Pope Francis has visited the Swiss city of Geneva – a centre of Protestantism – on a whirlwind one-day tour to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and to promote Christian unity.
The pope flew into Geneva – historically known as the “Protestant Rome” for its links to John Calvin – on a hot Thursday morning for a packed schedule that began with a meeting at the airport with Swiss government officials.
After a 20-minute tête-à-tête, Alain Berset, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, told reporters that he shared the pope’s commitment to peace and human rights.
Berset said the pope had urged Switzerland to use dialogue to help prevent conflicts around the world. The two leaders also discussed the issue of immigration and refugee boats from north Africa that were being blocked by Italy.
The previous papal visit to Switzerland was in 2004, when Pope John Paul II came to Bern and Geneva not long before he died.
Francis was then driven to the WCC headquarters in Geneva just south of the airport for an ecumenical prayer session with local church representatives. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, which brings together the world’s Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed churches, but it does send observers to participate in several WCC committees.
The papal visit, which went under the motto “Walking, praying and working together”, marks a significant effort to bridge the divide between the Vatican and other Christian churches.
At the WCC, the 81-year-old Argentinian pope warned worshippers against the dangers of “unbridled consumerism”, saying it leads to the exclusion of children and the elderly. “We have lost our direction,” he said.
In his speeches at the WCC and throughout the day, the pope called for deeper unity between the Catholic Church and other Christian faiths.
“I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace,” he told the prayer gathering.
It is the third time that a pope has visited the WCC after Paul VI in 1960 and John Paul II 35 years ago. Historically, divisions between the Catholic Church and the Protestant confessions have run deep.
The pope also referred to the “ecumenism of blood”, condemning the indiscriminate murder of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Christians.
“Let us also look to our many brothers and sisters in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, who suffer because they are Christians,” he said.
The pope ended his one-day visit by celebrating a mass at 5.30pm at the Palexpo convention centre next to Geneva Airport for 30,000 people, according to a police estimate. The organisers said 37,000 had attended. But this was still slightly down on the expected figure of 41,000.
Worshippers sat on chairs in the massive hangar, which hosts the Geneva International Motor Show every year and is the size of six football pitches.
Most of the lucky ticket-holders were from Switzerland – cantons Geneva, Fribourg, Jura, Valais and Zurich – but also from neighbouring France, and even as far away as Spain, Slovakia and Croatia. Some had started queuing as early as 7.30am.
The pontiff was greeted like a rock star with cheers and a sea of mobile phones when he arrived in the hall in his “Popemobile”.
Speaking in Italian and French on a simple stage which featured a large white cross overhead and a drawing of the Alps, he urged the audience to “rediscover the courage of silence and of prayer”.
A handful of former Swiss guardsmen, dressed in traditional blue-red-and-yellow-striped Renaissance-inspired uniforms, were also present for the mass and ceremonial activities at the airport.
In Rome, the Pontifical Swiss Guard has been tasked with protecting the pope and his official palace in the Vatican City since 1506, when the first Swiss mercenaries arrived on request of the then Pope Julius II.
Pope Francis ended his mass to huge applause by thanking the Geneva people and the Swiss authorities.
“I salute the citizens of this beautiful city,” he declared. “I want to thank the Swiss government for the friendly invitation and precious collaboration.”