Cardinal Kasper gives an overview of his 11 years at the Dicastery for Christian Unity
Eleven years of work in a demanding but exalting office on the "worksite" of the Church of the future; because ecumenism is not a luxurious "option" but rather a constitutive element of the Church. This is Cardinal Kasper's assessment at the end of his mandate as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Indeed, last 1 July  Benedict XVI accepted his resignation from this office for reasons of age and appointed Archbishop Kurt Koch, a Swiss Prelate, to succeed him.
On the eve of the official announcement, the German Cardinal gave a press conference at which he also spoke of his role in the Commission for Relations with the Jews, which is an integral part of the ecumenical Dicastery.
"I am very grateful to John Paul II and to Benedict XVI who entrusted me with this important office that I have endeavoured to carry out with loyalty and faithfulness: for me, these are two indispensable principles", he said, recalling his arrival at the Pontifical Council as Secretary on 1 June 1999 and his subsequent appointment as President on 3 March 2001, after being created a Cardinal at the Consistory of 21 February.
"Ecumenism", he explained, "was not a personal interest but rather a service to the Church" whose premise is that "however fundamental they may be, the various documents of dialogue are not the essential; indeed they would remain a dead letter if they did not find a concrete confirmation in personal relations, respect and esteem, trust and friendship. Wherever such relations do not exist", he commented, "a profitable dialogue that is always a dialogue in truth cannot exist either.
"Ecumenism is not done at a desk or in more or less academic dialogues. Dialogue is life. Dialogue is an integral part of the Church's life. This is why I have travelled widely and in travelling I learned much.
"I have had the chance to become acquainted with the universal Church and the various Churches in the world. I have met daily with the Bishops, pastors, professors, students, ambassadors and journalists of the churches and communities that are our partners". This has resulted in a "solid network of human and Christian relations that will also stand up to less favourable winds and will be a reliable foundation for further steps ahead. This new quality of relations and cooperation is the real ecumenical innovation".
Kasper claims: "the fulcrum and soul of this vital form of ecumenism is spiritual ecumenism", because "the unity of the Church cannot be programmed or fabricated". To the extent that one of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement and in particular of spiritual ecumenism, he said, citing Abbé Paul Couturier (1881-1953) of Lyons, France, spoke symbolically of an "invisible monastery".
Cardinal Kasper made use of this idea: "In a visible monastery the monks live and pray together; in the invisible ecumenical monastery they live and pray scattered across the world, but are united in prayer. Is not this already an intense and profound ecclesial communion?", he asked himself.
When these distant people meet, they immediately feel united even though, without saying so, they are still suffering from the lack of full unity. It is an experience both joyful and nostalgic, perhaps only comparable to a child's in the Season of Advent.
It is therefore necessary to ask ourselves how far we have got in this "advent" of ecumenism. The answer was structured on the basis of the different relations that exist.
Eleven years ago there were no dialogues with the Eastern Orthodox Churches — Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopian and others. The first encounters were extremely difficult because of differences. These were not only theological but also cultural, linguistic and personal. Nevertheless, from 2003, in the past five years there has been a rapprochement and a real friendship has developed.
"Together", the Cardinal recalled, "we have worked out a document that shows how, in spite of 1,500 years of separation, we have kept the same basic understanding of the sacramental mystery, of the ministerial structure and of the Church's mission".
With the Orthodox Churches too the situation was similar at the outset. "The Baltimore meeting" he admitted, "was a failure, the worst ever ecumenical experience. It took five years of patient negotiations to be able to start anew in Belgrade and then in Ravenna, whose document marked an important turning-point".
Then as regards the dialogue with the Ecclesial Communities of the Reformation, it should be remembered that here too progress has been achieved in personal relations. And progress has also been made in the theological field.
"We have got over many misunderstandings and prejudices of the past. We recognize each other as Christians and try to behave to each other as such. Especially at the local level there is greater cooperation and friendly coexistence".
However since 2000 the situation has been rapidly changing and no longer corresponds with that of the years of great post-conciliar enthusiasm.
"Errors, or rather recklessness, in the manner of formulating the truth were committed by both parties", Cardinal Kasper explained, "ourselves included".
"The Protestant Communities are experiencing fragmentation, as can be clearly seen from what is happening in the Anglican Communion, but that is not all. We are witnessing an increasing liberalization of ethical issues. Thus, despite the common desire not to interrupt the dialogues, to further relations and to collaborate, difficulties have increased, slowing the times of mutual rapprochement.
"With the publication last October of Harvesting the Fruits. Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue
— we assessed the position of the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists
— we have striven to provide a fresh impetus and our partners confirm that we have succeeded. We therefore engage in 15 bilateral international dialogues and also take part in the multilateral dialogue in the World Council of Churches, with which we have good collaboration, especially through the Commission on Faith and Order of which the Catholic Church is a member with full rights.
A new challenge is represented by the spread of Pentecostalism and the neo-charismatic communities, and by the widespread proliferation of sects that are spreading like wildfire in Latin America, Asia, Africa and also Europe. The ecumenical map is now far more colourful but also, unfortunately, far more confused.
"We are facing a complex phenomenon" the Cardinal said, "which cannot be tackled with the classical methods of ecumenical dialogue. On the one hand, in fact, at times these groups have no wish to enter into dialogue and even carry on a brutal proselytism, and on the other, they often cannot take part in dialogue because they are local or regional communities that have no international structure and do not possess, with the exception of the classical Pentecostals, a consolidated and shared doctrine such as that of the traditional Protestants".
Previously, at the opening of the meeting, Cardinal Kasper had also mentioned his feelings. "They are ambivalent", he said. "On the one hand, at the age of 77 being retired is perfectly normal; I would even say it is a "liberation". Yet, on the other, I am leaving the work I carried out with enthusiasm".