Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch has suggested ecumenical dialogue is reaching new heights under the pontificate of Jesuit Pope Francis.
In a wide-ranging interview with ZENIT at the Vatican last week, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity discusses Pope Francis’ trip to Turkey and what it means for ecumenical dialogue and how this Pope’s reaching out to Evangelicals has created a “new situation” for the Church.
Moreover, the prelate speaks on where the Church’s relationship with the Patriarchate of Moscow currently stands, the Pope’s recent reaching out to other Christians, and the increased number of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism under this pontificate.
In addition, Cardinal Koch shares about the commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the promulgation of the decree of the Second Vatican Council for Ecumenism, “Unitatis Redintegratio.”
ZENIT: If you could please speak about the situation now in Turkey, in terms of ecumenical dialogue? And how is Pope Francis’ trip there needed for this dialogue?
Cardinal Koch: Well, we have a very good ecumenical situation between the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Rome since the first meeting between Blessed Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964.
We have a long tradition of mutual visits for the Feast of St. Andrew the 30th of November, [when] a delegation of Rome goes to Constantinople and on the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, June 29th, [when] a high delegation from Constantinople comes to Rome. And now this year, the Holy Father personally will visit Constantinople and we have also this tradition that in the second year of the pontificate, Saint John Paul II has gone to Constantinople in 1979, and also Benedict XVI in 2006, and now the Holy Father Pope Francis. This is a very beautiful opportunity.
ZENIT: What are your hopes and expectations for this encounter, in terms of relations with Orthodox Christians?
Cardinal Koch: First of all, it’s for deepening the relationship with Rome and Constantinople. But it’s clear that the Ecumenical Patriarch has a primacy of honor in the Orthodox world, and in this sense it is an honor also for all Orthodox Churches around the world. But, for instance, it is a deepening of the dialogue of love, friendship, brotherhood … between the Pope and between the Ecumenical Patriarch. I hope that this visit can be a good opportunity to deepen this relation and to prepare new steps in the future.
ZENIT: Where does the relationship of the Church currently stand with the Patriarchate of Russia? What is being done? What needs to be done?
Cardinal Koch: We have another situation because with the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow, we don’t have meetings between the Pope and the Patriarch. It is always Metropolite Hilarion who comes from Moscow to Rome to visit the Holy Father. I have just been twice in Moscow to visit His Holiness, to deepen this dialogue. But we don’t have a particular dialogue of truth between Rome and Moscow because our international joint commission between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches include 14 different Churches, and the Russian Orthodox Church make up part of this commission. But we have also some collaboration between Moscow and Rome, on a cultural and social level.
ZENIT: Do you think anything needs to be done to further the relationship with the Patriarchate of Russia at this time?
Cardinal Koch: We have today not an easy situation in view of Ukraine and some accusations of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch against the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. I hope that the Churches can overcome some difficulties and find a way for reconciliation in this situation of Ukraine. And I hope that the different Churches in Ukraine can give good contributions for a better reconciliation for the society in Ukraine.
ZENIT: What effect could this papal trip have on the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Russia and the Catholic Church?
Cardinal Koch: You’d have to ask this question to Moscow… It’s clear that the visit of the Holy Father to the Patriarchate of Constantinople is also a visit by the ecumenical patriarch [of Constantinople], who is the primate of honor for all the Orthodox Churches. But what the consequences are precisely for the Orthodox Churches, I cannot say.
ZENIT: Can you speak about the Pope reaching out to Evangelical Christians and whether this is contributing to ecumenical dialogue?
Cardinal Koch: Yes, here we have a new situation because the Holy Father is very open to the meetings with the Evangelical and Pentecostal world and this is a very good opportunity because until today, the door [was] a little closed because some evangelical Pentecostal movements have many prejudices against the Catholic Church and against the Pope. When they can meet the Pope personally and make a good experience, they can overcome some prejudices and prepare a new field for a better dialogue.
In this sense I am very grateful for all that the Holy Father does in the relations with the evangelical and Pentecostal world.
ZENIT: Could you shed some light on the increasing number of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism under (the pontificate of) Pope Francis?
Cardinal Koch: I don’t think that’s the goal of the meetings, to convert the others. It was a conviction of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and similarly thought by Pope Francis that proselytism is not a way of the Catholic Church and of ecumenism. However, when a person wants to convert to the Catholic Church this is a human right of religious freedom. But the goal of the meetings is to deepen the relationship of brotherhood, of friendship, between the Pope and Evangelicals, and to give common witness about Christ, about the presence of God in the world, and to deepen the missionary dimension of the Church.
ZENIT: Is there anything that you would like to add? Anything that you believe the world should be aware of, be it something related to the Pope’s upcoming visit to Turkey or related to your dicastery?
Cardinal Koch: Yes, we have this beautiful opportunity because before the pastoral visit in Constantinople, we have the feast of the 50-year anniversary of the promulgation of the decree of the Second Vatican Council for Ecumenism, “Unitatis Redintegratio” (21st of November 1964), and this week we have the plenary of our Pontifical Council. And we will commemorate this beautiful event, first with a celebration of Vespers in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and then a commemoration at the Pontifical Gregorian University, with three lectures about this ecumenical decree – Catholic, Oriental, and Occidental – and to see how we can read this basic text 50 years later and what are the opportunities in the future. The very closeness of this Jubilee and the visit of the Holy Father in Constantinople is a beautiful correlation.