Cardinal Kasper’s Reflection on Eve of Consistory (Part 1)

“Ecumenism Is Not an Optional Choice But a Sacred Obligation”

ROME, DEC. 12, 2007 ( 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.

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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.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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