World Nov. 25, 2013

World Council of Churches gathers

By Agnieszka Ruck

VANCOUVER—Thousands of Christians from 345 churches and denominations flocked to Busan, South Korea, for the 10th assembly of the World Council of Churches. The ecumenical event involved daily worship, meetings, and multi-denominational discussion.

The WCC, headquartered in Switzerland, has held an assembly every seven years in different countries since 1948. Korea's second-largest city hosted this year's gathering of church delegates Oct. 30 to Nov. 8.

"I assure you of my close pastoral interest in the deliberations of the assembly and I willingly reaffirm the commitment of the Catholic Church to continuing its long-standing cooperation with the WCC," Pope Francis wrote in a letter read at the opening ceremony.

The Catholic Church is not an official member of the council, but maintains a close relationship, collaborating on projects including producing materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Among members of Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and other churches attending the assembly were a few dozen Catholic delegates, including Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Cardinal Koch read a letter from Pope Francis which urged those present to remember the importance of supporting the family, educating the young, and promoting the "untrammeled exercise of religious liberty."

Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of that pontifical council, who also attended, told Vatican Radio that ecumenism is "not something we do because we like to do it. It's an essential part of the life and wellbeing of the Church."

Social justice was a significant theme during meetings in the 4,000-seat auditorium at the Busan Exhibition and Conference Centre. Various representatives brought up issues such as caste discrimination in India, environmental concerns in Argentina, the economic crisis in Greece, and HIV and gender injustice in South Africa.

"We cannot remain idle spectators in a world pervaded by social injustice and plagued by suffering and oppression," stated Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in a blessing on the meeting.

"There can be no comfortable way of sitting on the cross."

Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, on behalf of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, noted harmony between Jews and Christians in many countries means they can jointly support human rights.

"While we disagree about whether the Messiah is to come or come again, we are ... 'partners in waiting.' Until that day, we can and must work together to alleviate suffering, promote justice, and repair our world for the reign of God," he stated.

About 120 youth volunteers mingled with the WCC church delegates. As well as handing out paperwork and headsets, volunteers participated in meetings and discussions.

One of them was Thomas Harbeck, a Catholic student at Trinity Western University. "I've seen the quest for Christian unity manifest first in an attitude of openness and mutual respect," he explained.

The international studies undergraduate was excited about the Unity Statement, a draft document on areas of Christian agreement which the WCC created in 2012 and discussed at this assembly.

"It will give various denominations a common source on which they might base future discussions of ecclesiology and Church unity," he remarked, adding that he hoped to bring his experiences into ecumenical conversations back home.

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, expressed his hopes for the future efforts of the council's member churches.

"The pilgrimage of justice and peace should be the vision for what we do together in the period until the next assembly."