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Papal explainer Pope Francis’ Geneva trip in a nutshell

Pope Francis waves to a crowd at the Vatican on June 2, 2018

Pope Francis waves to a crowd at the Vatican on June 2, 2018

(Keystone)

Here is a brief guide to the Pope's one-day visit to Geneva today.  

What is Pope Francis doing in Geneva?

The pope is travelling to the Swiss city on June 21 partly to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC). He is expected to arrive at the airport at 10.10amexternal link, where he will be welcomed by Swiss governmentexternal link delegation, including president Alain Berset and ministers Doris Leuthard and Ignazio Cassis.

After official talks with the Swiss leaders, the pope will make the short journey to the WCC headquarters for an ecumenical prayer session with local church representatives. After lunch at the Ecumenical Institute at the Château Bosseyexternal link in neighbouring canton Vaud, he will return to the WCC for talks. 

Why is the pope visiting the WCC? I thought the Roman Catholic Church was not a member of the Geneva-based organisation.

Founded in 1948, the World Council of Churches (WCC)external link brings together the world’s Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed churches but not the Catholic Church, with whom it has had a complicated relationship. The pope’s visit goes under the motto ‘Walking, praying and working together’ and is the result of five years’ efforts by WCC officials to persuade him to come to Geneva following Francis’ appointment in 2013. 

Despite not being affiliated, around 50 Vatican observers participate in WCC committees dealing with issues such as peace promotion, religious doctrine and education. The pope’s trip is thus seen as a highly significant working visit and attempt to boost Christian unity.

Geneva will be the second European visit by Francis with a clear ecumenical accent after his visit to Lund in Sweden in October 2016 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformationexternal link alongside leaders of the Lutheran World Federation.

Will he hold a mass?

Yes. The pope is due to hold a mass at 5.30pm at the Palexpo convention centreexternal link next to Geneva Airport. Some 41,000 lucky ticket-holders will be waiting for him but the event will also be broadcast live on Swiss public television, RTS/SRF/RSI. 

The mass is budgeted at CHF2 million ($2 million), half towards security. Swiss Catholics have been asked to put their hands in their pocketsexternal link to help fund the ceremony.  But there are concerns about the visit causing a possible CHF1 million deficit.

Police say it is best to avoid Geneva Airport and the surrounding area that dayexternal link, as thousands of other people are expected to travel there to try to catch a glimpse of the head of the Catholic Church. He is due to leave for Rome at 8pm.

When was the last time the pope came to Switzerland?

The most recent papal visit to Switzerland was in 2004, when Pope John Paul II went to Bern and Geneva on a six-day tour a year before he died. Almost 70,000 attended the mass which he held in German. In 1984, John Paul II made a five-day visit to Switzerland and two years earlier he visited several international organisations in Genevaexternal link, including the WCCexternal link. The first papal visit to Switzerland was in 1969 when Pope Paul VI visited the United Nations in Genevaexternal link (click on the photo gallery below).

Are there many Roman Catholics in Switzerland?

Most of the Swiss population are Christian but Christianity is on the decline and the percentage of non-believers is growing. Catholics are the biggest faith group - 37% of permanent residents in 2016, down from 47% in 1970, according to the Federal Statistical Office. 

Over a quarter of all Swiss Catholics attend a religious service between six to 12 times a year. A survey commissioned by the Swiss Catholic Bishops Conference on marital and family issues in 2014 revealed liberal attitudes to sex and marriage

The percentage of Swiss Protestantsexternal link has fallen sharply since 1970 from 49% to 25% in 2015. Geneva, the city of Jean Calvin, is sometimes referred to as the Protestant Rome. However, times have changed. In 2016, around 35% of the city’s residents claimed to be Catholic, while 24% said they were Protestant.

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Will the pope be protected in Geneva by Swiss guards?

Security will be tight in Geneva and the responsibility of Swiss police and Vatican gendarme officersexternal link dressed in plain clothes. 

However, Pontifical Swiss Guardexternal link fans will not be disappointed. Several former Swiss guardsmen, dressed in traditional blue-red-and-yellow striped Renaissance-inspired uniforms and possibly sporting the new PVC plastic printed helmets, will be present for ceremonial activities.

In Rome, the Pontifical Swiss Guardexternal link is tasked with protecting the pope and his official palace in the Vatican City. The elite corps has protected the Vatican since 1506 since the first Swiss mercenaries arrived on request of the then Pope Julius II. All members of the 135-strong company are single Swiss men (aged 19-30) and Roman Catholic, and they serve for a period of at least two years.

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