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Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Pilgrimage through the Dark Valleys

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After the themes of “ecumenism of the heart” and unity to be consolidated and expanded, here is the word “pilgrimage” which I would like to deepen in connection with the 11th assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) held in Karlsruhe (Germany) last September.

The theme of “pilgrimage” was taken as a paradigm for the WCC’s work, following its 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea, in 2013. Since then, the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace” has visited many places of suffering and injustice. For Orthodox theologian Fr Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the WCC, “the image of the pilgrimage refers to our identity. We are a movement, not a static institution. The first Christians were called ‘people of the road’ (Acts 9:2)”.

To the pilgrimage of justice and peace have been added reconciliation and unity. This is what the love of Christ calls us to, as the final lines of the Assembly’s final message state: “The love of Christ, which is open to all people… can lead us on a pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation and unity and empower us to act through him”. https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/message-of-the-wcc-11th-assembly-a-call-to-act-together

A pilgrimage of justice and peace

Prior to the assembly, WCC delegations visited some of the bloody wounds in the world today, including Ukraine and the Middle East. The pilgrimage of justice and peace traversed the “dark valleys” of humanity where Christ awaits us and calls us to live out his love, such as climate issues, economic injustices, violence against women, marginalization of people living with disabilities, the damage of colonization and exclusion of indigenous peoples, and many others.

The strength of the Ecumenical Council is also to give voice to the voiceless and the forgotten in the medias, such as the terrible war in Ethiopia where 12 million children are at risk of dying (The various statements on current issues can be found here. https://www.oikoumene.org/about-the-wcc/organizational-structure/assembly#speeches-statements

Jesus was outraged by anything that denies human dignity, and following his lead, the Church must boldly speak the truth about the injustices that exist within itself and in society and commit itself to new relationships. To be credible agents of reconciliation, moved by the love of Christ, we must begin by acknowledging our complicity in the perpetuation of injustices.

With many “mea culpas”, a sense of humility permeated the prayer life of the assembly. Christians from war-torn countries, those suffering from famine, injustice, climate disasters were able to express their suffering and their appeals were heard!

The Church must challenge exclusionary practices that perpetuate stigma, racism and xenophobia. Christ’s love liberates us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 5). In this way we will move with one another towards reconciliation and unity.

The assembly also gave voice to witnesses and proposed concrete steps in each area, such as the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network.  https://www.oikoumene.org/what-we-do/edan ). In a plenary session on justice, Cuban reformed theologian Dora Arce Valentin said that violence against women has claimed more victims than the Coronavirus during the pandemic. For Adele Halliday of the United Church of Canada, indigenous people whose rights have been denied need not only an apology but also reparations. With Christ, reconciliation is possible, but it takes time for those on the periphery.

Samson Waweru Njoki, from the Orthodox Church in Kenya, is blind. He speaks out against misconceptions about disability: “Everyone can succeed because they have the same brain. God created human beings as co-creators, including the disabled. Our vocation as Christians is to include them… But when we don’t see the person in need next to us, we too are blind”.

Jørgen Skov Sørensen, from the Conference of European Churches, asks how wars are possible. As Europeans we like the idea of progress, so this question is difficult for secularized people. But as Christians we have an answer: war is possible because we know that we are broken beings. We do the evil that we do not want to do, as Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, so timely, says. The Church’s response to any war is to be animated by the love of Christ. It’s a worldwide community of mutual encouragement. This is his preferred definition of the Church.

The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace will continue to be an “integrative strategic direction”. Its name is now “Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation and Unity”. If there can be no peace and unity without justice, it is also true that there can be no justice without forgiveness and healing of hearts through the love of Christ.

All issues where churches and societies are divided must be addressed in this spirit of pilgrimage. The WCC calls for a deeper “theology of companionship”. (1) This should be lived out in particular with young people: walking with them to prepare, for example, “Ecumenical World Youth Days”, as in the Catholic Church (a proposal of the American Reformed pastor Wesley Granberg).

A pilgrimage of reconciliation and unity

Justice and peace issues have always been high on the WCC agenda. Today, climate-related issues are added. This was also reflected in the assembly. The Orthodox and Catholics feel that issues of Christian unity are not given enough emphasis. Full eucharistic communion should be the primary goal of the WCC, they say. And those concerned with evangelization believe that everything should lead to a response to Jesus’ prayer: “That they may be one, so that the world may believe“. And that this dimension is not sufficiently considered.

