First Mass since Reformation to be held in Swiss cathedral

CNA—The first Catholic Mass in nearly five hundred years will be celebrated at a cathedral in Geneva later this month. Mass will be said in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Genève on Feb. 29, 2020, in a decision announced by the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg’s episcopal vicariate for the city.

The cathedral was the seat of the Catholic bishops of Geneva from the fourth century until the Protestant Reformation. The last Mass celebrated at the cathedral took place in 1535. After the Reformation, the building was taken over by John Calvin’s Reformed Protestant Church, which destroyed the cathedral’s statues and paintings, and banned Catholic worship.

Fr. Pascal Desthieux, the Catholic episcopal vicar for Geneva, described the cathedral as the “central and symbolic location of Geneva’s Christian history” in a letter published on the vicariate’s website. 

Following the reformation, the cathedral became a location “emblematic of the Calvinist reform,” he said. 

John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, lived in Geneva, and the city was a destination for French Protestants who were forced to flee France due to persecution. Saint-Pierre de Genève was Calvin’s home church and his chair is displayed next to the cathedral’s pulpit. 

Historic local event or New beginning?

The Diocese of Geneva was eventually absorbed into the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg. Today, just under 40% of Switzerland is Catholic. 

At the request of Geneva’s Protestant population, Desthieux will celebrate the Mass and not Bishop Charles Morerod of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg. But, Desthieux said, Bishop Morerod views the Mass as an historic “local event.” 

While acknowledging that the return of Catholic Mass to the cathedral is a cause for rejoicing, Desthieux warned against any “triumphalism,” as well as any language suggesting the Catholics are looking to “take over” the building. 

“With our Protestant brothers and sisters, who welcome us in their cathedral, we want simply to make a strong ecumenical gesture, a sign that we all live together in Geneva,” he said. The Mass is a “gesture of hospitality” within the Christian community of the city, said the priest. 

“Our Protestant brothers will welcome us, and we will let ourselves be welcomed,” Desthieux said. 

A special date: The first Sunday of Lent

The date and timing of the Mass was chosen to coincide with the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. The Mass will be celebrated at 6:30 p.m., making it the vigil Mass of the first Sunday of Lent. 

“We have chosen to have this historic Mass at the beginning of Lent, to include a penitential process where we ask forgiveness for our sins against unity,” he said in the letter. 

All other Saturday vigil Masses in the city of Geneva will be cancelled on Feb. 29, in order to encourage all of the city’s Catholics to attend the Mass at the cathedral. 

Holy Communion

Some media reports have suggested that Protestant attendees at the Mass will be invited to receive Communion, though this is prohibited by canon law. 

According to Daniel Pilly, president of the Saint-Pierre de Genève parish council, it is common in Geneva for Protestants to receive Communion during ecumenical services.

“Protestants receiving Communion is already done locally in many parishes during ecumenical celebrations, where Protestants and Catholics invite each other to the Lord’s Supper and to Communion,” said Pilly to Protest Info, a Swiss press agency that reports on news related to the Reformed Churches. 

In the Catholic Church, only baptized Catholics in a state of grace are permitted to receive Communion. 

According to an article in the Geneva Tribune, a Swiss newspaper, Protestants who attend the Mass on Feb. 29 will not be encouraged to receive Communion. 

“People of a faith other than Catholic will not be formally invited to Eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine,” said the paper in a news article about the Mass published on February 12. 

Speaking to the Geneva Tribue, Desthieux quoted Redemptionis Sacramentum, the 2004 document published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments regarding the proper practices regarding the Eucharist, and explained that Protestants who attend Mass are not generally permitted to receive Communion.

“However, in such special circumstances, we practice what we call eucharistic hospitality by welcoming all people who come forward to receive the Body of Christ,” he said. Desthieux did not explain what “eucharistic hospitality” means in this case, or if and on what basis Communion would be knowingly distributed to Protestants.

“And anyway,” Desthieux said, “everyone is welcome to this Mass.”

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