By Alessandro De Carolis
Knowing how to develop “trusting relationships” is not something that can be learned from books. It is, however, one of the “fundamental” dispositions, along with theological and linguistic expertise, required of those working in the ecumenical field within the Vatican Dicastery whose mission is ecumenism. Cardinal Kurt Koch – who, since 2010 has led the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians of which he has been a member since 2002 – knows very well the style of an institution that breaths with the “two lungs”, as Saint John Paul II used to say, of the Churches of the East and the West. Not many people work in this Dicastery, and their mission budget is included in the combined €21 million total of thirty small departments and entities in the official Holy See data for 2021.
Your Dicastery is one of the most significant results of the Second Vatican Council. How is the legacy of an experience that is now almost sixty years old kept alive today?
It is true that our Dicastery is in some way the most significant result of the Second Vatican Council. Undoubtedly, one of the primary goals of the Council, as conceived by Saint John XXIII, was the re-establishment of unity among Christians for which a special Secretariat was created. But it is also true that the Council itself is, in many aspects, a result of the work of that Secretariat for Unity. Suffice it to think of the determinant role the Secretariat had in the preparation of the drafts (schemas) of several key Council documents, such as the Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, the Decrees Unitatis Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate, and the Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae. Sixty years later, the Conciliar teaching remains a source of inspiration and the guide of our activity, particularly the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium and the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio.
Last year was the 25th anniversary of Ut Unum Sint in which Pope John Paul II confirmed that the Church’s commitment to ecumenism is “irreversible”. What else needs to be done till the evangelical call to unity becomes a reality?
Ut Unum Sint, the only Encyclical dedicated to the unity of Christians, confirmed the Council’s great ecumenical intuitions by affirming the path of unity as indispensable for the Church. It validated the dual dialogue of charity and truth undertaken immediately after the Council with all the various Christian communions, but it also highlighted the importance of spiritual ecumenism as the soul of the movement for unity. In the last chapter entitled Quanta est nobis via?, the Encyclical covers the journey that remains to be made. It is clear that unity is a gift of the Spirit, a gift that is given to us as we journey together, as Pope Francis often repeats. To receive this gift, it is indispensable not only to ask for it but to be disposed to receive it, praying so that the Lord might increase our desire for unity just as He yearned for it.
Where does your staff come from and how are you organized? What specific experience and expertise are required?
We accomplish this mission on an international level with a small team of twenty-four people who come from thirteen different countries, seven of whom are expert officials in charge of different desks. At least three fundamental dispositions are required for our work: of course, specialized theological training and an expertise in languages, and the capacity to develop trusting relationships since friendship and fraternity are an important dimension of ecumenism. But above all, our service requires a passion for unity and a love for the Church as it was founded by Christ and as He wanted it. This passion drives us to continuous study, it permits us to learn through experience, to explore possible new paths, as well as to exercise the virtue of patience since the times are not ours but are the Holy Spirit’s. The work of our Pontifical Council also involves its members and consultors, as well as experience, men and women, clergy, religious and lay people, who participate in numerous theological dialogues and other initiatives that are moving ahead with almost all of the other Christian confessions.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a central annual event for the Pontifical Council. What is the pulse of the ecumenical movement in the world today and what are some of its prospects?
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is certainly an important moment, not only for our Dicastery but, I hope, for all Christians. However, it is not the only occasion of prayer for unity. In fact, during the Holy Mass, we always ask the Lord to grant “unity and peace” to the Church. Furthermore, spiritual ecumenism consists not only in prayer for unity, but also in “change of heart and holiness of life”, as the Second Vatican Council says. I would include at least another three important aspects of spiritual ecumenism: the prayerful communal reading of Sacred Scripture; the purification of the historical memory and the ecumenism of the saints; and in a special way, of the martyrs. The healthiness of the ecumenical movement, on the local level as well as on the international level, depends on all these spiritual roots.
The organization you preside over is divided into two sections: Eastern and Western. How is the ecumenical journey proceeding on both these fronts?
This distinction corresponds to the structure of the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism that takes into account the specifics regarding the origins and realities of Christianity. In fact, even if the ecumenical movement is one movement, the issues confronted in the various dialogues are different. While with the Orthodox and Eastern Churches we share the same apostolic tradition and we have the same ecclesial and sacramental structure, with the ecclesial communities of the West, the situation is extremely varied and we must confront the lack of a common understanding of unity. Nevertheless, the dialogue among Christians in the last seventy years has brought more progress than ever before in history. For example, the Christological declarations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches that put an end to 1500 years of controversy, or the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification that resolved the fundamental problems at the core of the 16th century Reform. Not least is the fact that Christians no longer see themselves as enemies but as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The “Ecumenical Vademecum” published at the end of 2020 entitled The Bishop and Christian Unity is the most recent document produced by your Pontifical Council. What type of welcome did it receive in the Catholic Church and in other Christian Churches and confessions?
This document corresponds to the primary mission of our Pontifical Council, and that is to promote ecumenism within the Catholic Church, in which the Bishop is the first person responsible for the promotion of unity in his diocese. We are happy to attest that the text was well-received, both in the Catholic Church, where various Episcopal Conferences prepared different local editions, as well as in other ecclesial Churches and Communities who have reacted very positively to the initiative.
An ad hoc commission handles relations with Judaism (CRRE). What are the principal results obtained in the dialogue with our “older brothers”?
Pope Paul VI’s intuition to create this commission in the heart of our Dicastery in 1974 turned out to be most relevant, given the special, “intrinsic” relationship between Christianity and Judaism as Pope John Paul II confirmed. The commission has published four important documents, each of which has contributed to the greater sensitization of the relations of Catholics toward their “older brothers”. The last one entitled The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable is a reflection on the theological issues pertaining to Catholic-Jewish relations, published on the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. This text provided an enrichment and intensification of the theological dimension in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, particularly necessary since our relations have a religious foundation above all.