Pope Francis at the World Council of Churches: An interview with Pastor Martin Robra
31 May 2018
I met the Rev. Dr. Martin Robra at Villars-sur-Glâne, a few kilometers outside Geneva, on May 27, 2017. He began working with the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1994 and in 2006 became the co-secretary of the mixed working group between the WCC and the Catholic Church set up in 1965. I had already spoken with Pastor Robra about the meeting in Lund marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We talked about how all the speeches had been focused on the future and not on the past. He had shared with me his hope and expectation that Pope Francis would visit the home of the WCC in Geneva.
Recalling his desire and hope, I went back to Pastor Robra to talk to him again now that the pontiff is preparing to visit Geneva, during the context of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the World Council of Churches, which began in Amsterdam on August 22, 1948. The pope will meet the governing body of the WCC, its central committee composed of 150 elected representatives.
Martin Robra – who is married to Barbara Siebel and the father of five – is a pastor of the Evangelical Church of Westphalia.
What is the World Council of Churches? Tell us something about its history, its beginnings, the meaning…
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople wrote a letter in 1921 to other Christian Churches proposing the formation of a koinonia of Churches, a fellowship or communion of Churches that would support each other, facilitate the common witness of the Churches to the world, and become an instrument for fostering Christian unity. It would be wrong to look at the WCC as an organization based in Geneva or as an attempt to create a “world Church.” The WCC is this fellowship of 348 member Churches mostly of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant traditions that also includes a number of Pentecostal and African Independent Churches. The WCC is the member Churches journeying together and holding each other mutually accountable on the way. The preamble of the WCC Constitution states that the WCC “is a fellowship of Churches that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Geneva hosts only the secretariat serving the fellowship of member Churches and ecumenical partners.
On March 2, during a joint press conference in the Vatican, the secretary general of the WCC, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, declared: “News of the pope’s visit to the WCC and to Geneva is a sign of how the Christian Churches can affirm our shared calling and mission to serve God together.” I have read that there has been a profound sense of mission right at the heart of the WCC since its foundation. Is that right?
Yes, an important impulse for the formation of the WCC was the need for cooperation in mission. The 1910 World Missionary Conference is often mentioned as the starting point of the modern ecumenical movement, although the World Student Christian Federation and other youth organizations had already worked with the ecumenical idea. The brutal crisis of World War I strengthened the resolve of Church leaders to create movements not only for mission but also for unity (Faith and Order, Lausanne 1927) and justice and peace in the world (Life and Work, Stockholm 1925). These two joined and started the process of formation of the WCC in 1936, but World War II interrupted this process. The WCC was finally established 1948 with the first assembly of member Churches in Amsterdam. This is why we are celebrating the 70th anniversary this year. It became a truly global body at the New Delhi assembly in 1961 when the International Missionary Council (IMC) integrated itself to the WCC and Orthodox Churches from Central and Eastern Europe became member Churches.
The Constitution of the WCC is clear about the goal of the WCC: “The primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance toward that unity in order that the world may believe.”
The visit of Pope Francis will offer a chance to highlight some important ecumenical achievements and also highlight future challenges to ecumenism. How do you see the situation of ecumenism at the moment?
Until only a few years ago, we were used to speaking of an “ecumenical winter.” Our general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, who is from Norway, however, liked to say that there is nothing wrong with winter. You just need gloves and warm clothes. To me it looks as if we have reached a new spring with Pope Francis and his initiatives. I was so much encouraged by his participation in the prayer in Lund for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. “From conflict to communion” – this motto of the celebrations came alive at this moment, but not only there. Churches worldwide celebrated together the healing of the wounded memories of the Reformation. Let us not forget the wars that were fueled by it.
