By Antonio Gaspari
BUDAPEST, Hungary, APRIL 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- On March 25, the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) turned 40 years old.
It was an important anniversary for an institution that is still not particularly well known, but which has carried out an important role in the growth and development of modern European civilization.
The CCEE is made up of 33 episcopal conferences from as many European countries. ZENIT spoke with Cardinal Péter Erdõ, archbishop of Esterzgom-Budapest and the current CCEE president, about the group, which promotes collaboration between the bishops of Europe.
ZENIT: The CCEE was 40 years old on March 25. What is it exactly and how did it begin?
Cardinal Erdõ: The Council of European Bishops’ Conferences is at the service of collegiality among the episcopal conferences of Europe. The CCEE’s first task is to promote collaboration between the bishops in Europe. The purpose of the CCEE is to watch over the good of the Church and to promote the fulfillment of her mission. It has a consultative function: to cultivate collegial affection and foster closer communion and collaboration between the episcopal conferences. Collaboration takes place through consultations, especially during the annual plenary assembly, in which the presidents of each of the episcopal conferences take part.
Toward the end of the Second Vatican Council, on Nov. 18, 1965, 13 presidents of European episcopal conferences met. They established a committee, constituted by six delegates of the episcopal conferences and one linking secretary, to give thought to future collaboration between the episcopal conferences in Europe.
This responsibility was entrusted to Cardinal [Roger] Etchegaray. The committee had a twofold task: to study the elements necessary for real collaboration and to establish and define the pastoral sectors for which collaboration was particularly necessary and urgent. On March 23-24 of 1971, the constituent assembly of the CCEE was held, also in Rome.
In the beginning, the plenary assembly took place with delegates from the episcopal conferences. In 1986 there were 25 members and the episcopates of almost all the European states had a representative. In 1995 there were 34 members and at present there are 37 — 33 episcopal conferences and four non-member bishops of episcopal conferences: Luxembourg, the Principality of Monaco, the Republic of Moldava and Cyprus. The territory of membership of the CCEE also includes that part of Europe that does not belong to the European Union, such as Russia and Turkey. The new statutes were approved by the Congregation for Bishops on Dec. 2, 1995.
ZENIT: If you had to choose the most significant moments from among the CCEE’s activities over the last 40 years, which ones would you pick?
Cardinal Erdõ: From the times prior to my personal participation, I know the main episodes mainly based on the accounts of the first president, Cardinal Etchegaray, who spoke of this initiative with genuine enthusiasm. From his words I always felt the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, who also manifested himself in Vatican II, which has contributed to a deepening of that familiar theological reality we call episcopal collegiality.
In regard to my personal experiences, I remember a meeting in Munich with Bishop Ivo Fürer, then secretary-general of the CCEE, and with the excellent German canonist Heribert Schmitz. We had to work on the CCEE’s statutes. Our work conformed to the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. In fact, the strength of the continental conferences is their unity with the universal Church and especially with the Successor of Peter.
Another experience is represented also by the annual meeting of European Eastern Catholic bishops. This initiative has been carried out for some years under the patronage of the CCEE in the light of the equal dignity of all the Catholic Churches “sui iuris,” which are in full communion with the Church of Rome. Unity in diversity within the Catholic Church is a force that can help to bring closer the various peoples of our continent, so tormented in history.
Another unforgettable memory was the bishops’ prayer in Fatima in 2007, when we entrusted our continent to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary; and also the meeting of bishops of southeastern Europe organized in 2009 in Turkey, visiting Tarsus and other significant places in the life of St. Paul, asking for his intercession for an awakening of evangelization in our continent. The host that time was the late Bishop Luigi Padovese.
ZENIT: Among the CCEE’s objectives is also the development of ecumenical relations. To what degree can the CCEE carry out this mission and who are its participants?
Cardinal Erdõ: The sessions of the joint CCEE-KEK committee, which make possible the joint work of our presidency with the presidency of KEK (European organization of Orthodox Christians, Protestants and Anglicans), confirmed a common responsibility for our continent’s life.
