Reflection on Eve of the Consistory

Author: Cardinal Walter Kasper


Cardinal Kasper's Reflection on Eve of Consistory

Part 1

"Ecumenism Is Not an Optional Choice But a Sacred Obligation"

ROME, 12 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)

Here is a translation of the first part of a Nov. 23 address of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the eve of the consistory for the elevation of cardinals.

The cardinals-designate and other cardinals in Rome for the consistory met with Benedict XVI for a day of prayer and reflection prior to the consistory. The day was dedicated mainly to the topic of ecumenism.

Part 2 will be appear Thursday.

* * *

Information, Reflections and Evaluations of the Present Ecumenical Situation

It will only be possible to present information and reflections on the present ecumenical situation in a very general and, unfortunately, not exhaustive way. Nevertheless, I hope that my presentation will be able to bring to light the action of divine providence that leads the separated Christians to unity to make their witness an evermore clear sign to the world.

Section I.

I will begin with a first reflection that I regard as essential. That which we call ecumenism — to be distinguished from interreligious dialogue — finds its basis in the testament that Jesus himself left us on the eve of his death: "May they be one" (John 17:21). The Second Vatican Council defined the promotion of Christian unity as one of its principal intentions ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 1) and as a movement of the Holy Spirit ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 1; 4). Pope John Paul II declared the ecumenical venture to be irreversible ("Ut Unum Sint," 3), and Pope Benedict XVI, from the very first day of his pontificate, assumed as a primary task working without rest for the full and visible reconstitution of all the followers of Christ. He is aware that pleasant sentiments are not enough for this. Concrete gestures are necessary that stir the conscience, soliciting everyone to that interior conversion that is the presupposition of all progress on the path of ecumenism (Homily to the College of Cardinals, April 20, 2005). Ecumenism is not, therefore, an optional choice but a sacred obligation.

Naturally, ecumenism is synonymous neither with a kindly humanism nor with ecclesiological relativism. It rests on the knowledge the Catholic Church has of itself and of its Catholic principles about which the Decree on Ecumenism speaks ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 2-4). It is an ecumenism of truth and charity; the two are intimately connected and cannot be substituted for each other. The dialogue of truth must above all be respected. The concrete norms are expounded in a binding way by the Ecumenical Directory of 1993.

The most significant results of the ecumenism of the last decades — and also the most gratifying — are not the various documents, but the rediscovered fraternity, the fact that we have rediscovered ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, that we have learned how to appreciate each other and that we have together set out on the path toward full unity (cf. "Ut Unum Sint," 42).

Along this path the Chair of Peter has become in the course of the last 40 years an evermore important reference point for all the Churches and ecclesial communities. If the initial enthusiasm has been replaced by an attitude of greater sobriety, that demonstrates ecumenism has become more mature, more adult. By now it has become a quotidian reality, perceived as a normal element in the life of the Church. It is with gratitude that we must recognize such a development as the action of the Spirit who guides the Church.

In a more specific manner we can distinguish three fields in ecumenism. We must first of all mention the relations with the ancient Eastern Churches and with the Orthodox Churches of the first millennium, which we recognize as Churches insofar as, at the ecclesiological level, like us, they have maintained the faith and the apostolic succession. In the second place, we recall the relations with the ecclesial communities born directly or indirectly — as with the free churches — from the 16th-century Reformation; they have developed their own ecclesiology, taking sacred Scripture as their foundation. Finally, the recent history of Christianity has known a so-called third wave, that of the charismatic movement and the Pentecostal movement, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and has since spread throughout the world with an exponential growth. Ecumenism must, therefore, deal with a variegated and differentiated reality, characterized by very different phenomena according to the cultural contexts and the local Churches.

Section II.

Let us begin with the Churches of the first millennium. Already in the first 10 years of dialogue with the pre-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, that is, between 1980 and 1990, we achieved important results. Thanks to the consensus reached by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II with the respective Patriarchs, it was possible to overcome the ancient Christological controversies that emerged around the Council of Chalcedon (451) and, in regard to the Assyrian Church of the East, those that emerged around the Council of Ephesus (381).

In its second phase the dialogue focused on ecclesiology, that is, on the concept of ecclesial communion and its criteria. The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2008, in Damascus. In this place for the first time a draft of a document on the "Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church" will be discussed. Thanks to this dialogue, Churches of ancient tradition and indeed of apostolic tradition, again come into contact with the universal Church after having lived on her margins for 1,500 years. That this is happening slowly, step by step, is completely normal given the circumstances, namely, the long centuries of separation and the great differences in culture and mentality.

