is real. I point here to the subject and origin of all life: God's Holy Spirit. All our efforts will be meaningless and powerless if they are not blessed by God and not driven by God's loving grace. After receiving such blessings, one's spiritual life is fully transformed. One's intellect, will and memory are ever more focused on God, thus creating space for a meeting point at which God's love is shared with us. The ecumenical movement is rooted in a common recognition that we are spiritual beings who long to know God and the knowledge that our spiritual quest is enriched by the fellowship we share.

13. Spiritual discernment grounds us. It gives us strength, conviction, and the courage to withstand the harsh realities of power. In this fractured and insecure world the forces of globalization and militarism threaten life itself. Being in touch with the word of God and experiencing the presence of God in the other makes us able to withstand the day-to-day rigours of working for peace and justice.

14. Spiritual discernment also allows us to step back from the immediate issues and to see the larger picture. We all get so wrapped up in specific issues, in details of our particular programmes, organizations, issues, and constituents that sometimes we lose sight of the big picture. A process of spiritual discernment can get us back on track.

15. I am suggesting that we take a different approach to the ‘business' of our meetings: our business is part of the process of spiritual discernment and is embedded in the festa da vida. Let us look at the assembly as a spiritual experience and not just as a business meeting that has to fulfil a constitutional mandate.

16. This assembly is the first to use consensus procedures. Consensus is an effort to build the common mind. The differences among us reflect the realities of our congregations and the lives that we share with people around us. In fact, these differences help us to see the multi-faceted realities and lead us to search for the truth that is not ours, but the truth of the Holy Spirit among us (1 John 5:6). It is this truth that ultimately lies in God that will transform us and make us free (John 8:32). We need to approach consensus these next 10 days not as a technique to help us make decisions, but as a process of spiritual discernment.

Taking ecumenical formation and youth more seriously

17. We live in a world of proliferating Christian churches and related organizations, resurgent confessionalism, a shift in the centre of Christianity towards the South, painful internal struggles within church families, the growth of Pentecostalism and of evangelical, conservative and charismatic churches. In mainline Western churches that have been a mainstay of ecumenical councils, we find complex patterns of shifting membership and renewal. A clear vision of what these churches may become is still emerging. All of these trends and uncertainties have made the ecumenical movement fragile.

18. Young people are growing into this reality, struggling for orientation and meaning. The ecumenical movement emerged from the same search for new meaning by an earlier generation of young people. The heritage of those who came before us is too precious to be kept just for us. It must be transmitted to the next generation. We pledge to devote energy and commitment to nurturing a new generation, knowing that this is not just a matter of education and formation, but of trust and participation.

19. Ecumenical formation must be based on the formation of faith. Ecumenical learning is experiential. Young people need opportunities to experience the joy of working and praying with others from different traditions and different contexts. They need support and mentoring to participate fully in ecumenical gatherings with their sometimes intimidating elders. We need to go out to where young people are - to the schools and universities. We need to be willing to change to respond to the demands of young people. We must offer opportunities to know and learn from others through scholarships and travel. At a time when information technology is forever advancing, we must enable our youth to interact more deeply and to discover creative ways of using virtual spaces for ecumenical formation.

20. The time has come, when we must not only open opportunities to young people for their ecumenical growth and leadership, but where we must learn from the innovative and dynamic models of ecumenical relationships that youth can teach us. As an ecumenical and intergenerational family, we need to humble ourselves and to listen to young people. It was with young people that the ecumenical movement was born. It is young people's passion and insight today that will ensure the relevance and vitality of it. Without young people our ecumenical family is incomplete. At this time we need to nurture meaningful relationships and shared leadership between the generations. Young people need to know that they are important partners and that we are open to learning from their ecumenical experience.

21. They can help all of us to understand better where we are going and what kind of response is required of us. It is young people today who increasingly have little patience with the divisions among us and who reach out to others with similar values. There is a widespread hunger for spirituality in young people, even though there may be a rejection of church structures. Out of desperation, one of my colleagues enlisted her 22-year-old daughter to format the mutirâo schedule over last Christmas. When she finished the tedious work with Excel spreadsheets, she said excitedly to her mother, "I want to come to this assembly. The workshops are so diverse and so interesting - I had no idea that this was what ecumenism is all about. It makes me want to get involved." The issues that engage the ecumenical movement today are the issues which attract young people. But they need to be invited in. And they need to be equipped and supported to participate.

22. We hope that this assembly is a wonderful experience of ecumenical formation for the participants - both the young and the "formerly young" - and that it becomes a part of our ongoing life. The festa da vida, the feast of life, is a call to young people. The festa da vida is an open feast, but sometimes participating in an open feast means that others must step back. I challenge all of you church leaders here at the assembly to look at ways that your young people can participate. I call on all of us - ecumenical organizations, denominational structures, international and regional ecumenical bodies - to commit ourselves to youth. We have tried very hard to make this a youth assembly, but we have only partly succeeded. It needs the will and commitment of all of us.

