The ecumenism of those who have the faith at heart

People who hold passionately to Christian unity only do so
if they truly want the faith to be alive in the world.
Interview with Cardinal Johannes Willebrands

by Gianni Valente

Jesus Christ in majesty, with the figure of Pope Honorius III bottom left, in the act of proskynesis, apse mosaic, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

     Judging by the signs in recent months, the ecumenical movement is still living in an ice age. This state of affairs is more remarkable still if one considers that it is John Paul II who, in these closing years of his Pontificate, has been focusing on ecumenism to the extent of proposing, in the encyclical Ut unum sint, a study of the most appropriate way - of all the forms the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome has taken - to remove the obstacles on the path to unity.
     What remains of the ecumenical spirit, undermined already and in a particular way since 1989, has had the life knocked out of it by a sequence of shock blows. Before the European Ecumenical Assembly, held in Graz, Austria, in June, the Orthodox Church of Georgia made its exit from two of the most important ecumenical organizations, the World Council of Churches grouping 332 Orthodox and Protestant denominations, and the Conference of European Churches uniting 115 Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Then came the last-minute breakdown in arrangements for the meeting between John Paul II and Alexej II, Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All the Russias. So it happened that during the Graz week, Orthodox delegates were palpably irritated by the ecumenical organizations' liberal fronts and the assembly again heard the echo of the Easterners' j'accuse in regard to the other religious denominations' aggressive proselytism. This was followed by the Ecumenical Patriarchy's decision not to send its traditional delegation to Rome for the Feast of the Apostle Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. It had become a custom for Constantinople to send a delegation to Rome on that Feast day. They had done so for 21 years after Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras withdrew the reciprocal excommunication decrees of old which had sanctioned the schism between Rome and Constantinople. Two years ago, the Orthodox delegation had been led by the Patriarch Bartholomew I in person. But the final blow to ecumenism has come from Russia's new legislation on religion, inspired by nationalist religious protectionism and which has stirred tardy regret in the Catholic camp for Mikhail Gorbachev and his religious norms of the liberal stamp.
     As the following interview illustrates, Dutch-born Cardinal Johannes Willebrands who headed the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for over 20 years, does not espouse the zeal for ecumenism at all costs. But, according to the 88-year-old cardinal who had been a protagonist throughout the long ecumenical springtime in his capacity as head of the Vatican's office for the promotion of unity with other Christian brethren, today's sense of bitterness cannot wholly be attributed to the above difficulties. The real cause of the pain, now as in the past, is that the split remains within the faith itself. And it is only perceptible to those who, in their own experience of the gift of the faith, hold to it as the most precious gift of all. Such people recognize that even the miracle of Christian unity is the work of an Other, not the fruit of negotiations among religious leaders and clerical bureaucrats.

Cardinal Johannes Willebrands

     Johannes Willebrands, born in 1909 in Haarlem in the Netherlands, studied philosophy as a young man at the Angelicum in Rome, the Pontifical institute of the Dominicans. He was invited by his bishop to concern himself with ecumenism and took active part in the movement then taking shape in Holland, partly in the wake of meetings between Catholic and Protestant groups both being persecuted at the time in Nazi concentration camps. Appointed by John XXIII secretary of the newly constituted Secretariat for Christian Unity in 1960, Willebrands helped draft some of the most controversial Second Vatican Council texts on ecumenism. In 1968, he took over from German Cardinal Augustinus Bea as leader of the Vatican office for Christian unity. Paul VI made him a cardinal in 1969. He retired in 1989 to the Netherlands. 30DAYS met him during one of his brief visits to Rome in early November, mainly to take part in John Paul II's now traditional reception for the more elderly cardinals on the occasion of the Pope's Name Day, November 4, Feast of Saint Charles Borromeo.

