Looking ahead to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD) started a “Luther Garden” in Wittenberg, inviting each of the Lutheran churches worldwide as well as their ecumenical dialogue partners to plant a tree “as a sign of reconciliation and mutual understanding.” In one of his last official acts as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper personally traveled to Wittenberg in 2010 to plant a “Catholic tree.”
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January 2011, Cardinal Kasper’s successor, Cardinal Kurt Koch, welcomed a high-ranking delegation from the VELKD as it retraced Luther’s historic journey by visiting Catholic Church authorities in Milan and Rome, and with it planted an olive tree for the same intention in front of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Born in 1950 in Emmenbrücke, Switzerland, Kurt Koch studied theology in Munich and Lucerne. After his priestly ordination in 1982, he was assigned to parish ministry in Bern. From 1986 on he taught dogmatic and moral theology at the Catechetical Institute in Lucerne, while completing a doctorate on the Lutheran theologian Wolfgang Pannenberg. Later he was professor of dogmatics, ethics, liturgy, and ecumenical theology at the University of Lucerne. He has written six books, including Eucharist, Heart of the Christian Faith (2006) and That All May Be One: Ecumenical Perspectives (2007), and dozens of scholarly articles.
Koch served as bishop for the Diocese of Basel from 1995 to 2010, taking as his episcopal motto the words from Colossians 1:18, “That in everything Christ might be pre-eminent.” He also served from 2007 to 2009 as the president of the Swiss bishops’ conference.
On July 1, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Koch president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, to hold the rank of archbishop. This changing of the guard in the dicastery for ecumenism coincided with the 50th anniversary of its founding as a Secretariat by Blessed John XXIII on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.
Koch’s busy calendar since then indicates the breadth of his responsibilities. In August he presented two papers to the gathering of the “Ratzinger- Schülerkreis,” a group of the Pope’s former students, who were discussing the interpretation of Vatican II; one of the talks was entitled “Fidelity to Tradition, Openness for the Future.” In September he accompanied the Holy Father during his official state visit to the United Kingdom.
From there it was non-stop to Vienna for the 12th plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Catholic- Orthodox theological dialogue, September 20-24. In October he attended the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. In an interview after the first week, Archbishop Koch noted that the opinions expressed by the bishops and “delegati fraterni” (non-Catholic observers) and the general debate manifested the conciliar character of the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Koch was created a cardinal-deacon at the consistory on November 20. In a Vatican Radio interview that same day he remarked that this appointment was no reflection on him personally but was made “on account of my office. [The Pope] intends to show thereby how fundamentally important ecumenism is for him.” On January 1, 2011, Cardinal Koch took possession of his titular church in Rome, Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore, just off the Piazza Navona in the historic center of the city.
“Ecumenism of martyrs”
In his first official visit, Cardinal Koch traveled to Istanbul to talk with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and to celebrate the Orthodox patriarchate’s patronal feast of St. Andrew on November 30, an annual tradition since 1979. (An Orthodox delegation reciprocates in Rome on June 29, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.) On that occasion the Orthodox Patriarch called Cardinal Koch a “distinguished” theologian and congratulated him on the 50th anniversaryof the dicastery for ecumenism, saying that it was a “courageous and historic decision” of Pope John XXIII to found it and to convene the Second Vatican Council.
The theme chosen for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25) was drawn from Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” As the Vatican website explained, “This theme is a call back to the origins of the first church in Jerusalem; it is a call for inspiration and renewal, a return to the essentials of the faith; it is a call to remember the time when the church was still one.”
The new Vatican point-man for ecumenism maintains dialogues with representatives of other Christian faiths, but on occasion also speaks generally about Christianity to society at large. In an interview on the radio program of the cathedral in Cologne, he criticized what he called endless “tinkering” (Verballhornung) with Christianity in the German-speaking world, whereas Islam and Judaism are spared the politically- correct treatment. In response to recent violent attacks on Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq, he wrote in L’Osservatore Romano on January 18 that this should encourage all Christian denominations to stand up for human dignity. He spoke about an “ecumenism of the martyrs,” saying that it would be a positive sign if all Christians were to honor all those who have died for their Christian faith.
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