Working for transformative justice

23. It is in Jesus Christ that God's loving grace transforms the world from within. Christ became flesh, lived among us and shared human suffering and joy (John 1:14). In Christ we have all received "from God's full store grace upon grace" (John 1:16). In him and through him all were created and all are called together in unity, in justice and peace. In him, all are to be reconciled, transformed, transfigured and saved (Col 1:15-23): a new humanity and a new heaven and earth (Rev 21:1). The whole world is filled with God's grace in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

24. The assembly theme is an invitation to look at the world as a place loved by God and permeated by God's grace. Such emphasis on God's transformative grace corresponds to a new emphasis on transformative justice in our work for change and transformation. Seen with the eyes of faith, we ourselves, and this world, can and must be transformed.

25. God has given us the gift of life and we have abused it. Human greed and thirst for power have created structures that cause people to live in poverty and systematically undermine the basis of life. Our very climate is in jeopardy. In an era when there is more than enough food to go around many times over, 852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million in 2003. Every single day, 25,000 people are killed by hunger. Every day, more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes - one every five seconds. Threats to life - here in Latin America and in the world - abound. Globalization both brings us closer together than ever before - and exacerbates disparities of power and wealth. Violence continues to cause untold suffering - violence in the homes, on our streets, in our countries, sometimes even in our churches. Asymmetries of power are manifest in a thousand ways - between people, between communities, between countries. The litany of sins and suffering could go on and on.

26. Something is gravely wrong when at the beginning of the 21st century, the wealth of the three richest individuals on earth surpasses the combined annual GDP of the 48 least developed countries. Political arguments and economic rationalizations cannot counter the basic immorality of a world with this degree of inequality.

27. Something is gravely wrong in the world when there is still a real risk that nuclear weapons will be used in our lifetimes. Nuclear proliferation is an outrage to all humanity. The recent reports of countries acquiring nuclear weapons technology is frightening. But it is equally a scandal that countries which possess vast arsenals of nuclear weapons are unwilling to renounce their use.

28. Something is horribly wrong when children are sold into prostitution, when babies are aborted because they are girls, and when people of a certain ethnicity or race or caste continue to be oppressed. We need to be spiritually centered to confront such realities.

29. As churches, we are called to plan together, to speak together and to take action together in the face of conditions that we know to be wrong in this world.

30. A belief in God's call for abundant life means, first and foremost, affirming human dignity and the right of the poor to liberate themselves from unjust conditions. The struggle for life must be rooted in the experiences and the actions of those who are oppressed and excluded. When the poor as social actors begin to disappear behind "poverty" as defined by the statistics of the international financial institutions, our whole understanding changes. Poverty becomes an abstract term, divorced from the reality of what it means to be people who are poor. We must struggle to hold up the voices of the poor, to recognize them as actors in their own struggles, and to continually strive to enable them to advocate on their own behalf, to tell their own stories in their own language.

31. The festa da vida - the feast of life - is not a party. It is a celebration of life, which will sometimes be painful. The festa da vida invites you all into the household of God, to experience the pain and the suffering of others, and to feel yourself a part of the fragile and imperfect community of humanity. The vision of Christians gathered around a table in celebration recalls the gospel accounts of the last supper. There the people of God received God's gifts directly from the hands of Jesus, sharing one loaf and one cup. This is the source of our Eucharistic vision, an occasion for joy.

32. And yet at the very same time, the disciples sensed that something was amiss. There was a failure of mutual trust, a prophecy of betrayal, a conviction that something was terribly wrong. When Jesus confirmed that one of them would betray him, the response on the lips of each was, "Is it I, Lord?" And this question was not directly answered - for even though eleven of the twelve would not betray him, all would deny him. In today's world, we find that our celebration of being together is also marked by contradictions, by a lack of mutual trust, by failure to live up to the Gospel call.

Is it I, Lord? Is it we? Teach us to pray "God, in your grace, transform the world."

33. As part of humanity we must constantly ask why the world is in such a mess. Too often we have been silent or too quick to blame others, while failing to recognize our own responsibility to each other. We need to move from resignation to indignation to righteous anger in confronting these life-denying forces.

34. If we are to transform the world, we have to change our paradigms. For example, it is common practice these days to talk about the United States as the world's sole superpower. And yet we know that the powers of this world and the empires they form come and go in history. At the end, the Bible tells us, they are built on feet of clay. They are vulnerable in many ways. How can we talk of any country as a superpower when the government cannot protect its people from terrorism, from natural disasters, from preventable diseases? Our conceptual tools are inadequate to understand the ambiguities of power. As we are recognizing, power is not only expressed in different forms of empire. The rapid development of newly emerging technologies is a very powerful tool with great potential impact on people and nature.

