In a personal highlight of what he and many others are calling a “historic” meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s National Indigenous Anglican bishop, met Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics.
The meeting was very brief, but long enough for MacDonald to issue an impromptu invitation to Francis to visit Canada.
MacDonald said the Pope’s demeanour when they met on Thursday, June 21 seemed friendly, but he’s not sure if his words got through, because of the language barrier. “He just smiled,” he said.
MacDonald, who is also WCC president for North America, was in Geneva, Switzerland, this week for one of the biennial meetings of the organization’s central committee. This year’s meeting, held June 15-21, included a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the WCC’s founding, and was marked by visits from Pope Francis as well as His All-Holiness Bartholomew of Constantinople, the ecumenical patriarch—the most prominent patriarch of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
The WCC includes, according to its website, some 350 member churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, representing more than half a billion of the world’s Christians. The Roman Catholic church has never been a member, but it co-operates with the organization in some areas. Francis’s visit was the third ever by a Roman Catholic pope to a meeting of the WCC.
MacDonald says he and some other members of the central committee had the opportunity to briefly meet the Pope at an event held before he left the WCC headquarters to celebrate a mass Thursday, June 21.
MacDonald says he shook the Pope’s hand, identified himself as an Indigenous bishop from Canada, and said he hoped the pontiff would visit Canada.
Although he didn’t mention the Indian residential school system specifically, MacDonald said a desire that the Pope apologize in Canada for the Roman Catholic church’s role in that system was in his thoughts when he expressed his hope for a papal visit.
“It was for me personally something I felt I needed to do, because I’m so concerned about the fact that he’s not coming,” he said.
That the Pope make an apology on Canadian soil was one of the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Earlier this spring, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the Pope, although he was aware of the 94 calls and took them seriously, could not personally apologize for his church’s role in the school system. In a column this spring for the Anglican Journal, MacDonald wrote that the news brought him “both shame and deep grief.”
MacDonald added that the already high regard in which he held Francis was further heightened by the Pope’s delivery of a homily earlier that day, in which he voiced his support of ecumenism, and exhorted his listeners to undertake more in terms of mission and evangelism, as a way to furthering unity across the world’s churches.
“I think his words of sincere challenge are an indication that he was interested in more than just saying, you know, a few throwaway lines that were appropriate,” MacDonald said. “I think he was trying to make a genuine contribution to this session.”
The Pope also referred several times to what he saw as overconsumption by many people in the world, and the damage to the environment caused by consumerism, MacDonald said.
MacDonald said he frequently heard the word “historic” used to describe the WCC meeting—and he agreed the meeting was important for a number of reasons. Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was one of the organization’s founding members, there are significant cultural and theological differences between many orthodox churches and the other churches that make up the WCC, and meetings have rarely, if ever, MacDonald sad, been attended by the ecumenical patriarch himself.
It was also the first WCC meeting to have been attended by a delegation from North Korea, he said.