The visit of the pope to Lund was an important moment. I was struck by how the speeches were focused on the current and future challenges, on the road ahead…
Lund was a moment of unity along the way. It is a milestone on the road we journey along together. We see this even more clearly when we remember that in their pathway to Lund Lutherans and Catholics had met first in 1999 in Augsburg to sign the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. I think it is fascinating that these two milestones have become markers that help us see the long road we have already journeyed and how to move forward together. The joint declaration reminds us of the initiative of God for the salvation of the world. It is the initiative of God that comes first, before all else. God reaches us by grace. The Lund Declaration shows that the event in Augsburg in 1999 and the shared journey that brought us there have really changed many of us. Coming back from there, we have seen the importance of the memories of the past that are marked by wounds and poisoned by hatred.
Almost a moment of liberation, of rediscovery…
We felt free not to repeat the same stereotypes that have deepened the separation of the Churches and communities and that led to violence and even war in the five centuries following the Reformation. Instead, we found a great shared heritage. This way, we became responsible both for our past and for our future together – no longer alone and separated from each other. Instead of moving further away from each other, we can walk together and share with each other our histories, our hopes and our expectations for the future of our Churches and the world.
Naturally, there are important challenges ahead…
Of course, not least the tensions around questions of personal ethics and human sexuality, but we have the chance to demonstrate together to the world that so much more unites us than what separates us. The way before us is not easy to bring all Christians into closer dialogue and cooperation and to engage together in interreligious dialogue and cooperation for the sake of peace and the flourishing of life. The WCC needs to build bridges beyond its own membership, representing about 560 million Christians in 110 countries around the world.
The Catholic Church is not a part of the WCC but has participated as an “Observer” and has collaborated at various levels since 1965 – the year the Second Vatican Council concluded – in particular in the Faith and Order Commission and in the Mission and Evangelism Commission. How are the relations with the Catholic Church today considering the history of these relationships and those now with Pope Francis?
Our cooperation with Vatican dicasteries like the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue or the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has improved a lot. They were not bad before, but there is now much more space and willingness for meaningful cooperation beyond the theological dialogues among the Churches that are the responsibility of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
We have reason to celebrate also other achievements of cooperation like the convergence of Faith and Order texts and the new mission statement of the WCC, Together Toward Life, or the much improved cooperation for migrants and refugees.
Complementing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation was observed and celebrated ecumenically in many places around the world – in some even with interfaith participation. We are hoping that the visit of Pope Francis to Geneva will become a strong sign to encourage commitment to deepening the unity of the Churches on the way, and to participate together in God’s mission of life, justice and peace in the world that is being shared by all Christians.
What feedback has there been within the WCC about the encyclical Laudato Si’? And the apostolic exhortations of Francis: Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate? How were these documents received?
The apostolic exhortations Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia and the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ were studied by WCC staff because they relate so closely to our work. We organized seminars for our staff to study these documents. We have not yet done this with Gaudete et Exsultate. These texts are firmly rooted in the teaching of the Catholic Church, but resonate very well with the work of the member churches of the WCC together. They have become often quoted points of reference.
Let us talk about the papal visit to the WCC. Francis is not the first pope to visit Geneva. Before him there were visits by Paul VI (June 1969) and John Paul II (1984). What is the meaning of this next visit?
It is amazing that Pope Francis is concentrating so much on the WCC during his visit to Geneva. This is very different compared to the two previous visits of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II to Geneva. They were first of all visiting Switzerland and the United Nations offices in Geneva as heads of State. Pope Francis comes first of all as head of the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome and successor of Peter. He moves from Rome to Geneva. We hope that together we can continue a pilgrimage of justice and peace to those at the margins of societies, those yearning for justice and peace in this violence-stricken world and its unjust political and economic relationships.
It is good that Pope Francis arrives just after the closing of our Central Committee, the highest decision-making body of the WCC. The Ecumenical Center in Geneva will be full of representatives of member Churches and ecumenical partners representing all dimensions of the ecumenical movement. His visit demonstrates the oneness of the ecumenical movement that the Catholic Church joined with the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. The pope is seen by the world as the decisive voice in World Christianity together with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and a few other Church leaders. It would be such an important step forward when it becomes visible that the pope is not speaking just in the interest of the Roman Catholic Church, but rather anticipating the one, holy, apostolic and catholic Church with those who are separated until now.
