VATICAN CITY, JUNE 16, 2005 ( Benedict XVI told a representation of the World Council of Churches that the search for Christian unity is one of his priority commitments.

The Pope today welcomed the Reverend Samuel Kobia, secretary-general of the WCC, and his entourage, on his first visit to the Vatican since taking up his post in January 2004.

The delegation included Bishop Eberhardt Rens from the Evangelical Church of Germany, president of the WCC, and Archbishop Makarios of Kenya and Irinoupolis from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, a member of the WCC Central Committee. Kobia's wife, Ruth, was also on hand.

In his welcome address, delivered in English, the Holy Father recalled that in "the very first days of my pontificate, I stated that my primary task is the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers."

"This requires, in addition to good intentions, concrete gestures which enter hearts and stir consciences ... inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress," he said.

The heart

In this connection, "Pope John Paul II often recalled that the heart of the search for Christian unity is 'spiritual ecumenism,'" Benedict XVI said.

"He saw its core in terms of being in Christ: 'To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ's prayer: 'Ut Unum Sint'" -- that they may be one, said Benedict XVI.

The Holy Father reaffirmed that "the commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity is irreversible," and stressed that he very much wishes to continue cooperation with the WCC.

The WCC is a fellowship of 347 ecclesial communities in more than 120 countries from virtually all Christian traditions. The Catholic Church is not a member but works cooperatively with the WCC.

The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in the Netherlands. Relations between the Catholic Church and the WCC, which began with the Second Vatican Council, led to the establishment in 1965 of the Joint Working Group, as a means of contact and cooperation.

"Next November an important consultation on the future of the Joint Working Group will be held to mark the 40th anniversary of its founding," said the Pope.

"My hope and prayer," he said, "is that its purpose and working methodology will be further clarified for the sake of ever more effective ecumenical understanding, cooperation and progress."