The dialogue with the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine, Syrian, and Slavic tradition officially began in 1980. With such Churches we have in common the dogmas of the first millennium, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, the veneration of Mary Mother of God and of the saints, the episcopal structure of the Church. We consider these Churches, along with the Eastern Churches, as sister Churches of the local Catholic churches. Differences already existed in the first millennium but they were not perceived in that epoch as a factor of division within the Church. The real separation occurred through a long process of estrangement and alienation, because of a lack of understanding and reciprocal love, as the Second Vatican Council observed ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 14). That which is happening today is, therefore, necessarily, an inverse process, one of mutual reconciliation.

The first important steps were already accomplished during the Council. We must recall the example of the meeting and correspondence between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenogoras, the famous "Tomos agapis," and the removal of the reciprocal excommunications of 1054 from the memory of the Church on the penultimate day of the Council. On such bases, it has been possible to recover some forms of ecclesial communion from the first millennium: the exchange of visits, of messages and missives between the Pope and the patriarchs, above all the ecumenical patriarch; the cordial coexistence and collaboration between many local Churches; the Catholic Church's concession of many places of worship for the liturgical use of the Orthodox Christian diaspora as a sign of hospitality and communion. During the Angelus on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that with these Churches we are in almost full ecclesial communion.

In the first 10 years of dialogue, from 1980 to 1990, what we had in common in regard to the sacraments (above all the Eucharist) and the episcopal and priestly offices was pointed out and stressed. Nevertheless, the political turn of 1989-1990, instead of simplifying our relations, complicated them. In the return to public life of the Eastern Catholic Churches — after years of brutal persecutions and heroic resistance paid for even in blood — the Orthodox Churches saw the threat of a new "Uniatism." Thus, in the 1990s, despite the important clarifications made by the meetings in Balamand (1993) and Baltimore (2000) dialogue ran aground. The crisis situation is acute above all in the relations with the Russian Orthodox Church after the canonical establishment of four dioceses in Russia in 2002.

Thanks be to God, after many patiently undertaken efforts, last year it was possible to reinitiate dialogue; in 2006 a meeting was held in Belgrade and about a month ago, we met again in Ravenna. On that occasion a decisive improvement in atmosphere and relations emerged despite the departure of the Russian delegation for inter-Orthodox reasons. Thus a promising third phase of dialogue began.

The Ravenna document, entitled "Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church," signaled an important turn. For the first time the Orthodox interlocutors recognized a universal level of the Church and admitted that even at this level there exists a "Protos," a "Primate," who can only be the Bishop of Rome according to the "taxis" [order or hierarchy] of the ancient Church. All the participants are aware that this is only a first step and that the path to full ecclesial communion will still be long and arduous. Nevertheless, with this document we have a laid a foundation for future dialogue. The theme that will be addressed in the next plenary session will be "The Role of the Bishop of the Church of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium."

In particular regard to the patriarchate of Moscow of the Russian Orthodox Church, the relations in recent years have noticeably smoothed out. We can say that there has been a thaw here. From our point of view, a meeting between the Holy Father and the patriarch of Moscow would be useful. The patriarchate of Moscow has never categorically excluded such a meeting, but it regards it as opportune to first resolve the problems that in its opinion exist in Russia and above all in the Ukraine. But it must be remembered that many meetings have a place at other levels. Among these, I would mention the recent visit of Patriarch Alexy to Paris, which was considered an important step by both parties.

Summarizing, we can affirm that a continual purifying of the historical memory and many prayers are still necessary so that, on the common basis of the first millennium, we will succeed in healing the rift between East and West and restore full ecclesial communion. Despite the difficulties that remain the hope is strong and legitimate that, with the grace of God and the prayers of many faithful, the Church, after the division of the second millennium, will return in the third to breathing with both of its two lungs.

Part 2 "We Must Bear Witness to the Richness and Beauty of Our Faith"

ROME, 13 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)

Here is a translation of the second part of a Nov. 23 address of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the eve of the consistory for the elevation of cardinals.

The cardinals-designate and other cardinals in Rome for the consistory met with Benedict XVI for a day of prayer and reflection prior to the consistory. The day was dedicated mainly to the topic of ecumenism.