Pope Francis often speaks of the Church going out to those at the peripheries…
And he says that unity is being deepened on the way together. Pope Francis often speaks of the unity of the Churches as unity along the way. After the assembly at Busan in 2013, the WCC has articulated all its work as a pilgrimage toward justice and peace: we are walking together as disciples of Christ. We might walk separately at times, but there are moments when we come together, when we remember what has happened along the way, we renew our commitment for a shared pilgrimage, and we continue the voyage with a shared sense of direction and aim.
Yes, and walking we can discern the settings through which we walk and must continue…
We support each other in our common witness. We are doing so much together, but we can do more and make it more explicit that we are walking side by side.
Francis went to Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew and in Cuba met the Patriarch of Moscow for the first time. He went to Lund to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and he visited the Lutheran and Anglican communities in Rome and also the Waldensian community in Turin… His message is not just to keep the theological dialogue going but to do things together “as if” we were one, focusing on evangelization and the common witness the world asks of us, considering the many urgent issues like migration. What do you think about this? Can we think a new step forward grounded in this “as if we were already one”?
Yes, we have seen Pope Francis acting as “bridge builder.” I am so grateful that you are raising this question. You will have noticed that every time I referred to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace and the unity that is deepened on the way, I really hope for a relationship among the Churches “as if” they were one. In the early years of the WCC, our Central Committee affirmed the so-called “Lund principle” which invites our Churches to ask themselves “whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” Christian Churches can do so much more together in evangelism, advocacy in the public arena, diaconal and pastoral service and their common witness to the God who is three in one, who has created us in our diversity, has reconciled us in Christ and makes us one in the Holy Spirit.
This past March you had the World Mission Conference 2018 in Arusha, Tanzania. The conference understood mission as a multivalent activity that includes joyful witness in word and deed to the person of Jesus Christ and his gospel; and commitment to working for justice and reconciliation among all peoples and within all of creation. What was the prophetic message that came out of that meeting?
The conference also involved many Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal missiologists. All in all, there were about 1,000 participants. They issued together the “Arusha Call to Discipleship.” Reflecting on “transformative discipleship” during the conference, this declaration includes a prophetic critique of the present financial system and economic structures that have led to scandalous levels of inequality, excluding millions of people – very much in tune with Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’. The statement says that discipleship is both a gift and a calling, to be active collaborators with God for the transformation of the world. This includes both care for people and the suffering creation, seeking justice and peace. Thus, we are responding to Jesus’ call to follow him to the peripheries of our world.
The document reflects the main focus of the conference on transformative discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit, the comforter, advocate and sustainer. Later the document says that we are called to be formed as servant leaders who demonstrate the way of Christ in a world that privileges power, wealth and the culture of money. Among other calls for transformation is also the following, which is directed to the Church: “We are called as disciples to belong together in a just and inclusive community, in our quest for unity and on our ecumenical journey, in a world that is based upon marginalization and exclusion.” The text ends with a prayer underlining that the movement as disciples together in the Holy Spirit involves “walking, praying and working together.” And this is the motto of the visit of the Holy Father to Geneva!
Which is the main challenge for ecumenism today?
Ecumenism has a strong eschatological dimension, anticipating the reign of God who created all life and one human family, reconciled us in Christ and sustains and guides us on our way through the power of Holy Spirit. It opens this wide horizon of justice and peace for all. The reality, however, is still very much fragmented and marked by competition for power and wealth. The different identities are so far supported by cultures and partly also religion. We still have a long way to go to see a shared global layer of peacefully interacting cultures and religions which is so different from the very thin and superficial layer of the present consumer culture and the global media supporting it. We still have a long way to go until the ecumenical dimension of our shared life together in our common home is deeply rooted in the minds and hearts of people. I consider the difficulties we are facing to be birth pains of this new dimension of cultures and religions.
I am under the impression that in recent years the programs of the WCC and the Holy See have become closer and that collaboration is growing. What has been the main achievement of ecumenism recently?
