The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, met in a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on December 4 for nearly a quarter of an hour. The two church leaders discussed a number issues including visible church unity and the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
"We had a very open and friendly conversation," Tveit said after the audience. "He emphasized in a very kind and also a very strong way the importance of the World Council of Churches' work and the ministry I am called to do as general secretary."
Pope Benedict also "expressed his interest in how we are now developing and planning for the work we are going to do in the future. He has himself been involved in our Commission on Faith and Order, so he knows a very important dimension of our work very well."
As theologian and Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI was part of the WCC Faith & Order Commission in the early 1970s.
Tveit said the pope was very interested in how the WCC will work with "our theological issues, and how we also strengthen the work of visible unity between the churches".
According to Tveit, Pope Benedict said taking the approach of allowing the Bible to be a centerpiece in theological discourse and reflection was one way of strengthening visible Christian unity.
This was the first meeting between the two since Tveit assumed the role of WCC general secretary in January of this year. It was also Tveit's second visit to the Vatican this year.
The Roman Catholic Church participates in several WCC activities, including the Faith and Order Commission, the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism and the Joint Commission of the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic representatives provide input for the planning of the 10th WCC Assembly in Busan, Korea in 2013.
The WCC has 349 member churches who represent more than 550 million Christians around the world including the Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and some Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches. The Roman Catholic Church is a single church representing more than one billion members.
The WCC and Roman Catholic Church maintain close contact at a number of levels and have worked to establish themselves as partners in steering the modern ecumenical movement, although the Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC.
From Tveit's perspective, having the Catholic Church become a member of the WCC is not a pressing or urgent issue.
Tveit said that he and Pope Benedict emphasized in their conversation that there are many levels at which the WCC and Roman Catholic Church cooperate. "How can we strengthen the already strong cooperation we have?" Tveit said he asked Pope Benedict.
For Tveit, the relationship "is much more than the link between Rome and Geneva."
"It is a strong cooperation in commissions, but it is also a cooperation that is going on every day," he said. "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches around the world, and when I travel and meet with the member churches in many cases they describe to me how they cooperate with the Roman Catholic Church on the local level and national level."
"This is about how we cooperate as churches in many contexts around the world," Tveit added.
One specific context Tveit discussed with Pope Benedict was the situation in Sudan where Tveit is planning to make a trip in the near future, in advance of the referendum on relations between the northern and southern sections of the country. He hopes that the situation does not exacerbate Muslim-Christian conflict. "In this," he said, "the Roman Catholic Church is an extremely important actor, and in Khartoum the church has a very visible and very strong presence."
The two also talked about how they can support Christianity in the Middle East.
"We realized that the number of Christians are diminishing, particularly in the context of Iraq where they are fleeing from the country and their ongoing conflict," Tveit said.
"But also we talked about the situation in Israel and Palestine. And the churches there need to have a united witness," he continued.
"I mentioned the great importance of the Roman Catholic Church there and how it is also contributing to the one ecumenical voice in Jerusalem," he said.
Tveit added that he and Pope Benedict shared the concern that "we know that this situation for churches in the Middle East is related to the political context and the political realities both in Palestine and Israel but also in other parts of the Middle East."
The two recognized the need to build trust between the conflicting groups there, and to continue a commitment to dialogue. Tveit suggested that the governments in the region "know what they have to do; they just need the courage and support to do it."
This coming January the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme materials have been collected by the Christian leaders in Jerusalem through a joint effort of the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
"It is in itself an important ecumenical initiative to strengthen the visibility of the churches in the Holy Land," Tveit said of the Week of Prayer theme. "I hope this week can really become where we see, as Christians around the world, that the Christians in the Holy Land are not there only to steward museums, they are living stones, they are living witnesses of the message of Christ in a very difficult reality, but in the same place as Christ lived and died and was resurrected."
Prior to the meeting with Pope Benedict, Tveit also met with Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is originally from Switzerland and has recently become the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
The two discussed the possibility of Pope Benedict coming to Geneva in the near future for a visit with the WCC and with others in the Geneva area.
Tveit's trip to Rome included a visit to the headquarters of the Focolare Movement as well as to the Sant'Egidio community. At the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere he visited a soup kitchen and a home for the aged. He spoke at a worship service of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy that was held in Rome. Tveit's visit ends on Sunday 5 December.