"A Sort of Great Pentecost Has Opened Over Switzerland"

An Organizer of Papal Visit Assesses Its Impact

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

BERN, Switzerland, JUNE 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- An organizer of John Paul II’s recent trip to Bern said that only the Pope was capable of gathering all Swiss Catholics, who have been very divided for decades.

Father Nicolas Buttet, founder the Eucharistein Community, who took part in the preparation and development of the Holy Father’s June 5-6 visit, told ZENIT the trip represents a milestone in the history of Christianity in Switzerland.

Q: What was the context of the Pope’s visit?

Father Buttet: The context of this visit was quite a contentious, extremely divided Switzerland. The situation posed problems. Just before his arrival, priests and lay people asked the Pope not to come.

Questions regarding condoms, the ordination of married men, the ordination of women priests, and other issues had also arisen.

It is true that the Pope’s first visit to Switzerland 20 years earlier had been received with relative indifference. It was, therefore, a highly risky trip — to the point that there was hesitation in putting the Holy Father’s name in posters to invite young people to this meeting of the Catholic youth of Switzerland.

Some priests had written in newspapers that this visit was not welcome. The media viewed the trip with circumspection. The Federation of Protestant Churches of Switzerland [FPCS] had also expressed great reservations in regard to the Holy Father’s presence in Switzerland.

The FPCS criticized the fact that the Swiss federal government was establishing an inadmissible inequality of treatment among the confessions. There was, therefore, an atmosphere of tension from within and from without.

Having clarified this, it must be said that many young people who have attended World Youth Days were enthusiastic. Without their determination, the visit could not have taken place, for lack of an invitation to the Pope.

Q: What happened when the Pope arrived?

Father Buttet: The Pope’s arrival changed the situation completely. The president of the confederation, who is an extraordinary man, committed himself firmly to this visit. He emphasized the fact that the Holy Father would launch a message of commitment for Swiss youth.

In this way, he welcomed the Holy Father and attended all the great events of this visit. He criticized the discourtesy of priests who appealed publicly for the Holy Father to resign. This attitude caused him to be the target of some attacks, but it was a testimony of political welcome of great magnitude.

With the passing of time, the number increased of young people who confirmed their attendance. Beyond all predictions, 14,000 youths invaded the federal capital. It was something unthinkable.

Weeks before, officials thought that some 3,000 would attend. Some priests totally boycotted the visit.

Q: How can this completely unexpected response be explained?

Father Buttet: Several things must be said. There certainly was a special action of the Holy Spirit, who was able to move and gather these young people.

Yes, I firmly believe that the throng that invaded Bern was really a call of the Holy Spirit to the hearts of young people.

In the last two to three days before the Pope’s arrival, there were between 2,500 and 3,000 new inscriptions. Not even the police expected all these people; they did not provide a sufficient number of gates to guarantee control.

Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit wanted the show the Catholic Church in Switzerland that the only way to be united is to gather around the Vicar of Christ. … It was something that was forgotten in our country!

We realized again that it is the Pope who attracts young people, and that it was not simply a meeting of Catholic youth. Peter is truly the element of unity, and I think that this is the lesson the Church in Switzerland can draw from this event.

The Mass on Sunday gave the same prophetic sign: The number of participants was twice as many as expected. Having heard the protesters so much, one ended up almost by thinking that that was what was normal.

A People of God of all ages, languages, nationalities, and social origins gathered to rise and proclaim their faith in the Church of Jesus Christ, led by Peter.

Q: Will Switzerland be able to follow up on what it has experienced? Will it be able to respond to young people’s expectations?

Father Buttet: I think that an extraordinary change has taken place — a complete media change in the state of mind.

All newspapers dedicated at least three full pages to the event, when before there were only some insets, small, discreet headings, and many doubts.

One newspaper spoke of «indifference» between Rome and Switzerland on the day the Pope was arriving in Switzerland; at the end of the visit the newspaper wrote about the people’s love for the Holy Father and the Church.

There was a kind of visibility for the Catholic Church in Switzerland which has grown in self-awareness, as it has understood that it has a role to play and that the People of God expect a clear message.

It was impressive that the majority of the applause took place in decisive moments of the Holy Father’s address.