35. When there are such enormous inequalities and unequal access to different means of power, it counts in what part of the world one lives. Our churches and the stance they take on matters of economic justice and many other ethical challenges often reflects the realities surrounding them and impacting on the lives of their members. Some churches tend to see the present phase of economic globalization as the continuation of 500 years of oppression through colonialism and changing empires. Others emphasize change and discontinuity based on their experience of the rapidly changing political landscape. These different perspectives cannot be easily reconciled. We need to continue wrestling with these tensions because they help us to see the realities surrounding us more clearly and to identify the different entry points for both, advocacy and dialogue.

36. At this assembly we are celebrating the mid-term of the Decade to Overcome Violence. The goal of DOV is not so much to eradicate violence as it is to overcome the spirit, the logic and the practice of violence by actively seeking reconciliation and peace. This is an ecumenical task - because, as we are learning, preventing violence cannot be accomplished by any one particular group. Preventing and overcoming violence must be done collaboratively by churches together, and jointly in cooperation with governmental and civic institutions and people's grassroots initiatives.

37. In the second half of the Decade, several issues must be considered if we want to remain both realistic and hopeful.

38. Firstly, globalization is a reality on every level, not just economic. Terrorism appears to be globally networked, as is the war on terrorism. The consequences of this affect people in their activities and dignity almost everywhere. We must, therefore, take globalization and its many implications into consideration as we plan our common actions towards proclaiming the good news of peace.

39. Secondly, interfaith dialogue and cooperation is significant and imperative in the process towards overcoming violence, seeking peace and promoting reconciliation. Churches and religious people of all walks of faith recognize the imperative of interfaith action in response to the pressing needs and concerns of the societies in which they live. More and more people see interfaith action as an integral part of the ecumenical task. The vision of many today is that God's oikoumene includes not just Christians, but people of all living faiths.

40. Dialogue is often called upon to assist in resolving many ongoing conflicts that seem to be framed by religious language or have religious overtones. However, contacts between people of different faiths built quietly by patient dialogue during peacetime may in times of conflict prevent religion from being used as a weapon. Contacts across communal divides may prove to be the most precious tool in the construction of peace.

41. Thirdly, spirituality contributes crucially to overcoming violence and building peace. I believe that prayer and contemplation together form the foremost discipline for overcoming violence. The joint exercise of that spiritual discipline is an ongoing challenge for our fellowship. We must make space for this exercise to inspire and shape our individual and joint actions.

42. Within this dimension of spirituality, I am grateful to our Orthodox brothers and sisters in helping the ecumenical movement to recognize the dimension of the earth and nature more consistently. Our spirituality is robbed of a crucial dimension if it does not include our being part of creation as well as co-creators in an intimate relationship with God's earth and all that fills it.

43. The theme of the 9th Assembly - God, in your grace, transform the world, reminds me very much of the theme of the 1st Assembly in 1948 in Amsterdam: Man's disorder and God's design. The theme of the Amsterdam Assembly reflected both the violent past and the new hopes of the time. The colonial conquest of European nations had reached into the most distant corner of the world, epitomized by the British Empire where the sun never set. European nations themselves had turned against each other in violence in the so-called World Wars I and II. With the development and use of the atomic bomb, humanity had acquired the terrible capacity to destroy life on this planet. The vital question of the new era was whether God's design of the web of life of a transformed world would mark the future or whether human disorder where life is threatened and millions suffer would prevail.

44. The Amsterdam Assembly dared to speak of "God's design." This was an ethical statement par excellence in such troubled times. The theme reminded the churches and the world that when God created the world, the world was good. There was reason to become engaged for justice and peace. There was reason to work for a responsible society despite human sin and the quest for power. There was not only the hope, but also the ethical imperative for a new United Nations to provide a basis for peace, human rights and development for all.

45. The theme of the Amsterdam Assembly reflected a certain optimism that responsible leadership mindful of God's design would correct the disorder of human societies. Somehow the basic assumption of the Christendom era that progress in history would lead by itself to a world united by a powerful Christian civilization was not yet broken. Such optimism - often unaware of its contextual origins in Europe and North America and its colonial and imperial connotations - was fuelled by the rapid development of new technologies as the cutting edge of economic, political and military power.

