FJ Interview with Gretchen Castle

This week Gretchen Castle attended the inaugural mass of Pope Francis as the Quaker representative to the Christian World Communion. We caught up with her a few days later and talked about the inauguration, her role in the Christian World Communion, and the changes facing our denominations.

Friends Journal: Thanks for joining us, Gretchen. What have you been doing this week?

Gretchen Castle: I was at the Section of the Americas annual meeting in Indianapolis. It’s one of four sections of Friends World Committee.  We were meeting, and in my email was an invitation from the Pontifical Council to attend Pope Francis’s papal inauguration in Rome that was happening two days hence.  So, I was very excited to get it, but it was a quick trip.

I was invited because, as the General Secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, I’m part of the Christian World Communion, a group of general secretaries from the world offices of different Christian communions—essentially the different denominational offices. Because we have a world office as Friends, I participate in that group even though we are tiny by comparison to the others—Catholics, Anglicans, the Reformed Church, the Lutherans, all of the Orthodox religions. It’s not a huge group, but they represent a large number of Christians.

When I’m with that group, in that room, with those people, there will be titles like reverend, the very reverend, captain (from the Salvation Army), bishop, archbishop. There are only a few of us—just a handful—that have our names. It’s amazing to be part of. It is because of my association with them that I was invited to Rome to see the Pope’s celebration mass.

FJ: What was it like? Were you able to get close to the Pope and see him?

GC: It was truly amazing. The celebration mass was to begin at 9:30. We loaded a bus and we had a police escort to the Vatican. We were on the stage just in front of St Paul’s Basilica. When you see the pictures of the huge crowds come to see the Pope, we were on the stage in front of them. They must have been there from early morning, because it was packed when we got there.

The Christian Communion delegation consisted of 33 people. We sat directly across from the heads of state and other dignitaries. Of our group, the Orthodox sat together in their robes and hats looking magnificent. Next to them were the cardinals all dressed in bright gold robes and the most amazing hats. The bishops were behind them in beautiful purple-pink robes. I was the eighth row back and the second seat in from where the crowds begin.

FJ: It sounds like just being with the assorted dignitaries and heads of churches of the Communion would be its own ecumenical moment even without the Pope being nearby.

GC: Truly. The Pontifical Office put us up and we all stayed in the same hotel. It gave us opportunity to share over meals. It was truly a wonderful experience overall. There are people I know from our annual meeting of the Christian World Communion, but this gave us a chance to talk about ecumenism and the Christian unity. It’s very exciting to be part of that.

The Pope himself, Pope Francis, brings a huge commitment to people. I think it’s so exciting not just from the point of view of the Catholic Church, but the Church writ large, to bring this focus on people as opposed to institutional life. The Catholic Church has a weight of institutional focus. Pope Francis spoke in his homily about caring for one another, how Joseph cared for Mary and Jesus, and how we need to care for each other in the very same way. We need to be good to one another and to have compassion not only for people but for the Earth. It was a terrific message.

FJ: When he first came out after being selected by the cardinals, he asked the crowds for a moment of silence, and he’s talking about the earth… certainly we’re not going to see eye-to-eye about everything, but it seems like an interesting choice for a Pope.

GC: It is very unusual, I think so. Also the fact that the cardinals chose someone from the global South. It’s something we talk about at Christian World Communion meetings. For all communions, really, a lot of the life of our denominations is in the global South—it’s where  the growth is happening.

It’s true too for Friends. Our biggest group is in Kenya and East Africa; there’s a huge number of Friends in Bolivia and Peru. Friends World Committee’s next big plenary session will be in Peru in 2016, which is very exciting as Spanish will be the first language.  Our clerk is from Cuba and he will be able to clerk that session in his native tongue.

FJ: As at the Vatican, so too with Friends. A lot of the same changes.

GC: It’s remarkable; regardless of the size of the Communion, there are the same challenges.

The ecumenical movement has much of the same elements as does my work for Friends, which is connecting Friends, crossing cultures, and changing lives. Even in ecumenism, it’s really about living into our commitment to make the world a better place… being committed to answering God’s call to universal love. It’s a powerful message, one the Church writ large preaches.

It’s exciting to know that Friends collectively have a high impact. We’re doing work all over the world for peace, for human justice, for eco-justice, human rights. The more we know we’re doing that together, collectively, the closer we come to having that impact on the world.

You can learn more about the work of the Friends World Committee for Consultation at


Gretchen Castle is general secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, an organization that encourages fellowship among all the branches of the Religious Society of Friends. As part of her role she is the Quaker representative to the Christian World Communion and was invited to the inaugural mass of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013. This interview was conducted by Friends Journal Editor Martin Kelley. The transcript has been lightly edited.

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