For example, the sacrament of confession is often abandoned, being replaced by collective absolution. When the Pope said to the young people «go meet with a priest to ask for God’s forgiveness,» they applauded.

When he spoke about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the young people applauded.

The bishop of Basel, Monsignor Kurt Koch, who is certainly the one who suffers most from the tensions in the Church in Switzerland, received an ovation.

There has been a realization that there really is a People of God faithful to the Church and to the magisterium. It seems that the media and the Church have emerged from lethargy. There had been a sort of pessimistic environment, and a loss of energy to evangelize.

From my point of view, this new awareness will not die down that rapidly. On one hand, and first of all, because it is not emotional, but is framed rather in an awakening of faith.

On the other, there is a whole team of priests and a young generation, a team of pastoral assistants, who have prepared this meeting, who prepare the World Youth Days and who participate, therefore, in this synergy of youth pastoral care in Switzerland. This element is also new.

Switzerland has taken a long time to enter into the dynamics of the World Youth Days, but I think that now it has.

Monsignor Denis Theurillat, the bishop in the episcopal conference who is in charge of youth pastoral care, has understood the importance of his mission and spares no time or energy to promote this pastoral program.

Therefore, there is now more clearly, as opposed to the Pope’s first visit 20 years ago, a capacity and a will to taken advantage of the occasion and to make the seeds flower that were sown in this visit.

Q: Relations with Protestants have been difficult …

Father Buttet: The Protestants had quite painful reactions from several points of view.

First of all, in regard to the appointment of the ambassador to the Holy See. Worldwide, 173 countries have relations with the Holy See, including Muslim countries; yet our country, which is Christian, did not have full relations with the Holy See.

The fact that the federal authority has decided to establish relations caused a reaction among Protestants that reveals a 19th-century mentality, which is lamentable.

Then there was the refusal to attend the Sunday Mass with the pretext that there was no intercommunion. It is a lack of respect for the Catholic identity, as it is something that has always been true, as the Catholic Church has not changed its view on this matter since the 16th century and it is not going to change.

But I think that these harsh reactions are also an opportunity.

The Pope’s visit has made evident the difficulties of an ambiguous and at times poorly understood ecumenism. John Paul II has insisted on the urgent need to commit our efforts in the service of the unity of the Church.

The fact of recalling the truth of ecumenism — exactly how it must be lived in truth and in charity — is a grace. I hope that in this way we will be able to grow in a mature, adult ecumenism, that is, an ecumenism in which we dare to speak with clarity and in which we are able to respect differences.

This will free us from an adolescent ecumenism, that is, in which the criterion is not truth but mimicry.

This visit has manifested grave gaps and important deviations in Switzerland and has clarified the situation.

From my point of view, these public positions of the Federation of Protestant Churches of Switzerland might serve to begin again with a responsible ecumenism. We must applaud the fact that a pastor was present in Saturday’s vigil and rejoice because he was able to address a message to young people.

However, there has been a violent reaction in some evangelical environments. They were distributing pamphlets everywhere, asking people to leave the Catholic Church, the «great prostitute,» speaking of the Pope as the devil. This attitude of lack of respect must be profoundly examined in our relations with our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Q: In conclusion: how will the Catholic Church in Switzerland be after this visit?

Father Buttet: During this visit there was a sort of sacramental presence of St. Peter which has opened the doors of grace. There is a spiritual, supernatural mystery.

There is something that is visible and something that is invisible. I think that the Holy Father’s suffering, as it is a fact that he was suffering, will bring fruits, as in a certain sense Paul says: «I complete in my flesh what is lacking in the passion of Christ for his body which is the Church.»

Beyond the emotion, there has been a sort of great Pentecost that has opened over Switzerland, which no longer knew quite what to do, a Church closed in on itself, which ceaselessly revised its structures, a rich Church, which could not find the way out on its own without the gust of that fresh air that came from outside.

All of a sudden, we have realized that the Pope’s visit was capable of uniting the four linguistic regions, the three great cultural regions, the different tendencies that coexist legitimately in the Church.

Old and new communities, parishes, have come together in one act of thanksgiving and I think that this event gives back hope to this Church that is in Switzerland.

It is my heartfelt hope that it will be able to begin evangelization again with boldness. I think we can say that the event of Pentecost was experienced in Bern on that Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation