When I was asked to preach recently at a service of the French-language ministry of the United Church of Canada in Toronto, it seemed obvious that I would speak about the visit of Pope Francis to Geneva in June at the invitation of the World Council of Churches. This would give me the opportunity to talk about ecumenism with people who might not be familiar with either the word or the concept. It would also be the chance to draw attention to the 70-year quest by the WCC for practical ecumenism, that is to say an ecumenism that is about Christians working together to love their neighbour and care for creation.
The challenge lay in how to make the pope’s visit and what it signified, resonate and connect with this group of assembled worshippers.
The members of the French-language ministry come in the majority from the Église evangélique du Cameroun with a few from other francophone African countries and a French family. On the day I spoke, several representatives from the English language congregation that hosts the francophone group attended the service. There was also a Lutheran pastor present and my cousin, a former Catholic religious. So this was de facto an ecumenical gathering but what would the pope’s visit to Geneva mean to them?
On a mid-summer Sunday there were 70 adults and more than a dozen children present for the service, which was followed by a barbecue. Shown here: Pastor Isaac Kamta and Kristine Greenaway.
Photo: French Protestant Ministry of Toronto
I found my way into the story thanks to a conversation with my Catholic cousin on the Saturday evening prior to the service. The pope was in Ireland at the time and the media were featuring stories about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. My cousin told me I couldn’t ignore that or the sermon would not sound authentic to the people present who would be aware of those stories.
At first I regretted that the flare-up of the controversy had happened just when I was to speak about the pope and what his visit means to ecumenism. But then I began to see how this was in fact an opportunity to talk about practical ecumenism at the local level in times of trouble.
The text I was preaching on was Ephesians 4: 11-13 where Paul tells the new Christian community in Ephesus to look at the different gifts given to them by Christ for the work of ministry. The gifts include being prophets, pastors, and teachers. And so I spoke about how Christians are called to share their strengths and insights with each other when they confront problems in their communities and that this collaboration is an expression of ecumenism. I noted that other churches, including our own, had problems with sexual abuse by clergy and that, by meeting with Catholics, we could learn how to admit to this legacy and work to overcome it.
Pope Francis talks about practical ecumenism, about Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants serving our communities together so I went on to point to the stories I had gathered from people from around the world who were in Geneva at the time of the papal visit. Their stories are testimonies to what the visit meant to their local ecumenical efforts in Indonesia, in Russia, and among the Samoan community in New Zealand. In particular, I noted the story of the Lutheran and Catholic parishes in Geneva who had joined together to study the pope’s encyclical on the environment and human ecology “Laudato Si’” when it was published in 2015. The Lutheran pastor’s hope is that the pope’s visit will breathe renewed energy into that local expression of ecumenism.
But it was when I spoke about the pope’s encounter with a United Church of Canada minister that people sat upright in their pews and looked at me in wide-eyed wonder. Rev. Miriam Spies, who is a WCC central committee member and who has cerebral palsy, was presented to Pope Francis following the prayer service at the Ecumenical Centre. As he bent to greet her, he said: “Please pray for me.” That a Catholic pontiff should ask a female Protestant minister for her prayers was, in and of itself, remarkable. Perhaps equally as important is that he was asking for the prayers of someone in a wheelchair. Miriam told me later that she was used to church leaders telling her – sometimes patronisingly – that they would pray for her. But here was a church leader asking for her prayers!
Rev. Miriam Spies, WCC Central Committee member and United Church of Canada minister, was introduced to the pope following the prayer service at the Ecumenical Centre. Photo: Magnus Aronson/WCC
Speaking to a congregation of my own church about the symbols and gestures that bring ecumenism to life at the local level is one way that I can celebrate the lifelong process of ecumenical learning experienced as “pilgrims on the way”. WCC has been on that route for 70 years. The way is ever more challenging but visits such as that of the pope give us food for the road.