These various dimensions of the Ecumenical Council should not be set against each other, but rather articulated, remembering that the richness of the ecumenical movement would be lost if we were to confine ourselves to one area. Because the eternal Son of God became incarnate, he has taken on all the realities of our world. To reject the realities of the world would be to reject the incarnation. In principle there should be no tension between “Faith & Order” and “Life and Work”, although it is not easy to keep these two areas in balance.

Doctrinal and moral questions must also be discussed in this spirit of pilgrimage. Pilgrims have time: their temporality is not that of society, where immediate answers must be given. For example, on the theme of sexuality, a document invites to a “Conversation on the Pilgrimage Way: Journeying Together on Issues of Human Sexuality”. (2) I participated in an “ecumenical conversation” and a “workshop” on this controversial topic and will speak about it later.

On theological issues, Fr Ioan Sauca recognizes that there is a tendency today to emphasize the experience of ecumenism rather than formal agreements and to recognize that when we walk together we are also led to reflect together on questions of faith and truth.

This is how Pope Francis understands ecumenism. At each assembly, the “Joint Working Group” between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC issues its report. It is always awaited with interest by “ecumenists”. This year’s report is entitled “Walking, Praying and Working Together: An Ecumenical Pilgrimage”. (3) This title is based on the meditation given by Pope Francis during his visit to the WCC in Geneva in June 2018. https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/speech-of-the-pope-francis-during-the-ecumenical-meeting-at-the-wcc

The latter has often said: “Ecumenism is made on the way… Unity will not come as a miracle at the end: unity comes in the journey; it is the Holy Spirit who makes it in the journey”. (4)

A pilgrimage to vast horizons

This pilgrimage takes on much wider dimensions than simply ecclesial. Two testimonies were given. At the evening event organized by the inviting churches, the Franco-German reconciliation was discussed. “We must tell our stories of reconciliation… The Alemannic dialect unites Baden, Alsace and Switzerland. But here we all speak the language of Christ’s love,” says Bishop Heike Springhart of the Church of Baden-Württemberg. “If there was reconciliation between Germans and French in the aftermath of the war, there is hope for Russians and Ukrainians when the guns have fallen silent,” adds the president of the Union of Protestant Churches in Alsace and Lorraine.

The second testimony came from the surprising Azza Karam, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, who received the only standing ovation during the assembly. According to her, politicians have a great responsibility, but religious leaders have much greater challenges to face. She would like to kneel down, if she could, to ask the question: “Is the love of Christ only for Christians? I firmly believe that his love is also for me, a Muslim. Unity among Christians is not enough. Our world is much bigger and deserves the love of Christ”!

She then asks the assembly to work not only for unity among Christians but also among all. She calls on the assembly to be the conscience of the political establishment and to fight against all feelings of superiority, exclusion and the idea that war is a valid option.

William Wilson, president of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, believes that unity must first be lived out in our relationships with each other and then in our mission to witness to reconciliation in Christ. As a collaborator in the ecumenical initiative JC2033, I was pleased that he invited the assembly to keep the horizon of 2033 in mind. “In that year we will celebrate 2000 years of Christ’s Resurrection. Can we share the love of Christ together? Let us make the next ten years a decade of reconciliation”! After his speech, we had an influx of visitors to our stand! https://jc2033.org/en

Let us not put off walking on these paths where the Risen One goes before us. This is the appeal of Ruth Mathen, delegate of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (India), who says that above all we need a “metanoia” (a change of attitude). We do not need to understand more, because we know enough. We need to engage in the deep compassion of Christ. Enough talk, let’s do it! 

To conclude, I would like to quote the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict which says: ” “Let us walk in the paths of the Lord by the guidance of the Gospel”! And let us give a great place to the Risen One among us by welcoming one another! It is he who will enlighten us, unite us and send us out to this world that needs reconciliation and unity. This is what this pilgrimage through the dark valleys inspires me.

1. See the book Towards an Ecumenical Theology of companionship (WCC, Geneva, 2022) https://www.oikoumene.org/fr/node/73099.

2.  “Conversation on the pilgrim way: invitation to journey together on matters of human sexuality. WCC, Geneva, 2022. https://www.oikoumene.org/fr/node/73043.

3. Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, Walking, Praying, and Working Together: An Ecumenical Pilgrimage, Tenth Report 2014 – 2022, WCC publications Geneva-Rome, 2022.

4. Cf. Homily of Pope Francis, Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls 25th January 2014: “Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather, unity comes about in journeying; the Holy Spirit does this on the journey. If we do not walk together, if we do not pray for one another, if we do not collaborate in the many ways that we can in this world for the People of God, then unity will not come about ! But it will happen on this journey, in each step we take. And it is not we who are doing this, but rather the Holy Spirit, who sees our goodwill”. Vatican website.

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