Reformation Disputes behind the Pope’s Switzerland Tour

Pope John Paul II has started his international trip with a two-day visit to Switzerland. He has insisted in battling on with the trip despite his physical illness. His trip proved to be successful as some 70,000 cheering Roman Catholics attended the Papal mass in the Swiss capital Bern.

The response was greater than all the expectations of the organisers, who had reportedly feared that hopes for an audience of 50,000 would not be fulfilled. An audience of about 12,000 youngsters on a meeting held at an ice-skating rink showed that the Pope has considerable influence on the Swiss new generation. The Pope read prayers in three of Switzerland's national languages - French, German and Italian - encouraging the Christians to proceed in the path of Gospel.

Behind all these supportive crowds, disputes over priestly celibacy and the ordination of women among the Catholic bishops were brought up. The relationship with Protestant churches is another problem.

Looking upon the continuous decline of the number of priests in Switzerland where more than 40 per cent of the country's 7.2 million population belong to the church, the Catholic Church's synod in the canton of Lucerne last November called on Swiss bishops to introduce reforms. They urged abolition of compulsory priestly celibacy and for women to be allowed to become priests.

However, the head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, Bishop Amédée Grab, has insisted on keeping the church laws such as those on celibacy. He repeated Pope John Paul's declaration of 1994 according to which it was the will of Jesus Christ that the church should admit only men to the priesthood.

Local Protestants declined an invitation to attend the Papal mass because the Roman Catholic Church does not allow Protestants to share the Holy Communion.

"It would be painful to participate in a Mass while knowing one was excluded from the communion," said the Rev. Thomas Wipf, President of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. The Protestants were disappointed but tolerant.

"We respect the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has another conception as far as Communion is concerned," he said, "What we want in the spirit of an authentic ecumenism is that the Roman church accepts and respects other forms of being the Church and other theological views."