     You were one of the pioneers of Catholic ecumenism. What made you take Christian unity to heart at a time when no one else did?
     JOHANNES WILLEBRANDS: My commitment to ecumenism began in the Netherlands where reformed Christians represented the secondmost ecclesial community and where the various communities were totally separated and even hostile. There was a Catholic association in those days named for Saint Peter Canisius, a saint who is also a Doctor of the Church and who lived at a time of controversy between Catholics and reformed Christians. In my time, we left off this name and adopted that of Saint Willibrord, the first apostle to bring the faith to all the Low Countries and who was still the patron of all Christians - a unifying figure. At that time, whatever relations the various groups of Christians had were relations of opposition, if they existed at all. Things are different now. I can't imagine how anyone would be nostalgic for those days of ceaseless contrasts.
     Judging by recent developments, ecumenical dialogue seems to be at its lowest ebb ever. Would you agree?
     WILLEBRANDS: The split exists, it continues to exist and this is the faith's greatest pain. There will be moments of joy, of recognition one of the other, but the fact of separation remains and it can only generate new and sharper points of pain at certain times when the separation makes itself manifest, emphatically so. The very fact that there is separation in the faith is something that goes even deeper and which is even more painful than the isolated controversies or episodes of hostility, or momentary conflicts.
     Some of the incidents and mishaps in the history of ecumenism are very reminiscent of what is happening today. Even the invitation to Orthodox to attend the Council created tension among their own ranks for reasons of prestige ...
     WILLEBRANDS: Incidents such as these are human controversies that do not run as deep as separation proper. This is the real conflict, the real pain. Other controversies arise from situations which are sometimes psychological, or sometimes when someone tries to prevail over someone else but they are all on the level of the human affair, of human passions. The difference with separation is that it touches on the very heart of the faith, the most precious thing of all for a Christian, and this is much more serious than isolated misunderstandings.

"We see Ourselves represented in that so humble of worshippers, Our predecessor Honorius III who, featured so small and almost annihilated, prostrate on the ground, in the splendid mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, kisses the foot of Christ; Christ being of gigantic dimensions who, in an attitude of regal majesty, dominates and blesses the assembly gathered in the Basilica, which is to say, the Church" Paul VI to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Vatican Basilica of Saint Peter, September 29 1963

     Paradoxically, it seems that the difficulties in the East have multiplied since 1989 ...
     WILLEBRANDS: The Berlin Wall fell but where's the wall that fell between Christians? We would like to forge unity but the breach between Christians remains and it touches the deepest point of all in the Christian man - his faith, not his faith in other people but his faith in the Creator, in the Savior. It is a scission, separation that sometimes takes the form of open hostility. What we must do is persist in our search for unity, overcoming the things that divide us within that deepest point of our lives - our faith.
     At the time of the Cold War, the Eastern Churches were accused of being the tools of propaganda for these countries' regimes. But hasn't this also happened in regard to the Catholic Church, in being identified as an appendix of the West?
     WILLEBRANDS: It happened that both sides were identified with one or other of the opposing blocs. And this was a deplorable thing that was not a consequence of the faith but was always to be found on the superficial level of Christian life.
     Our friend Cardinal Jean Jérôme Hamer once confided to us: "I met with Cardinal Willebrands and he said to me: 'We have worked all our lives for the unity of the faith but sometimes it seems to me that it has been the faith which has failed'." Can anyone who seeks the unity of the faith ever ignore that it is the faith itself which has failed as the living experience of the Christian people?
     WILLEBRANDS: I knew Father Hamer long before he became a cardinal. A spiritual friendship grew up between us, a relationship of mutual help in seeing ourselves - despite our different personalities and backgrounds - as friends in the search for the unity of Christians in the faith. This friendship was bigger even than our divergencies in terms of method and opinion which did not detract from but kept correcting and simplifying the unity of two Christian priests who were striving with sincere passion to re-establish that lost unity among Christian brethren. People who hold passionately to Christian unity only do so if they truly want the faith to be alive in the world. The desire for Christian unity is born not out of pious intent but is an essential aspect of the Church's mission. It is Jesus himself who wants this unity because the unity of the men who believe in him, which is a gift impossible to attain by human effort, is the miracle that manifests his glory in history. Ecumenism is not just an effort to re-unite divided Christians at all costs. Its aim is not 're-unification' to be achieved by human, political or sentimental efforts.
     Is it not, precisely, the weakness, a lack of reality in the experience of faith that sometimes clouds the whole point of any kind of ecumenism? At numerous ecumenical rallies, the grounds for unity seem to be homologation with widespread but vague religious idealism ...
     WILLEBRANDS: No, no. When the meetings have been serious affairs, the points for discussion have always been prepared very carefully. Many of these meetings start and end with prayer, with a request to the Lord, to ask him, for he alone has the power to touch hearts and heal the division. All the human resources, the historical knowledge is useful but only if the Holy Spirit enlightens us so we may recognize what is vain, groundless, and what, in contrast, unites us. It is the grace of the Lord, which enlightens us, that has the power to make us see what should be requested and what suffices for unity, which is to say, sharing the same faith of the apostles, and to see what may be relegated to the various liturgical, theological and cultural traditions. Otherwise, we run the risk of imposing, in the name of the faith, what the faith does not demand at all. In that case, dialogue degenerates into a struggle to make one's own opinion prevail. And what the Lord alone can give he does not give via discussions among men.