The main achievements of the ecumenical movement for me are the many instances in which it has contributed to peace and reconciliation in many concrete ways. This is also reflected in my personal life story. My mother survived the cold winter following World War II with an oven that was a gift of the ecumenical refugee services supported by the Church of Sweden. I have seen the ecumenical movement supporting dialogue between East and West, contributing to peace and finally the fall of the Berlin Wall and peaceful reunification of Germany. I was in Colombia in February and saw how the Churches together contribute in meaningful ways to the still-fragile peace process. I think that the Churches have also an important role to address the challenge of climate change as a common task for all of us, but especially for those who have contributed most to the emissions of greenhouse gases.
And then the Church along the way is a people defined by hope. Being hopeful often means being able to see beyond what is seen and expect something more and different …
Of course, I could add many other things to the list I just made, many instances in which ecumenical cooperation has been a real source of hope for people suffering from injustice and violence.
Pope Francis departs June 21 at 8:30 a.m. from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to reach Geneva at 10:10 a.m. A welcoming ceremony and private meeting follow with the president of the Swiss Confederation in an airport room. Then at 11:15 a.m. there will be an ecumenical prayer at the WCC Center where he will deliver a homily. He will have lunch with the leadership of the WCC at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, and at 3:45 p.m. an ecumenical meeting will take place at which the pope will give a second talk. The day concludes with Mass celebrated by the pope at the Palexpo convention center. Francis departs at 8 p.m. after bidding farewell to the bishops and collaborators of the papal representations in Switzerland.
When asked about the meaning of the visit, the secretary general of the WCC declared that it is a “recognition for those who have prayed and worked together for many years for the unity of the Church. It is an important sign of the journey that has been traveled in these years, through the work of the WCC and in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church, and now under the guidance of Pope Francis.”
For his part, on January 31, 2018, the pontiff had written a letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the Conference of German Catholic Bishops, and to Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, president of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), to reaffirm “the great joy of discovering that after 500 years of shared history, in part quite painful, we are entering a new period of communion,” and that “this year of commemoration has shown us that the future cannot be written without ecumenical dialogue.” The letter underlined the importance of the joint documents signed during 2017, with the pontiff saying that he is “convinced that the conflict that exploded in the 16th century is destined to end and that the reasons for our reciprocal diffidence will mostly disappear.”
We should interpret the visit of Francis to the WCC in the light of these affirmations.
 Cf. G. Pani, “Il viaggio del Papa in Svezia,” in Civ. Catt. IV 2016 381-392.
 The Central Committee gathers every two years and is tasked with putting into action the decisions of the General Assembly, discussing and reviewing the main programmatic lines of the WCC, and approving the budget. The last meeting took place from June 22 to 28 in the city of Trondheim, Norway. The current Committee was elected at the 10th General Assembly held at Busan in the Korean Republic in 2013. The Assembly takes place every seven years and elects a Central Committee that is the organ of governance between one assembly and the next, meeting approximately every 18 months. The secretary general of the WCC is elected by the Central Committee. Currently this position is occupied by Norwegian Lutheran pastor Olav Fykste Tveit. The official site is www.oikoumene.org.
 Currently he works in ongoing formation, ecumenical diakonia, and promoting the main initiative of the WCC after the Busan Assembly of 2013, the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.” He has occupied various positions, working in the area of relations with the various Churches in the WCC, the Christian World Communions, the Global Christian Forum and other partners, before becoming a member of the faculty of the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, looking particularly at social ethics. He is the cofounder of globethics.net (Geneva) and the Institute for Interreligious and Intercultural Research (Liechtenstein). His biography is available on https://institute.oikoumene.org/en/study-at-bossey/teaching-staff/Robra_bio_publications.pdf
 The declaration has shown that the Lutherans and the Catholics are now able to articulate a shared understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
 The letter from Pope Francis is dated January 31, 2018, and available in German at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/de/letters/2018/documents/papa-francesco_20180131_lettera-card-marx.html.