Millions celebrate 500th anniversary of birth of Calvin

By Stephen Brown
July 11, 2009

This weekend Protestant Christians are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the French-born church reformer who inspired a movement that now has tens of millions of adherents worldwide.

Calvin was born on 10 July 1509 at Noyon in northern France and is known throughout the world for his role in the Reformation while he lived in Geneva, a once independent city state that is now part of Switzerland.

Religious and political leaders gathered on 10 July 2009 at Geneva's Cathedral of St Pierre, the church where Calvin preached during the Reformation, where they heard a call for the theologian to be commemorated as a source for a contemporary response to social issues.

"We need to focus on how to care about all that God cares for: justice for all, for all human beings and for all of creation," said the Rev Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which groups 75 million Reformed church members.

A Presbyterian from Ghana, Nyomi warned against human beings adopting lifestyles that perpetrated injustice, ignored the needs of strangers and poorer people and destroyed the natural environment. He urged Christians to seek inspiration from Calvin to, "become God's agents of transformation as we take better care of the totality of creation".

Nyomi was speaking in a dialogue sermon with Geneva pastor, the Rev Laurence Mottier.

Calvin, noted Mottier, "rightly observes that if it is true that 'the rich can serve God', the following is equally true: 'Where riches hold the dominion of the heart, God has lost his authority.'"

Featuring choirs from Madagascar, Korea and Geneva, the service gathered religious and political leaders including Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, David Hiler, president of the government of Geneva, and the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop for Geneva, Pierre Farine.

Calvin died on 27 May 1564 in Geneva, and was buried the following day without pomp. At his wish, no gravestone was placed above the burial site.

The Geneva service was the high point of events launched in November 2008 that included congresses, symposia and exhibitions, not only in Geneva but in other parts of the world.

In Germany, Protestants commemorated the 10 July anniversary at a ceremony in Berlin. The Calvinist presence there was founded by French Protestants when they took refuge in the city after the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing religious freedom in France was revoked in 1685.

At the Berlin ceremony, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to the significance of Calvinism for the development of modern democracy, and for its influence in Europe.

Calvin had insisted upon "self-discipline in dealing with possessions," said Steinmeier, who is the Social Democratic Party candidate for German chancellor in elections later in 2009.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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