During a lecture in Rome on December 15, 2011, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity likened ecumenical dialogue to air travel: the Holy Spirit is the pilot, and you hope and pray that the plane lands safely.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, formerly Bishop of Basel (Switzerland), has been jetting around Europe since his appointment to his present position in the Roman Curia in July 2010. He accompanied the Holy Father during his recent pastoral visit to Germany and at the ecumenical service in Erfurt on September 23 read the Gospel passage containing Christ’s prayer, “That all may be one.” On October 3 in Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Vienna, he lectured on “The Ecumenical Dimension of the New Evangelization of Europe” at the Philosophical-Theological College named after Benedict XVI.
In Assisi later that month he introduced the sign of peace at the conclusion of the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World. From November 12 to 16 he participated in a conference in Minsk (Belarus) on the contribution of Christian ethics to the formation of Europe. Then in Istanbul he personally delivered to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople the Pope’s traditional greetings to the Orthodox Church on the Feast of St. Andrew, their patron.
In his lecture on December 15, Cardinal Koch put these wide-ranging efforts in a broader perspective. The talk might be described as his end-of-the-year, “State of the Reunion of Christians” message. In it he identified several changes and challenges in the Church’s ecumenical dialogue:
For example in several churches we have a new reflection on their own confessional identity. That can be a great advantage, because one must have a clear identity in order to be in dialogue. It can also happen, though, that a group distances itself somewhat from ecumenism.
A second challenge is that the actual goal of ecumenism is becoming increasingly unclear. We have various concepts of unity, but we have no common goal. And that makes it difficult. After all, we cannot act according to the motto of the [late] Viennese comedian [Helmut] Qualtinger: “Well, I don’t know where I’m going, but that way I get there sooner.” Instead we must seek anew what the real goal is. And the reason why we have no common goal is actually because each church has its own notion of the unity of its church, and therefore it is necessary for us to reflect on what the nature of the Church really is.
The third challenge is presented by the new dialogue partners of the Catholic Church.
We have very strong growth among Pentecostal movements. That is a new reality worldwide, which is almost the second largest [Christian] movement after the Catholic Church. Actually we should speak of a Pentecostalization of ecumenism. And these are brand new challenges.
A fourth change is that today controversies between churches mainly concern ethical questions, and so a dialogue about these ethical questions has to be conducted. And I think that most of these ethical questions have to do with our image of man, so that we are facing the challenge of developing a common ecumenical anthropology, in other words, a doctrine about the human being.
The Swiss cardinal acknowledged the benefits of ecumenical discussions at the national level, for instance the most recent visit of a delegation of the German Bishops’ Conference to Moscow.
[Such encounters] are certainly very good, because in the Council for Christian Unity we can act only at the global level. Many questions arise in regional form, however, and then it is perfectly all right for bishops’ conferences or delegations to stay in contact intensively with other individual churches. I can only welcome and support that.
Cardinal Koch concluded the lecture by noting that Christian holidays also have great ecumenical significance.
Ecumenism stands and falls on whether we reflect on the central mystery—which, after all, we have in common—and deepen it. And Christmas, the fact that God became man, is this central mystery of the Christian faith. And the closer we come and gather together in this center of the faith, the closer we will come to one another also.
Of all the other Christian churches and ecclesial communities, the Orthodox Church, because of its sacramental structure and traditional creed, is the closest to the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI sees it, this makes Orthodox Christians partners with Catholics not only in ecumenical dialogue but also in the new evangelization.
In his message to Bartholomew I of Constantinople dated November 30, 2011, the Pope recalled that the power of Jesus’ message to convince others depends in large measure on the unity of Christians. According to Benedict XVI, the revival of the Christian faith in secularized countries must be a common cause of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The Holy Father applauded efforts for interreligious dialogue, citing the day for world peace in Assisi in late October, in which the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch also participated. In conclusion the Pontiff thanked God “for having allowed me to strengthen the bonds of sincere friendship and true brotherhood which unite us”.
Cardinal Koch traveled to Belarus in November at the invitation of Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk. The occasion for the trip was an international conference on the theme of “Catholic–Orthodox Dialogue: the ethical values of Christianity as a contribution to social life in Europe.” The conference was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Belarusian Orthodox Church.
