450th anniversary of the Reformation: Geneva festival is an ecumenical affair

The Palais d'Expo, near the Geneva airport, normally houses flashy car shows, home appliance exhibits, and other displays for the modern, material man. This week the giant hall is a beehive of activity in preparation for an event of an entirely different nature: from Thursday to Sunday, between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected for an ecumenical celebration linked to the 450th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The hall itself has a carnival atmosphere. Children sing in one corner while a circus act rehearses in another. Miles of banners and streamers are hung throughout the building.

The event, called ``Christians for the year 2000,'' is the first ecumenical effort on such an enormous scale that the city has ever undertaken. The celebration was the brainchild of the Protestant churches of Switzerland.

``Three years ago when we began to plan our celebrations for the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, we decided it wasn't a good idea just to look back,'' says Nicole Fischer, a co-president and represenative of the Protestant churches. ``We decided we needed a shared project, something that involved all the churches here, in the face of a basically indifferent city - an indifferent society.''

The celebration is not being promoted as a commemoration of the Reformation, but it is in fact the last in a year-long series of events for the Protestant churches. Geneva is the home of Protestant reformer John Calvin, who settled here in the sixteenth century.

On May 21, 1536, a political decision was taken that the citizens of Geneva must conform to the tenets of the Reformation. This year, there were also celebrations in May to fete the 450th anniversary. A service at the cathedral of St. Peter brought 4,000 people - half of whom stood outside. It was followed later in the month by a fair in the old town area of Geneva where people wore 16th century costumes and used tokens typical of the period to buy or trade goods.

The program this week is designed to attract a much broader group than just practicing Christians. One of the performance highlights of the four-day event will be a dramatic rendering of the gospel of St. Mark by a well-known French actor, Jean-Luc Bideau of the Com'edie Francaise. Other shows include a 60-voice gospel rock performance and a burlesque-type piece of theater with one duck recounting the story of creation to another.

There will also be a series of study groups to address current social problems, as well as a public debate sparked by two brief presentations: one by a Geneva politician giving his view of society in years to come, the other by a young priest who has been working with deprived children living on the streets of Paris.

The theme tying all of these activities together is the Bible. ``In 1536 most people didn't have a Bible in hand, largely because there were not enough printing presses - they were too costly,'' says Ms. Fischer. ``And today, people still don't have them in hand - but for other reasons.'' The group decided to give the Bible a bit more public exposure, using several different forums. Says Father Pierre Vuichard, the Catholic Church representative here, ``We think it is a good choice - the Bible still has a message for people today.''

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