Part 1 was published Wednesday.

* * *

Section III.

Let us pass now to the ecclesial communities born from the Reformation. Even here there are encouraging signs. All the ecclesial communities have said that they are interested in dialogue and the Catholic Church is in dialogue with almost all the ecclesial communities. A certain consensus has been reached in the ambit of the truth of faith, above all in regard to the fundamental questions of the doctrine of justification. In many places there is a fruitful collaboration in the social and humanitarian sphere. There has progressively spread an attitude of reciprocal confidence and friendship, characterized by a deep desire for unity, which remains despite the harsh tones and bitter delusions that arise from time to time. In fact, the intense network of personal and institutional relations that has developed in the meantime is able to resist the occasional tensions.

We have not reached a dead end but a profound change in the ecumenical situation. It is the same change that the Church and the world in general have experienced. Here I will limit myself to noting only some aspects of this transformation.

1) After having arrived at a fundamental consensus on the doctrine of justification, we now find ourselves having to again discuss classical themes of controversy, above all ecclesiology and ecclesial ministries (cf. "Ut Unum Sint," 66). In this regard the "Five Responses" published last June by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith caused perplexity and a certain ill humor. The agitation that arose around such a document was largely unjustified since the text does not say anything new but only restates Catholic doctrine in a summary way. Nevertheless, it would be desirable to reconsider the form, language and public presentation of these sorts of declarations.

2) Different ecclesiologies necessarily lead to different visions of the purpose of ecumenism. Thus it is a problem that we lack a common concept of the ecclesial unity which it is our objective to reach. Such a problem is more grave if we consider that ecclesial communion is for us Catholics the presupposition of Eucharistic communion and the absence of a Eucharistic communion carries major pastoral difficulties above all in the case of mixed couples and families.

3) While on the one hand we try to overcome old controversies, on the other emerge new differences in the ethical sphere, particularly in regard to questions attending the defense of life, marriage, the family and human sexuality. Because of these new barriers that have been thrown up, common public testimony has been notably weakened if it has not indeed become an impossibility. The crisis that is occurring within the respective communities is clearly exemplified by the situation arising in the Anglican Communion, which is not an isolated case.

4) Protestant theology, marked in the first years of dialogue by the "Lutheran Renaissance" and by Karl Barth's theology of the word of God, has now returned to the motifs of the liberal theology of the past. Consequently, we observe that, on the Protestant side, those Christological and Trinitarian basics which were up until now a common presupposition are sometimes diluted. That which we held to be our common patrimony has begun to melt away here and there like the glaciers in the Alps.

But there are strong counter-currents that have arisen in reaction to the above-mentioned phenomena. One encounters all over the world a powerful growth of evangelical groups, whose positions largely coincide with ours in fundamental dogmatic questions, above all in the ethical sphere, but there are often many divergences in ecclesiology, sacramental theology, Biblical exegesis and the understanding of tradition. There are clusters of "high church" Anglicans and Lutherans who wish to restore in their communities elements of the Catholic tradition in regard to the liturgy and ecclesial ministry. More and more monastic communities, who often live according to the Benedictine rule and feel close to the Catholic Church, are joining themselves to these groups. Furthermore, there are pietist communities that, in the face of the crisis about ethical questions, feel a certain uneasiness in the Protestant ecclesial communities; they look with gratitude to the clear positions taken by the Pope, about whom they had not long ago exclaimed in less kind tones.

All these groups, together with Catholic communities of religious life and new spiritual movements, have of late formed "spiritual networks," often centered on monasteries like Chevetogne, Bose and above all Taizé, and in movements such as the Focolare and Chemin-neuf. We can say that in this way ecumenism has returned to its roots in small groups of dialogue, prayer and Bible study. Recently, these groups have even gone public, for example, at the big meetings of movements at Stuttgart in 2004 and 2007. Thus new and promising forms of dialogue are emerging alongside the official ones that have themselves often become difficult.

This panoramic glance shows us therefore that there is not only ecumenical convergence but also fragmentation and forces centrifugal to the work. If we also take into consideration the numerous so-called independent churches that continue to appear above all in Africa and the proliferation of often very aggressive sects, we will realize that the ecumenical landscape has become very differentiated and confused. This pluralism is nothing other than the mirror of the pluralistic situation of so-called post-modern society, which often leads to religious relativism.

