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Jan Cardinal Willebrands, 1909-2006

Jan Cardinal Willebrands

Johannes Cardinal Willebrands would have celebrated his 100th birthday this fall, and Rome honored this great ecumenist, bishop, and Council father with a day-long Colloquium hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Cardinal Willebrands was bishop of Utrecht in his native Netherlands, and served for twenty years as the second president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, from 1969-1989, succeeding Cardinal Agustin Bea with whom he had worked closely during the Council.

Seven lectures traced the contributions of Cardinal Willebrands to the Church and the churches, each about half an hour, interspersed with Q & A time and the obligatory pausa for caffè and pranzo:

  • William Henn, OFM: Cardinal Willebrands and the relations between Rome and the Ecumenical Council of the Church
  • Michel Van Parys, OSB: Cardinal Willebrands and ecumenical relations with the Churches of the East
  • James Puglisi, SA: Cardinal Willebrands and ecumenical relations with the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West
  • Msgr. Pier Francesco Fumagalli: Cardinal Willebrands and the Jews
  • Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury: An Ecumenical Testimony
  • Jared Wicks, SJ: Cardinal Willebrands and the development of Catholic ecumenical theology
  • Cardinal Walter Kasper: The heritage of Cardinal Willebrands and the future of ecumenism

Unfortunately, the Holy Father’s general audience for the students of the Roman universities was scheduled during the morning, so several students opted for that instead, but the ecumenical section of the Angelicum was here almost in full!

While the morning helped paint a vivid picture of the life and many contributions of Willebrands to the Catholic Church and its commitment to ecumenism, the afternoon focused as much on the current and future situations, and made several references to Cardinal Kasper’s new book, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue.

When some people lament the apparent ‘slowing’ of ecumenical progress in the last twenty years, as compared to the previous thirty, the golden age remembered is the period in which Willebrands was either President or Secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity (named the Secretariat for Christian Unity when first established).

Cardinal Kasper has described him this way:

“He had many qualities: sensitivity and discernment in judging people and situations; great capacity to communicate; the gift of nurturing true friendships. All this is fundamental for ecumenical dialogue since ecumenism means overcoming suspicion, building trust and creating friendships. In Willebrands we find the right balance between a passionate eagerness for unity and that patience which does not try to force things but lets them grow and mature. Not least, Willebrands had an exceptionally fine sense of humour, humour being often the only way to face small-minded and sheepish attitudes.”

Before the Council, when Catholics could not attend ecumenical meetings or participate in ecumenical prayer, Willebrands and others would faithfully observe the letter of the law, then accept invitations to tea with a group of sisters who would also, coincidentally, invite the members of whatever commission or meeting was going on in ecumenical circles. In this way early Catholic contributions were not lost to the ecumenical conversations, and the beginnings of a network of friendships was being developed. It was a way of being “obedient to the Church, and more obedient to the will of Christ”.

Willebrands established a “Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions” in 1951, to discuss Catholic issues ‘in response to’ some ecumenical initiatives. This was done while maintaining open contact with Cardinal Ottaviani in the Holy Office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).  He was instrumental in arranging the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in which the mutual excommunications of 1054 were renounced. He helped establish the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and was the primary point of contact between the WCC and the Catholic Church for decades.

During the Council, Willebrands was able to use the previous decade of personal relationships to draw up a list of ecumenical observers to be invited, and was their host throughout the Council. These observers and staff of the secretariat would meet weekly at the Centro Pro Unione on Thursdays, to get a debriefing of the week’s interventions (which were in Latin) in English and other more common languages. Often there would be a presentation by one or more of the peritii of the council. As the bishops themselves heard about these gatherings more and more would attend, at the least to hear in an understandable language what had been discussed in front of them the week previous!

Jared Wicks, SJ; Archbishop Rowan Williams; Cardinal Walter Kasper

Near retirement, Willebrands noted that the best ecumenists have been theologians, but also that “ecumenism is first a way of being Christian, before it is a theological or pastoral competence.” He published, in 1987, an article titled “Subsistit in”, Vatican’s Ecclesiology of Communion, which is one of the most authoritative interpretations of the nature of the church in Lumen Gentium 8, along with the work of Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper.  

One of the last reflections he gave in Rome before retiring to the Netherlands was at the invitation of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, and delivered in the Centro Pro Unione, “Why I Am a Man of Hope” – a summation of all his experience and why he maintained hope for the future of the Church and ecumenism.

Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury

In reading some of the headlines the next day, you might have thought that the entire colloquium was just a platform from which the Archbishop of Canterbury could fling the gauntlet at Benedict’s feet on the issue of the ordination of women. This was not the case, and the issue of ordination was raised as an case in the broader question of the relationship between local and universal church, and the theological weight of divisive issues. (His entire address is here.)

Rather, it was a time for him to assert that he too, was a man of hope for the future of the ecumenical imperative, while acknowledging some hard questions that need to be asked, the central question being,  

“…whether and how we can properly tell the difference between ‘second order’ and ‘first order’ issues.  When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?”

In other words, given the depth of our agreement on the nature and mission of the church, on Baptism and Eucharist, et cetera, do the remaining issues of division – such as the understanding of authority, primacy and the relationship of local to universal church – carry the same weight as the issues that unite us? These are questions pertaining to the hierarchy of truths, and asked by our fellow Christians who desire unity:

“All I have been attempting to say here is that the ecumenical glass is genuinely half-full – and then to ask about the character of the unfinished business between us.  For many of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question we want to put, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain. And if it isn’t, can we all allow ourselves to be challenged to address the outstanding issues with the same methodological assumptions and the same overall spiritual and sacramental vision that has brought us thus far?”


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