Archbishop Kurt Koch speaks to reporters at the Vatican in September 2009 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
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.
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.
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
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.
third challenge is presented by the new dialogue partners of the Catholic
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.
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
Koch concluded the lecture by noting that Christian holidays also have great
Ecumenism stands and falls on whether we
reflect on the central mysterywhich, after all, we have in commonand 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
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 “CatholicOrthodox 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.
a November 18 interview on Radio Vatican, Cardinal Koch reflected on the event
in Minsk: “I think that this is a
very sensible initiativeabove 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.”
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
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
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.
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.
Michael J. Miller translated Church, Ecumenism and Politics
Joseph Ratzinger for Ignatius Press.