Especially important was the European ecumenical meeting of Sibiu, Romania, of 2007. Another very encouraging experience was the Catholic-Orthodox Forum, which enables our organization — always in contact with the Holy See — to work together with representatives of all the Orthodox Churches of Europe. These forums, which tend to take on a two-year rhythm, are not a new organization, but, rather, they are always dedicated to some topic on the moral and social life of our continent. We have joyfully discovered that our theological positions are so close that they make possible common positions in very important practical fields. The theological-dogmatic dialogue is carried out between the Churches through other Catholic structures, under the guidance of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The minutes of the second Catholic-Orthodox Forum on theological and historical perspectives of church-state relations will be presented in Rome this coming November.
ZENIT: There are several shadows that threaten Europe, among them the demographic collapse, the separation and division of families, a certain ambiguity about the recognition of Christian identity, the growth of a culture that wishes to authorize various forms of euthanasia, the disappearance of God from daily life. Before a horizon that seems confused, how will the CCEE make the light shine of a new Christian rebirth?
Cardinal Erdõ: In the statutes of the CCEE, it is stated that the new evangelization is among its priorities. Now the Pope has instituted a dicastery for the promotion of the new evangelization and in 2012 a synod of bishops will be held on this topic. In 2010 in Zagreb we had a plenary assembly on the topic “Demography and Life in Europe.”
Each of our annual meetings, including the last one, has been preceded by detailed research on the topic to be examined. This research touches all the European countries. The results are collected, evaluated, discussed and presented to the assembly. For our 2011 plenary assembly in Tirana, Albania, the main topic will be the new evangelization.
ZENIT: In this context, what role can the bishop carry out?
Cardinal Erdõ: The bishop’s role is unique and essential. His function is threefold. The bishop must continue Christ’s mission of sanctifying, teaching and governing in an essentially different way from the one that characterizes the exercise of these tasks on the part of all Christians (LG 10).
Although these missions are directed especially to the ecclesial community, the bishops have an important mission also in the realm of the evangelization of the world of non-believers: They are the principal missionaries and protagonists of the dialogue that surpasses the private level.
ZENIT: The bishop is a pastor of souls, but also an important figure in the civil and social realm. How can the teachings of the Church be taken also to a realm of public relevance?
Cardinal Erdõ: The bishop must help and encourage the laity so that secular society develops in the spirit of the Gospel in keeping with the most profoundly human values, illumined by the Christian faith.
In regard to the bishops’ participation in the political and civil direction of European countries, we are before a clear change. When at the end of antiquity, many cities were left without civil public administration, who was able to defend the interests of the community? Often it was the bishop who had to assume this role.
In Germany and in other countries converted to Christianity through the decision of the princes of the High Middle Ages, the bishops seemed to be the most faithful functionaries not only of the Church, but also of the state. The Hungarian bishops, for example, during the Middle Ages had to fight, together with their troops, in all the important wars of the king. In the battle of Mohacs in 1526, when the Hungarian army — in defense of its own country — was defeated by the Ottoman imperial army, in one day virtually the whole episcopate of the country fell.
In the modern age some bishops or cardinals, such as Mendoza, Jiménez de Cisneros and Richelieux, even assumed the role of regent of the country. In our days, canon law prohibits clerics from carrying out functions that entail the exercise of state power. It is the laity who — also according to Vatican II — have the special vocation of transforming the world in the sense of the Gospel (cf. CIC, can. 227. Apostolicam Actuositatem 7b).
ZENIT: What initiatives has the CCEE proposed to celebrate the anniversary?
Cardinal Erdõ: The celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the CCEE will not end in one single celebration, but will be carried out in the course of the whole year. First of all through our magazine, the four-monthly “Litterae communionis.” In the three issues of 2011, the most recent three secretaries of the CCEE will recount the history of this organization at the service of episcopal communion in Europe. They will recount the history of the CCEE, which is in short the history of the Church and of Europe in these last 40 years. Moreover, on March 25, I addressed a letter to all the bishops of Europe asking them to intercede in prayer before the patron saints of Europe so that the CCEE will continue to carry out its service to the Church and to Europe, with enthusiasm and simplicity, in communion with the Successor of Peter. Finally, precisely during the next plenary assembly, which will take place in Germany at the beginning of October, we will celebrate this event officially together with all the presidents of the episcopal conferences that today constitute the CCEE. Other initiatives are being prepared, which will be announced in due time.[Translation by ZENIT]