The World Council of Churches and Pope Francis on Vesak 2023: Muddled Messaging or Mission?

The ecumenical body of the World Council of Churches released its message to Buddhists for Vesak this month, highlighting the need to come together in the face of shared challenges to humanity’s future and the Christian appreciation of Buddhism’s message of selflessness and compassion. Some excerpts I found inspiring were:

In a world marked by stark injustice, by de-humanising suffering and exploitation, by bloody conflict and war, by violence in homes and in streets, against children, women and men, people of faith are called to work for justice and peace, to care for the afflicted and downtrodden and to dismantle the structures, mindsets and systems that have nurtured these appalling realities.

Last year, in September 2022, the Eleventh Assembly of the WCC at Karlsruhe (Germany) has underlined the importance of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. We affirmed that we want to join hands to respond together to the serious challenges which humanity and indeed the whole earth faces:

“We also invite all people of faith and goodwill to trust, with us, that a different world, a world respectful of the living earth, a world in which everyone has daily bread and life in abundance, a decolonized world, a more loving, harmonious, just, and peaceful world, is possible.”


This venerable ecumenical body, founded in 1948, is fundamentally a joint Protestant-Orthodox project. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is not a member. Which is perhaps why, despite the themes of environmental protection, interfaith dialogue, and anti-imperialism being so aligned with the agenda of the supposedly liberal and progressive Pope Francis (the RCC also sends out an annual Vesak message), it was only recently that the Pope urged the WCC to behave in a more “missionary” manner.

Pope Francis. From

At the organization’s 70th anniversary, he went to Geneva on 21 June 2018 to “express a concern” – as strong as diplomatic Church language allows when speaking about a remonstration to a Christian coalition – about de-emphasizing the Christian mission in relating to other faith traditions. The Pope claimed to have the impression that “ecumenism and mission are no longer as closely intertwined as they were at the beginning.” He declared that beyond supporting human development, the missionary mandate could not be neglected or abandoned, claiming it to be at the heart of Christian identity:

The preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is part of our very being as Christians. In the face of the recurring temptation to tailor it to worldly ways of thinking, we must constantly remind ourselves that Christ’s church grows by attraction.

(National Catholic Reporter)

One might think that this is a theological circle that cannot be squared. As a Buddhist student of interreligious relations and comparative theology from my university days, I like to think of myself as an enjoyer of the struggle to understand what the existence of other religions means – in a world that I believe to be the Saha realm, cut off from access to the many Buddha-fields in the multiverse (the typical Mahayana worldview).

I am sure that a Christian who is interested in the theology of religions also thrives in the struggle to understand how Buddhists belong in the trinitarian God’s plan for humanity. The dismissive, low-hanging fruit of “They go to hell” is not only out of vogue in European heartland of Christendom, but betrays the inelegance and coarseness of exclusivist soteriologies.

Yet there is power in simplicity. Is it merely the message that is muddled, or the mission itself? I wonder how far theological sophistication can go to reconciling what Pope Francis very reasonably prioritized as the missionary impulse all churches theoretically share, and what kind of space there is for other traditions like Buddhism to respond in a robust way. Is there even any such space that faiths can allow each other? If we were to be fully honest with ourselves, I am not always sure.

See more

World Council of Churches General Secretary’s Vesak Message, May 2023 (WCC)
Francis calls World Council of Churches to be more missionary (National Catholic Reporter)

Support Our Dharma Work