46. Just as in Amsterdam, we too are on the threshold of a new era, conscious of the enormous gap between God's will for humanity and the present reality. In the run-up to the Amsterdam Assembly, the world stood on the brink of a human-generated disaster; in the run-up to the Porto Alegre Assembly, the world stands on the brink of seemingly natural disasters. According to God's design nature has an in-built self-regulatory capacity and cannot destroy the earth's entire life. But, driven by insatiable greed for self-aggrandizement, human beings have interfered with God's designed natural order to such an extent as to induce natural disasters capable of annihilating all life, including humankind.

47. Today we have become much more aware that the crisis we are confronted with goes much deeper and manifests itself beyond injustice and war among human beings, but affects all life. In particular, I point to the challenge to this planet and its inhabitants of climate change. Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger.

48. Climate change is, arguably, the most severe threat confronting humanity today. This is not an issue for the future: severe consequences are already being experienced by millions of people. We can prevent catastrophic climate change - at least, we know enough to reduce the degree of human-induced climate change - if we find effective ways of combining the voice of the churches with others who can make a difference. We must call on all Christian churches to speak to the world with one voice on addressing the threat of climate change.

49. This divided world needs a church living as one body of Christ. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said "apartheid is too strong for a divided church." I say that this planet, where life is threatened, needs a church which lives unity in diversity as a sign and foretaste of the community of life that God wants to be - God's household of life, the inhabited earth, the oikoumene. Even though our differences may at times divide us, deep in our hearts we know very well that we belong to each other. Christ wants us to be one. We are created one humanity and one earth community by the grace of God.

Focus on Africa

50. Together with the Decade to Overcome Violence, the Africa Focus was a major mandate from the 8th Assembly. In response to the call from the African plenary at the Harare Assembly, the WCC committed itself to accompany the churches and the people of Africa on their journey of hope for a better Africa. In the intervening years the Ecumenical Focus on Africa provided the framework for coordinated programmatic work in the areas of women and youth, peace-building, governance and human rights, reconstruction, HIV and AIDS, people with disabilities, theological education and ecumenical formation, inter-religious relations, church and ecumenical relations and economic justice. (The full account is found in the official report From Harare to Porto Alegre.) In our ecumenical engagement with Africa in these last seven years, we have also learnt to listen to the African churches and to the people of Africa concerning the continent's situation: pain and cries as well as joy and hope.

51. The insights gained from our experience with the Ecumenical Focus on Africa suggests that overcoming poverty in Africa, which should be a high priority in our future ecumenical accompaniment, will require addressing two root causes: one systemic and structural, the other ethical and political in nature. On the systemic level, there are four factors that combine to militate against food sufficiency, which is a prerequisite to overcoming poverty. The economic policies which are unfavourable to investment in agriculture and rural community development. Rural-urban migration continues to empty rural areas of educated and able-bodied young people who contribute the core of human resources for rural transformation. The third factor is violence. This includes civil war and senseless inter-personal violence at the domestic and community level. The fourth and most recent is HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. For aid to make a dent on poverty in Africa it must be an integral part, and not given in isolation, of a holistic and comprehensive approach addressing all those factors.

52. It is possible to formulate and have in place good policies for development. It is also possible to increase foreign financial aid to Africa. It is also possible to provide mechanisms for good governance. But the experience so far has shown that overcoming poverty and achieving social transformation is more than a mechanical approach to sustainable development. A vital ingredient that lacks is the moral will on the part of African leadership. Far too long African leaders have accepted the unacceptable and tolerated the intolerable.

53. Progressively, Afro-pessimism is being replaced by guarded optimism on the part of African churches and African people. The transformation from the Organization for African Unity to the African Union, the creation of new partnerships in Africa's development, the ongoing transforming of the All Africa Conference of Churches into a strategic ecumenical instrument, peace initiatives of women in Sierra Leone and Sudan and the recent election of the first woman president in Africa, Mme Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President of Liberia, are signs of hope. In the last seven years, most of the African countries have moved from one-party dictatorships to parliamentary democracies.

54. But, in the final analysis, Africa remains a paradoxical continent: Africa is extremely rich yet full of extremely poor people. Certainly, the outside world, the ecumenical movement included, has accompanied Africa in many and diverse ways. One of them is by providing aid. In the last thirty years a staggering $ 330 billion have been poured into Africa. So why is Africa in its present predicament? This one thing we have observed: financial aid alone is not the answer to overcoming poverty in Africa; it is too easily misconceived, misdirected, misregulated or misapplied. It will take a level and depth of anger, indeed of righteous indignation, similar to that which produced the spirit of Pan-Africanism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, to overcome poverty in Africa. The Africans on the continent and the African diaspora will have to come together again under the rubric of a kind of global Africana and say: it cannot go on like this because what is at stake is the core of what it means to be African - the African soul! And that requires more than material aid to recover.

It's all about relationships

55. Why is it so difficult to overcome what separates us? Why do we fall still short in our relationships with other human beings despite the technological advances of our age that defy imagination? It is incredible to think of our ability to manipulate genes and to send rockets to the far edges of our solar system - while we are still engaged in wars.