In the present context, what is of particular importance are the meetings such as the plenary assembly of the World Council of Churches that took place in February of last year in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the "Global Christian Forum" and the "European Ecumenical Assembly" held in September 2007 in Sibiu/Hermannstadt, Romania. The aim of these gatherings is to re-unite the various divergent groups in dialogue and, as far as possible, hold the ecumenical movement together with its bright spots and shadows and its new challenges in a changed and still rapidly changing situation.

Section IV.

This mention of pluralism leads me to the third wave in the history of Christianity, namely, the spread of charismatics and Pentecostals, who, with about 400 million faithful worldwide, are in second place among Christian groups in terms of numbers and are experiencing exponential growth. Lacking a common structure and a central organ, they encompass much diversity. They consider themselves the fruit of a new Pentecost; consequently, the baptism of the Spirit plays a fundamental role for them. Referring to them, Pope John Paul II already made it known that this phenomenon need not be considered only in a negative way since, beyond the undeniable problems, it bears witness to the desire for a spiritual experience. Unfortunately, this does not take away the fact that many of these communities have in the meantime become a religion that promises an earthly happiness.

With the classical Pentecostals it was possible to broach an official dialogue. With others, there are serious problems on account of their somewhat aggressive missionary methods. The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, in the face of this challenge, has organized on various continents seminars for bishops, theologians, and lay people active in ecumenism: in Latin America at São Paulo and Buenos Aires, in Africa at Nairobi and Dakar, in Asia at Seoul and Manila . The result of these seminars is also evident in the final document of the 2007 meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Aparecida, Brazil. Above all, a pastoral examination of conscience is necessary in which we ask ourselves in a self-critical way why so many Christians are leaving our Church. We do not need to ask what it is that is wrong with the Pentacostals but what our pastoral deficiencies are. How can we respond to this new challenge with a liturgical, catechetical, pastoral and spiritual renewal?

Section V.

This question leads us to the concluding question: How should we travel the path of ecumenism? It is not possible to give a single answer. The situation is so different according to geographical regions, cultural environments, local Churches. It is the individual bishops' conferences that must assume the responsibility.

In the way of principle, we must begin from the common patrimony of faith and remain faithful to that which, with the help of God, we have been able to accomplish ecumenically. Inasmuch as possible we must bear common witness to this faith in a world that is increasingly secularized. This means that in the present situation we must also rediscover and reinforce the fundamentals of this faith of ours. In fact, everything vacillates and is emptied of meaning if we do not have a firm and conscious faith in the living God, one and three, in the divinity of Christ, in the salvific power of the cross and the resurrection. If we no longer know what sin is and what implication in sin is, then the justification of the sinner no longer has any relevance.

Only on the basis of the common faith is it possible to dialogue about what our differences are. And that must happen in a clear but non-polemical way. We must not offend the sensibilities of others or discredit them; we must not point our finger at what our ecumenical interlocutors are not or at what they do not have. Rather, we must bear witness to the richness and beauty of our faith in a positive and welcoming way. We expect the same attitude from the others. If this happens between us and our interlocutors, there can be, as the encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" says, an exchange not only of ideas but also of gifts, which will enrich both sides (28, 57). Such an ecumenism of sharing is not an impoverishment but a reciprocal enrichment.

In dialogue founded on spiritual sharing, theological dialogue will also have an essential role in the future. But it will be fruitful only if it is sustained by an ecumenism of prayer, of conversion of heart and of personal sanctification. Spiritual ecumenism is in fact the very soul of the ecumenical movement ("Unitatis Redintegratio," 8; "Ut Unum Sint," 21-27) and it must have first place in our efforts. Without a true spirituality of communion, which gives room to the other without the renunciation of our own identity, all of our projects would become arid and empty activism.

If we make our own the prayer that Jesus pronounced on the eve of his death, we need not lose courage and vacillate in our faith. As the Gospel says, we must be confident that what we ask in Christ's name will be heard (John 14:13). We will not be the ones to decide when, where and how. This is left to him who is the Lord of the Church and who gathers his Church from the four winds. We must content ourselves with doing our best, recognizing the gifts received with gratitude, or to be more precise, that which ecumenism has already accomplished, and look to the future with hope. Looking with realism at the "signs of the times" we are able to understand that there is no realistic alternative to ecumenism and above all no alternative to faith.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field