By Carmen Elena Villa
ROME, JULY 13, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity brings to Rome his experience of working shoulder to shoulder with ecclesial communities of the Reformation. This experience, he says, is part of the reason Benedict XVI chose him.
Swiss Archbishop Kurt Koch took up his post on July 1, leaving his 15-year position as the bishop of the Diocese of Basel. In addition to leading the pontifical council, he heads the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.
ZENIT spoke with the 60-year-old archbishop about his new mission, and his perspective on Benedict XVI’s work in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
ZENIT: How did you receive your appointment as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity?
Archbishop Koch: It is a great honor for me. The Holy Father told me in February, in a personal audience, his desire that I would begin to lead this council. It is a great joy for me because ecumenism has always been in my heart since in my country, Switzerland, Protestants are very close to us and I have also had a particular interest in the Orthodox Churches.
ZENIT: What are the main challenges for this dicastery?
Archbishop Koch: I am just beginning and I think now, it is necessary to look at the whole picture. I have been a member of this dicastery since 2002 and I have also been involved in the dialogue with the Orthodox. In the first place I want to talk with all the collaborators and in November we will hold the first plenary assembly. The first challenge is to prepare this meeting well, to prepare the global picture of ecumenism and see how progress can be made.
ZENIT: What was your experience as bishop of Basel, especially in the matter of ecumenism?
Archbishop Koch: The churches and ecclesial communities born of the Reformation in Switzerland are a special case in the world of the reformed churches. With the Orthodox, we have a common foundation of faith, but great cultural diversity. Instead, with the churches of the Reformation, the foundation of faith is not so common, but we have the same culture. Because of this, with them, it is a different way of engaging in ecumenism that is not always easy.
ZENIT: And your experience as president of the Swiss episcopal conference?
Archbishop Koch: I was vice-president for nine years and president for three. It was lovely work. Being president I looked widely to the Church in Europe, but the work of the diocese continued. Hence it was necessary to seek common points, something which was not always easy.
ZENIT: What is the role of the Commission for Dialogue With Jews, over which you will now also preside?
Archbishop Koch: The relationship between Catholics and Jews in the context of religious relations. In this connection, Cardinal Kasper has done much to improve and deepen the dialogue with Jews. It is very important to make [people] aware and to live a sensitivity and deepen reflection on the religious dimensions of these relations. In the first place, it isn’t a political but a religious relationship. The Holy Father’s visit to the synagogues of Cologne, of New York, and then of Rome are very important gestures.
ZENIT: How do you evaluate Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts in favor of relations with Christians of other denominations?
Archbishop Koch: The Holy Father has done much. In the first homily after his election he said openly that ecumenism is a challenge that comes from Jesus Christ and that, at this time dialogue finds good foundations in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
In pastoral journeys he has always dedicated a part to ecumenism. Let us consider for example the trip to England, which will take place in September. It won’t be easy because the Anglicans’ situation isn’t easy. It’s said that Benedict XVI wishes especially to foster ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox. For me it is impressive.
The Holy Father has asked me to do this work and an element that he has stressed much is that he wants a bishop who knows the churches of the Reformation not only in books but by personal experience. This tells us how close the Holy Father is to the churches of the Reformation. Moreover, as a professor, he has worked much in this connection.
ZENIT: What do you think have been the fruits of this rapprochement?
Archbishop Koch: It’s always difficult to see the fruits because the foundation of ecumenism is spirituality. People cannot bring about unity. This is a gift that the Holy Spirit gives.
There can be a deepening of the theological dialogue and of love, there is above all a dialogue of love that the Holy Father fosters in meetings. And I think that many people will see that many fruits will arise from this situation, not from the mentality that’s out there. I believe that the meetings with all the members of other churches are giving much fruit.
ZENIT: Let’s speak of the religious sects. How can this phenomenon be addressed?
Archbishop Koch: In the first place the Church must ask, why do people join sects? Why don’t they join our Church? I know that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has taken important steps to address this matter with bishops and I believe that it must be addressed further and must continue.
[Translation by ZENIT]