In a November 18 interview on Radio Vatican, Cardinal Koch reflected on the event in Minsk: “I think that this is a very sensible initiative—above all, the fact that it is organized ecumenically…. I have the impression that ecumenical relations [in Belarus] are quite positive and very deep. That of course is essentially to the credit of the Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret, who is a very open-minded man and undertakes a great deal ecumenically.”
After Lithuania, Belarus is the country from the former Soviet Union that has the largest percentage of Catholics. The Republic of Belarus has remained strongly allied with Russia and the Patriarchate of Moscow. Yet the concluding statement of the conference noted “the fact that the Catholic Church has been able to restructure and reorganize herself following the fall of the Soviet Union, and that this has happened in harmony with, and often with the support of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, and the civil authorities.” Indeed, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has boasted that his country presents a model for ecumenical cooperation, and he invited both Metropolitan Filaret and Cardinal Koch to meet with him on November 14. During their conversation President Lukashenko recalled his audience with the Pope at the Vatican and declared that maintaining good relations with both Churches is an important concern of his.
In his radio interview on November 18, Cardinal Koch said that in Minsk he had had many discussions with Orthodox theologians, and also with an Orthodox bishop from Ukraine, about “the common mission of Orthodox and Catholics… and their responsibility in today’s society”. The interviewer asked about news concerning plans for a Council of all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, which would be the first in more than a thousand years. The Swiss cardinal replied, “There was no talk about this pan-Orthodox Council, but of course that is always in the background, and basically we Catholics can only hope that this pan-Orthodox Synod will come to pass, because it will be a substantial help for our dialogue also.”
When asked about a possible meeting between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and the Pope, Cardinal Koch answered that it “will not happen soon,” and noted that he himself had met with Kirill I in March 2011. The latter “clearly said that we cannot talk about dates yet, because it is more important to make intensive preparations for such a meeting than to publicize dates.”
The itinerary for the Pope’s pastoral visit to Germany in late September 2011 included an ecumenical meeting with a Lutheran delegation in Erfurt in the Augustinian monastery where Martin Luther had lived, followed by an ecumenical liturgy of the Word in the monastery church with a congregation of around 300 invited guests. According to an old German custom, a visitor brings a gift for his hosts, for instance chocolates or flowers, and it was expected that Benedict XVI would come to Erfurt with an “ecumenical gift”. Some speculated that Lutheran spouses in mixed marriages might be admitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.
In an interview on September 9, Cardinal Koch warned that the Pope cannot resolve longstanding differences by fiat. “For instance, the 1999 Augsburg [Joint] Declaration on Justification spells out quite clearly the questions that remain open. These questions must be clarified in ecumenical dialogue. It is actually not quite fair to expect the Pope now to bring about this resolution unilaterally.”
The cardinal went on to emphasize the significance of the Pope’s visit. “Germany is the central country of the Reformation. The Pope himself is a German and is very well versed in the ecumenical dialogue. He contributed a great deal to it. That is why he will certainly remind the Catholic Church that the path of ecumenism is irreversible. There is no turning back.”
Although many Germans were disappointed in September when they did not get the gift that they had wanted, on Christmas day Deutsche Welle broadcast a television interview with Cardinal Koch in which he extended an olive branch to the Lutherans. He described the meeting in Erfurt on September 23 as very hopeful and “a signpost for the future,” noting that the Pope had spoken positively about Martin Luther.
The head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity called on Protestants and Catholics alike to reflect on their 1,500 years of shared Church history. This could lead to a new and fuller understanding of the Reformation. After all, “Martin Luther did not want to found a new Church”; he was concerned about the “renewal of the Church”, not about a “complete break”. The Swiss cardinal observed that dialogue between separated Christian communities is about the healing of memories. Catholics and Protestants still have no common understanding of Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper; therefore it is not yet possible for them to celebrate it in common. That very fact, though, may be “a great incentive” in the dialogue.
Cardinal Koch said that he himself looks at the future of ecumenism in Germany with great confidence: The Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation have launched a joint commission to discuss the Reformation in preparation for the 500th anniversary in 2017.
Editor’s note: Michael J. Miller translated Church, Ecumenism and Politics by Joseph Ratzinger for Ignatius Press.