The coronavirus threat has forced the postponement of the first ‘ecumenical Mass’ in the Geneva cathedral in 500 years.

– Authorities shut down public, private events as nine coronavirus cases confirmed

The Swiss government announced February 28 that it was invoking emergency powers to suspend all public and private events at which a thousand or more people are expected to attend, at least until March 15.

The cancellations of football matches, carnival celebrations, concerts and even the Geneva International Motor Show come in the wake of the nine coronavirus cases confirmed in the country as of Friday.

But the government ban on mass events also takes in the historic Catholic Mass planned for this Saturday February 29 at Geneva’s St. Pierre Cathedral, a former Roman house of worship that became a stronghold of the Protestant Reformation.

The last time the cathedral hosted a Catholic Mass was in 1535, after which priests were chased out and the temple’s treasures looted out of citizens’ enthusiasm with the new religion.

– An occasion for Catholic “respect and gratitude” to Protestants, but also a chance to say sorry

Before the cancellation of the Geneva Mass, the man who was to celebrate it, Father Pascal Desthieux, told the AFP February 27 that his plan first and foremost in the celebration was to express the Catholic Church’s “respect and gratitude” to its Protestant counterparts for the use of their facilities.

The Mass was also to be an occasion on which to ask forgiveness for all the Catholics who had “disrespected, misjudged and condemned” Protestants over the centuries, Desthieux, episcopal vicar of the Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg diocese, added.

The St. Pierre Cathedral – in Catholic hands for over a thousand years until 1536, when the Calvinists took it over – “is a symbolic place for all Genevans”, the priest explained.

For his part, Pastor Emmanuel Fuchs, the head of the Protestant Church in Geneva, said the Mass would be a key step towards Catholics and Protestants moving forward together “on the path of reconciliation”.

“We cannot remain prisoners of history. History has to elevate us, not keep us in a straitjacket”, Fuchs affirmed.

The Catholic and Protestant leaders told the AFP that the Mass was a way, too, of celebrating the other projects the two Churches are carrying out in common, such as their joint chaplaincies for the sick or for prisoners.

– Controversy over the shared Eucharist

Despite the positivity of Desthieux and Fuchs around the Geneva Mass that has now been postponed until May 30, according to reports, both Christian leaders recognised that the ecumenical gesture also had its detractors.

Not least of all because Mass organisers were insisting that “all” attendees would be welcome to take Communion at the Mass, even though both Catholic and Protestant authorities officially frown on shared eucharistic hospitality.

“Some people are surprised, some disappointed, some may even be quite angry at this initiative”, Fuchs admitted.

“But we are a Church that has a habit of debating, a Church where we take decisions democratically. I think a large consensus has been achieved”.

Besides, the pastor said he was sure that the Catholics would celebrate the Mass – now when the times comes – “with the intelligence and subtlety that the place and the moment demand”.

Even though he couldn’t commit to a repeat, yet, of the historic event, and expressed first a “let’s see how things go”.

“We will have time to discuss it afterwards, to see what the fruit of this initiative could be”, Fuchs recalled.

– Simply a “beautiful spiritual event”

For his part, Desthieux insisted there was to be “no hidden agenda” behind the Catholic Mass in St. Pierre and less “no intention to take back the cathedral”.

“We already have our basilica and we have enough big churches”, the Geneva episcopal vicar recalled, alluding, among other places of worship, to the great Catholic Notre-Dame of Geneva basilica.

The Geneva ‘ecumenical Mass’ was simply to be a “beautiful spiritual event” without ” any hint of triumphalism”, Desthieux added to La Croix.

Unfortunately, though, the celebration will now have to wait for another day.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.