Some 1,500 people attended the mass on 5 March at the imposing cathedral in the heart of Geneva's old town that had been a Roman Catholic church before the 1536 Reformation.
The date marked the first Saturday in Lent, the period in which Christians can fast, reflect and sacrifice for the life of Jesus. The Reformed pastor Emmanuel Rolland and the Catholic Fr Pascal Desthieux, who pioneered the idea of the mass at St-Pierre, placed ashes on each other's foreheads in a longstanding tradition.
"This evening, for the first time in 486 years, a Roman Catholic mass is celebrated at Calvin's Saint Peter's Cathedral, Geneva, packed for the occasion," said Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, interim deputy general secretary and director of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission on Faith and Order. He attended the mass and posted comments on Facebook. Mateus explained that the St Pierre's Parish Council issued the invitation "as an act of parish hospitality that reflects the achievements of local ecumenism."
The invitation for the Catholic service in the Protestant cathedral was made in 2020, but the ceremony was postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last Catholic mass in 1535
The last Catholic mass had been celebrated at Saint-Pierre in the summer of 1535 and had ended in a riot, with clergy and members driven out with accusations of “idolatry," Le Temps newspaper reported. The following year, the Reformation triumphed in Geneva, which is still a hugely influential centre for Protestantism, said the newspaper.
St Pierre has long been seen as a spiritual centre of Protestantism and inside the church is a chair used by Jean Calvin, one of the best-known figures of the Reformation associated with Geneva.
The St Pierre parish council president, Daniel Pilly, said having such a service has "strong symbolism.” He said, “A mass after 486 years is a significant gesture. We are happy to take this step," he noted, recalling "the fruitful ecumenical collaboration" between the two churches in different local ministries and "the mutual trust" that exists.
"The gospel brings people together, but we can keep our identity," he said, highlighting the growth of ecumenical cooperation.
Catholic priest Rev. Pascal Desthieux shared the sentiment. "Your cathedral is the mother church of our (Geneva) canton," he enthused as he lauded the changed relations in recent times between Catholics and Protestants. "That does not mean that we are merging," he added.
During the giving of communion, a group of African choirs sang praises of glory, with some in the congregation swaying to the rhythm of the music while others prayed on their knees.
The two-hour ceremony was also marked by a prayer for peace in Ukraine, a prayer that was warmly applauded before those attending left the cathedral after receiving the blessing.
Rev. Dr Susan Durber, moderator of the WCC Faith and Order Commission, wrote on Facebook after the service, "That is some good news… a spark of light in our dark times!"