It is Jesus himself who wants this unity because the unity of the men who believe in him, which is a gift impossible to attain by human effort, is the miracle that manifests his glory in history

     Since the encyclical Ut unum sint, there has been debate over new forms for exercising the Petrine Primacy. What would you suggest on this point?
     WILLEBRANDS: The Petrine Primacy must not be an obstacle but something that unites us; this, for the very reason that it is not a political primacy, or one of human power, but a gift of God, a creation, so to speak, of the Holy Spirit who wished it solely to sustain the unity of those who believe in Jesus Christ. The greatest pain of all, for people of faith, is this split which has been generated around the very gits that were given to nourish and sustain communion, such as the Eucharist and the Petrine Ministry.
     Cardinal Franz König once said in an interview with 30DAYS: "I find it remarkable today to see that the general opinion is that it is the pope who makes the Church. According to the prevalent world vision, the pope is seen as some kind of great religious strategist who devises and pursues strategies with Curia aides, and the Church is seen simply as the fruit of this planning guideline. But none of Tradition teaches this in regard to Peter and his successors. They are not the ones who 'make' the Church". Do you agree with this description of the current state of affairs?
     WILLEBRANDS: The task of Peter's successor is not to create some great philosophical-theological system. The pope cannot be the Descartes type. It is not even required of him that he be a great theologian as some saints and professors have been and are. The Lord Jesus is the sole creator of unity. He alone is the core, the foundation, the essence of the Church. Reducing the pope to some kind of politico-religious strategist means failing to recognize what is essential in the papacy, that it is not a system. It is a creation by Jesus, and Jesus uses this reality of the papacy. It is God's reflection through men in this form which is of the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church is not a social body put together by the ideas of some philosopher or theologian - it is the Body of Christ.
     What do you think are the essential factors that defined the function of Peter's first successors and which could be the point of reference in the event of any "simplification"?
     WILLEBRANDS: The first is to recognize that the Primacy is a gift of Christ, of God, and not the result of evolution or struggle among apostles and Doctors of the Church. Even Jesus warned the apostles when they argued about who was the greatest of them, the one who was closest to him.

The coronation of Our Lady, apse mosaic, Basilica of Saint Mary Major, Rome

     At this time, numerous exponents of the Catholic Church are asking forgiveness for the sins and errors of the past. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also said in reference to the burning of heretics at the stake that the Church was a Church of martyrs and must not be a Church that made martyrs ...
     WILLEBRANDS: Forgiveness is always to be asked of the Lord first of all because sin is always an offence against the Lord. But forgiveness may also be asked of men, for the sins of injustice, of emnity, of lack of understanding in their regard. The two go hand in hand. And in history there are many episodes of Catholics who sinned against other Christians, even seeking to annihilate them.
     You also had a role in dialogue with Judaism. How do you judge the Church's current recognition of the sins of Christians in regard to the Jewish people?
     WILLEBRANDS: If we condemned the Jewish people because they did not recognize, as Christians did, the person of Jesus Christ, and we persecuted the Jews because they did not accept what had been given and preached to them by Christ and by the apostles, these things are judgements and consequences of judgements that primarily are of God, and should be left to Him. The faith cannot be imposed ever, especially not by violence and force, and this we have done more than once, one to the other. The error is common to Catholics and Jews on this point. The Pope's address to the recent symposium on anti-Judaism in the Christian world seemed to me to be very profound and true, especially when he clarified that anyone who reduced Jesus' belonging to the Jewish race to the level of a contingent cultural fact, was ultimately rejecting the Incarnation, or, the fact that God became man in that particular environment, at that particular point in time.
     The centenary of the birth of Paul VI was celebrated not long ago. What memories do you have of this Pope's great ecumenical passion which caused him suffering and which drew criticism even from within the Church?
     WILLEBRANDS: Paul VI helped us greatly. I can still remember one particular ecumenical meeting near Milan. Then archbishop, the future Pope urged us Catholics to be united among ourselves first of all as the initial sign of our proposition of unity in regard to other Christians too. He communicated his profound Christian faith with great humility and also with some remarkable gestures, such as when he stooped to kiss the feet of the Orthodox Metropolitan Melitone. The situation is different now. Maybe it is difficult today to make the same gestures that he made. But the need to ask the Lord for the gift of unity is as urgent as ever.