GENEVA (ChurchMilitant.com) - For the first time since the Protestant Reformation, Catholics will celebrate Holy Mass in the cathedral of one of its chief "reformers," John Calvin.
Neither Catholics nor Protestants in Geneva opposed the historic proposal to hold the Eucharistic celebration at the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre (St. Peter), despite an unequivocal statement inviting Protestants to receive Holy Communion at the service.
The Feb. 29 Catholic liturgy is the first in almost 500 years following Calvinists' abolition of the Mass in August 1535, after iconoclasts devastated Saint-Pierre Cathedral by breaking statues and slashing images, which were not in accordance with the new "reformed" cult.
Father Pascal Desthieux, episcopal vicar for the canton of Geneva, will be the main celebrant at the Mass and has issued a joint statement with Protestant pastor Emmanuel Fuchs, announcing, "this Mass will be placed under the double sign of [eucharistic] hospitality and recognition."
Desthieux is a liturgist and author of Living in Silence in the Liturgy, The Mass: Finally I Understand Everything and Confession: Finally I Understand its Spirituality Better.
"We thus affirm that our Churches, strong and rich in their respective traditions, can no longer be defined by their opposition but by their manner of expressing together an evangelical witness bearing fraternity and peace in the heart of Geneva," they write.
"As Pope Francis said, ecumenism is achieved by walking. We are trying to walk together in the hope that when we have walked enough, the obstacles that seem to us today insurmountable will no longer be," Fuchs affirms.
The initiative originated with Saint-Pierre's parish council and was welcomed by the Consistory of the Protestant Church of Geneva. Likewise, area Catholics responded enthusiastically.
At the parish council vote, "there was no opposition, which is significant," parish council President Daniel Pilly commented.
"The idea appealed because it corresponds to our desire to make the cathedral a meeting place for all Geneva Christians — a space that transcends denominational boundaries," he added.
Pilly downplayed the differing theological views on the Eucharist as no longer significant: "This is nothing exceptional in Geneva. This is already practiced locally in many parishes during ecumenical celebrations where Protestants and Catholics invite each other to the Lord's Supper and to Communion."
However, theologian Dr. Peter Sanlon, Rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, told Church Militant that while he welcomed the idea of ecumenical generosity, the Calvinist and Catholic theologies of the Eucharist were fundamentally irreconcilable.
The Calvinist scholar who works closely with Catholics "on matters of co-belligerence" explained that Calvin himself believed, "in his own words, 'the Mass was blasphemous, offensive to God,' and he taught that believers who participated in such services — even if they did so with the intention of seeking to evangelize Roman Catholic friends and family — were being dishonest to the cause of Christ."
Sanlon, a Free Church of England minister, explained that "Calvin was very clear in his teaching that in the Lord's Supper, Jesus was present in a spiritual and powerful way, but the way this was experienced was fundamentally different to Catholic teaching on how Christ is present in the Mass."
"Not only is the Mass different from the Lord's Supper in how it operates theologically, but Christians ought to be honest and open about their convictions," Sanlon reiterated.
In accordance with its Calvinist heritage, the Free Church of England "condemns and rejects" as "erroneous and strange" and contrary to Scripture the doctrine that "the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper is a presence in the elements of bread and wine."
Deacon Nick Donnelly, English Catholic commentator, told Church Militant he regarded the "ecumenical" celebration "a profound insult to God, as well as an insult to the sacrifices of previous generations of Swiss Catholics."
St. Francis de Sales was the great missionary who took the Catholic faith to the violently hostile Calvinists of Geneva. In just four years he converted 90,000 Calvinists back to the Catholic faith, despite being hounded out of villages, banned from speaking and two assassination attempts against his life. St. Francis de Sales would not recognize the self-described Catholics who plan to conduct a sacrilegious Mass that allows unreconciled Protestants to receive Holy Communion.
Dutch biblical scholar Dr. John Bergsma, a former Calvinist pastor, insists that his discovery of the doctrine of the Real Presence being prevalent from the earliest days of the Church, led him to convert to Catholicism.
"What really hit me was this passage ... [from] Ignatius of Antioch, [who] is writing in about 106 A.D. ... within 10 years of the death of the Apostle John. ... Ignatius is writing in Asia Minor, which is where St. John lived out the rest of his days in Ephesus," Bergsma narrates.
I get to [Ignatius'] letter to the Smyrnaeans and I hit the [section where] he is warning the Church about the heretics. ... They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ, which body suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His goodness, afterwards, raised up again.
"So I'm looking at this, I'm like OK [Ignatius says they] don't have a lot of love for the poor, deny that the Eucharist is the real body of Jesus, and they are always fighting each other! Looks like Calvinism to me!" Bergsma exclaims.
Calvin rejected both the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation.
Saint-Pierre Cathedral has been the site of a church since the fourth century. Arducius de Faucigny, prince-bishop of the diocese of Geneva, began building the present edifice in 1160.
It is known as the adopted home church of John Calvin, as he preached there from 1536 to 1564. Inside the church is Calvin's wooden chair and his pulpit.
Geneva has a population of around 500,000, with 35% Catholics, 9% Protestants, 1% Jews, 5% Muslims, and the rest self-identifying as without religious affiliation.