56. There is a common element in the social, economic and environmental threats to life we are confronted with and the ambiguous experience of growing inter-dependence that provokes greater fragmentation and enmity instead of better co-operation. Those whose power strives on our fears and anxieties exploit this situation. Fears and anxieties prevent us from a common witness. They pit us against each other, undermine our trust and confidence in each other, and force us to become defensive and reactive to the realities that surround us.

57. The biggest challenges that we face today, it seems to me, all converge at their roots in the lack of human capacity to relate to each other, to creation, and to God as we ought to. Whether we talk about our social realities, issues of power and politics, and even about the realities within and among the churches, we can see that the quality of our relationships has suffered considerably not just today, but for decades and centuries.

58. We live in a diverse world - a world of ethnic, racial, linguistic, cultural and religious differences. The migration of people has meant that almost all of our societies have become multi-cultural. And yet our capacity to relate to the other is sadly limited. We lash out and accuse those who are different from us. We are too often fearful of newcomers. We draw lines between ourselves and others in ways that are hurtful. Racism continues to rear its ugly head; xenophobia and Islam-phobia spread to more and more places; anti-Semitism has revived where it was expected to have died years ago. And yet the commonalities that unite us are far greater than those that divide us. We are all capable of love, we all revere our families, we all depend on the environment, we all have a vested interest in making this planet a loving and hospitable place.

59. If we focus on our capacity to relate to each other, to creation and to God, we realize that our ethical challenges have a profoundly spiritual dimension and vice versa. We can no longer separate ethics and ecclesiology, the search for unity of the church and the unity of humankind. They are closely intertwined with each other. What aggravates our divisions and the inequality among us and what can contribute to healing and reconciliation, has, indeed, a common centre.

60. This should not surprise us. The reality of sin reflects the reality of broken relationships with God, the fellow human being and creation. Sin - so teaches the Bible - is first and foremost a matter of broken relationships in all of these three dimensions of our existence. Sin is real. Sin has its social and practical expressions, which breed death instead of life and undermine our fellowship. It is this reality that is directly targeted, redeemed, and transformed by God's grace. Taking the toll of human sin on himself in his death on the cross, Christ restores life and heals and reconciles relationships distorted by sin. We celebrate this mystery of life renewed in Christ in the Eucharist that transforms us as members of the one body of Christ. In our daily lives, this liturgy of the Eucharist continues in the healing of relationships, in sharing life with life.

61. The life that God gives us and that sustains us, all of us, is the food that creates a new community of sharing, a community justified and reconciled with God by God's grace. The festa da vida is an open feast. It welcomes those who come and it builds community through relationships. For Christians, the "Agape" - the fellowship meal that often follows the Eucharistic service - is a celebration of this community. It too anticipates the Kingdom which is to come.

62. We will be best equipped to promote human relationships in the world around us if as churches we shall learn how to share with one another all the gifts of grace which we have received from God. To a very large extent our disunity as churches is due to our incapacity to practise this genuine sharing of gifts. One way of enriching our fellowship of sharing is by transforming the way we relate to each other as churches and as ecumenical organizations - a kind of horizontal sharing of the gifts of grace. Today more than ever before we need each other as churches. We must find new ways of deepening our fellowship as churches within the WCC fellowship. A new paradigm of being church to each other is an imperative in the 21st century work on ecumenical and ecclesial relationships. This is needed for the churches' self-empowerment, not for their own sake, but for the sake of each other and in order to gain the capacity to contribute to the world in dire need of learning to build better ways of relating. But as churches we can also learn from many communities that have developed ways of sharing the richness of who they are in spite of what they are.

63. During my travels to different regions of this world, I have seen that in many places worship continues in a common Agape meal - a celebration of shared life for all. I remember poor Indigenous women in Bolivia sharing the little they had after worship and creating a festive meal for everybody on the basis of the different varieties of potatoes they had brought to church. There, in that deprived community, the communal joy radiated as life met life in earnest. By sharing the little each had, the women did not become poorer than they had been; rather, they each became happier for each other because none went back home hungry. The miracle of feeding five thousand (without counting women and children!) is a reality on a daily basis among the poor. That is how they still survive in this otherwise cruel and merciless world.

64. Carnival here in Brazil is exactly such a sprawling and over-abundant celebration of life against a backdrop of poverty and marginalization. Poor communities continue to nurture the creativity and capacity to celebrate life together in the midst of the destitute and desperate situation that confronts them. Such celebrations of life among the poor remind me also of all the other parables of the invitation to the festive table that are told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in various ways. They all have in common that the host is deeply disappointed by the negative response of those invited in the first place. In an act of transformative justice, he extends the invitation to those from the streets and the fences at the margins of society. Jesus' sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth speaks to their lives: the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18f). They want to celebrate the new, empowered community in Christ by worshipping together in song and prayer. They want to experience the healing power of the Gospel in their daily lives. And this is for sure: they will celebrate with God when the usual patterns of exclusion and marginalization are turned upside down!

65. The festa da vida invites us to look afresh at the quality of our relationships and to put these relationships in the centre of the ecumenical movement.

66. The Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) policy statement adopted at the Harare Assembly called on WCC and its members to deepen their relationships with one another. To some extent, this has taken place, as in the important work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches. Pastoral visits and "living letters" have offered churches the opportunity to express solidarity and compassion with one another in different difficult situations. We need to deepen our mutual accountability to one another, and do it in concrete and visible ways.

67. The CUV also recognized that the ecumenical movement is broader than the World Council of Churches and called on WCC to develop its relationships with other Christian bodies, notably the evangelical and Pentecostal churches and other ecumenical organizations.

68. Our relationship with the Roman Catholic Church has matured over the years. The WCC and the Roman Catholic Church are very different bodies, but both are deeply committed to the ecumenical enterprise. For the last forty years we have worked together fruitfully through the Joint Working Group. The WCC is grateful for the direct involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in our work to overcome the theological, historical and social divisions among the churches; in mission; in theological education; in the witness for justice in our world; in inter-religious dialogue; and in other ways.

69. Perhaps sometimes there have been unrealistic expectations - and that on both sides. But we have always had the will to clarify the issues, in order to resume a common search for the kind of unity which is Christ's will for his church.

70. There is a natural tension between efforts towards deepening, and those towards widening, the fellowship of the churches constituting the World Council. This assembly gives an opportunity to re-focus attention on the quality of relationships within the fellowship, to explore together what it means to be in fellowship towards greater unity, and to challenge one another to manifest that unity more deeply. The assembly also gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our readiness to widen this fellowship through dialogue, inter-action and cooperation with sisters and brothers in Christ beyond the intimate circle of membership in the World Council of Churches. One concrete example is that of the Global Christian Forum, which brings together followers of Jesus Christ from a broader range of traditions and expressions than has ever been seen. The World Council of Churches is pledged to do everything in our power to continue to facilitate this process which, so far, has been very encouraging.

71. There is, as we know, a natural tension between the various institutional expressions of the ecumenical movement. All ecumenical organizations are struggling today with the question of how to respond to the changing ecclesial and ecumenical landscape. This is why we have begun to address together the major challenges to ecumenism in the 21st century - a process that goes beyond a narrow institutional focus that the term "re-configuration" might suggest. There is the constant need for spelling out together the theological and spiritual basis of our common ecumenical commitment. Just as there is the urgent need to work out mechanisms for coordinating our ecumenical response to diakonia, advocacy and development. Many actors in the ecumenical movement underline the need for defining together the common ecumenical vision and not only "the common vision of the WCC". I expect that this assembly will affirm the Council's role within the one ecumenical movement and encourage the Council to become the leading force, the facilitating agent for this important ecumenical task in serving the ecumenical movement of the 21st century.

72. In addition, there is some tension in regard to inter-religious relationships. Many ask if this is integral to the ecumenical quest for Christian unity. We all recognize that we live in a multi-faith world, and we need to learn more about relating to people of other faiths, particularly at the community level. Beyond that, in addressing a broad range of world issues - and not just those involving conflicts between peoples of different religions - we need to learn how to relate, learn about the ways people of other faiths believe and see the world, and learn to act together for the good of our communities and of the world. Religion is increasingly recognized as playing a major role in international affairs, and we need to build relationships with other faith communities on all levels. This was affirmed by the Critical Moment on Religious Dialogue Conference which the Council organized last June. The meeting brought together participants from all major world religions in all parts of the world. One of the main conference recommendations was to call on the WCC to put in place mechanisms for bringing world religious leaders to address together the problems facing the human community today. Inter-religious relationships should be given a high priority in the next period, and we look up to this assembly to advise on best ways of achieving this objective.

73. The festa da vida, to which we are all invited, is also an invitation to reach out to those we know and to those whom we don't yet know.

74. We have long recognized that all of WCC's programmatic work is grounded in relationships and yet the reality is that different staff or teams are responsible for programme and for relationships. In our work after this assembly, I hope for a more integrated and interactive approach to programme and relationships where our programmes strengthen the quality of our relationships and where our constituency feels more ownership of the programmes. The significance of this deep inter-relatedness was emphasized by the main findings of the Pre-Assembly Evaluation Report.

Creative ways of working

75. As we begin this assembly, I hope and pray that we celebrate this extraordinary opportunity given to us as a moment of sharing with each other what we bring to this place and celebrating together a fiesta of life. We hope that the assembly plenaries, the series of ecumenical conversations and mutirâo events will help us to identify the main challenges and priorities the churches should address worldwide through their common instrument, which is the World Council of Churches. We hope that the Programme Guidelines Committee will arrive at a relevant and workable agenda for transformation and that the Policy Reference Committee will move our relationships forward. And we hope that the Finance Committee will offer practical advice on how to develop a concept of dynamic stewardship which undergirds the management of our financial, human and physical resources as an integral part of the Council's overall work. Beyond that, we will focus on adopting a plan of work and programme for ecumenical spirituality that will be inspired and strengthened by our common commitment to praying together and fully owned and implemented by member churches. Several pre-assembly events have already highlighted the contributions of those often on the periphery of the ecumenical movement: youth, Indigenous Peoples, dalits, women, and people with disabilities. Their challenge and perspectives continue to be an important entry point not just for critique of injustice and exclusion but for new and creative understandings of transformation. The fact that we are meeting in Latin America will shape our discussions and we look forward to deepening our understanding of this continent through the Latin American celebration and plenary.

76. In what has been described as "the information age", our ecumenical movement is challenged to proclaim God's eternal Word and interpret its meaning across a wide range of cultures and technologies. As we seek creative ways to communicate, we remain committed to telling the love of Jesus, building trust and supporting the growth of base communities - both actual and virtual - in which spiritual fellowship may mature and lives may be transformed.

77. The present context challenges us to re-think the following four current emphases of the ecumenical movement. They should not be seen as a proposal of a new WCC programme structure because there are many different ways of dealing with them.

78. Faith and spirituality: The central question of our time, as I have indicated in my remarks, is the question of faith and the presence of Christ in the other. This is at the basis of our understanding of unity and mission. Faith must be central to our life together and must be the foundation for our ecumenical vision and engagement. How do we make visible and effective the unity which is given us in Christ?

79. What does Christian faith in the 21st century entail? This question is relevant to the Northern and Eastern churches as well as to the churches in the global South. It is no longer a realistic expectation that Christian faith formation takes place in the Christian families, in the churches and Sunday schools, and in the schools or even in the society at large. Deliberate efforts must be made to ensure that basic facts about the Christian faith are understood by those who confess Christianity. However, it is also necessary to understand the emerging Christendom in the 21st century because Southern Christianity is not just a transplant of Christendom of yester-centuries. New expressions of non-denominationalism and post-denominationalism are increasing in all parts of the world. Our Christian self-understanding in an increasingly multi-faith society will gain greater currency in the next period. What all this challenges us to do is to see our faith in a radically new perspective. This we could do if we considered Christianity as a global reality, i.e. seeing it with new eyes and not just with the eyes of one particular region or theological perspective. What must be our theological response to the poverty and deprivation of so many, to the affluence of others, and to the link between the two? All these phenomena have implications for the way we do and teach theology, how we do mission, and how we witness in the 21st century.

80. At a time when issues of identity characterize political, social and interpersonal relationships, dialogue and cooperation between faiths become even more imperative. The more firmly we are grounded in our Christian faith, and the more we speak with one voice, the more effective we shall become as participants at the table of inter-religious dialogue.

81. Ecumenical formation: This is one of those areas that surfaces forcefully, not merely as need or priority but as a real ecumenical imperative, as a determining factor that can have decisive influence on the ecumenical movement throughout the 21st century.

82. In many member churches, a new generation of leadership - though committed to ecumenical principles - seems not to be fully informed about the rich legacy and experience of the modern ecumenical movement. In this crucial moment of generational transition, leadership should be given the opportunity to profit from this body of knowledge and wisdom.

83. If contemporary Christians, including church leadership and staff, are to participate creatively and responsibly in the search for unity, and grow together, appropriate means of ecumenical formation must be offered to enable better, richer contributions to our common life. We must bring together human resources and educational materials, from the churches and from ecumenical organizations.

84. If we look at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, a model for ecumenical formation, we may discover two further challenges. First, in recent years, evangelicals and Pentecostals have been manifesting a clear interest in ecumenical courses and seminars, including programmes of graduate study. Second, young people have been pressing for more inter-religious encounters and seminars. Both these trends are suggestive of the way forward, and a cause for hope.

85. Transformative Justice: In response to those who suffer the consequences of injustice that splits the world along the lines of poverty and wealth, work in the area of transformative justice is needed which integrates the care of creation, the transformation of unjust economic and social structures, a clear prophetic voice in global advocacy and prophetic diakonia.

86. In the period since Harare, WCC has explored the concept of transformative justice particularly in the area of overcoming racism. Instead of the more commonly used "restorative justice", the concept of transformative justice is based on the understanding that it is not possible to simply reinstate, re-establish, bring back, return - what has been lost. Centuries of injustice in any form cannot be erased - either historically, collectively or individually. People's lives and cultures, languages, lifestyles, worship and spirituality cannot again be as they were. Transformative justice deals with the past in the present. Its goal is to overcome oppression and domination so as to achieve healing, reconciliation and the re-establishment ("to put things right") of people's relationships.

87. My vision for the future is that we will explore this further as we continue to address issues of justice and diakonia, advocacy and dialogue. This will require creative new ways of addressing how the church's mission history has sometimes been interwoven with the breaking down of traditional forms of healing and reconciliation. It will include more direct processes of liberation and healing through encounter and dialogue between perpetrators of injustice and those who are victimized.

88. This calls for a paradigm shift in our work, for metanoia, that will allow structures, culture, and defining values to be transformed. It will require us to re-direct our programmes towards more intentionally building truly inclusive and just communities which safeguard diversity, where different identities and unity interact, and where the rights and obligations of all are fully respected in love and fellowship. Transformative justice calls on the churches to make a costly commitment to overcome the divisions within their own life - our communities need to be transformed to fully live the diversity of their peoples and cultures as a clear reflection of God's creation and image in humankind. To be the church today is to be healing, reconciled and reconciling communities.

89. Being a moral voice to the world: With growing recognition of the role of religion in public life, we have new opportunities to influence decisions on global policies. This changing context with a renewed emphasis on the role of religion introduces new perspectives in dealing with issues of the churches' social responsibility.

90. In fulfilling our historic responsibility we are challenged to become a strong, credible moral voice to the world: A voice that is grounded in spirituality, and therefore is distinguished and distinguishable from the many competing voices in a world where ethical values are too often found wanting.

91. All these are common concerns for member churches and ecumenical partners. I hope that in the future we can develop fresh and creative ways of working which strengthen our relationships with churches and a wide range of ecumenical partners. These ways will take different forms with different partners. For example, I would like to see an interaction with Christian World Communions, especially those whose membership largely overlaps with the membership of the WCC, in our common commitment to visible unity and our common readiness to develop relationships with those churches and Christian families that do not actively participate in the ecumenical movement. I would like to see a closer programmatic relationship between WCC and the regional ecumenical organizations, which builds on our respective strengths and constituencies. I would like to see more intentional collaboration with the international ecumenical organizations, which are often working on the same issues. I hope that initiatives to develop new ways of working in the field of development and diakonia with specialized ministries will bear fruit in the coming months and years. And as I have previously indicated, I hope that a renewed focus on ecumenical spirituality will transform the way we work.

92. But I want to go beyond these suggestions and renew the proposal that, as a concrete step, the next assembly of the WCC should provide a common platform for the wider ecumenical movement. If we are ready to take such a significant, concrete step we could envisage together, instead of the many different global assemblies and general conferences organized by the various world communions and other bodies, just one celebration of the search for unity and common witness of Christian churches. To be even more specific, and as a minimum next step, I propose that this assembly give us a mandate to accelerate the dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to explore possibilities of holding our next assemblies as a combined event. And we should also invite any other world Christian body to join us in this dialogue.

93. Such a proposal obviously requires careful consideration of many details. But I am fully convinced that we can do this, and that the ecumenical movement will be stronger with a common global platform. This could be a means of beginning to plan together, so that we may even more effectively speak and act together.

In closing…

94. Dear friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, the delegates to the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches are entrusted with a significant responsibility. It is a responsibility alive with potential. In Porto Alegre we are challenged to face up to the sharp-edged realities of this world, and to discern the signs of the time. In the same moment, we are challenged to pray with all our hearts, "God, in your grace, transform the world!" And renewed through prayer, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we expect to be sent again from this place as messengers of God's grace and of God's will for the transformation of this world, as messengers of hope for our children, for our grandchildren, for the future.

95. The Word of God is a word of hope, the good news of transformation by grace. It is the proclamation of a new heaven and a new earth, where former things are no more. It is God's invitation to participate in a festa da vida, to rejoice in the feast of life!

96. In the course of this assembly, may God's Spirit spark an unquenchable flame of hope within our spirits, illuminating a creation restored to goodness, revealing us as God's children, members of the one human family and one earth community.

97. At this gathering, may God's Spirit kindle within us the deepest desire of our predecessors in the ecumenical movement, the conviction that there is and must be one church - holy, catholic and apostolic - the undivided body of Christ in service to the world, united at one table in the presence of our living Lord.

98. With God, all things are possible. And so we take up our responsibility, relying on God's transforming grace. All are welcome to the festa da vida; therefore, let us keep the feast!