Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Remembering the "Captain"

As his funeral liturgy begins in his former see of Utrecht, the legendary ecumenist Cardinal Johannes Willebrands has been memorialized across the interreligious spectrum. Willebrands, the longtime head of what became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as well as Utrecht's archbishop from 1975-83, died last week at 96.

Per usual, The Times of London leads the pack with its obit:
Under the wartime Nazi regime, he once explained, Roman Catholics and Protestants in Holland discovered that what mattered was not what Church they belonged to, but their shared experience as persecuted Christians. That conviction committed him to the ecumenical cause well before its time had come in the Catholic Church. It buoyed him up when Rome came to regard other Christians not as “heretics and schismatics” but as “separated brothers and sisters”, and sustained him in the practical task of implementing the new ecumenical approaches in the wake of Pope John XXIII’s reforming Second Vatican Council, which met in Rome from 1962 to 1965....

An ecumenical springtime followed the council. The unity secretariat was engaged in bilateral dialogues and encounters with Lutherans and Anglicans, Orthodox and Baptists, Methodists and Disciples of Christ. There was a joint working group with the WCC. Meetings in Rome with Christian leaders, including Archbishops of Canterbury, were facilitated. Geoffrey Fisher was smuggled in through the back door to meet Pope John in 1960, but by the time Michael Ramsey arrived in 1966 to see Paul VI he was treated almost like a patriarch. Practical instructions for local ecumenism were issued in a directory. Great strides were made in ecumenical co-operation over translations of the Bible.

From the beginning, relations with the Jews had been part of the secretariat’s brief. Guidelines issued in 1974 and 1985 overhauled Catholic preaching and religious instruction about Judaism. A Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was established in 1974, with Willebrands as its president. One rabbi would later hail him as “the captain of the Catholic-Jewish ship”....

In 1975 Paul VI burdened him with another impossible job. He asked Willebrands to take over the leadership of the Dutch Catholic Church as Archbishop of Utrecht, while remaining president of the unity secretariat. In Holland conservative and radical Catholics were on each side pushing their cause as far as they could. Paul VI hoped that the Dutch cardinal would be an architect of unity here too....

He stepped down from the Utrecht post in 1983, and was reputedly disappointed to see Adrianus Simonis, a strong conservative, appointed to succeed him. On his return full time to Rome, he feared that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under its new head, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), was encroaching on his secretariat’s freedom of action. He mounted a vigorous defence.

He submitted his resignation in 1984, as required at the age of 75, but John Paul II kept him on, appreciating his unique expertise. He took part in the exchange of letters on women’s ordination that passed between Canterbury and Rome from 1984-86. It must have been with sadness that he told Archbishop Runcie that the arguments he had advanced “cannot count as reasons for the radical innovation of ordaining women to the priesthood”. A roadblock had been set across the Anglican-Roman Catholic path.

Very interesting that the late cardinal's motto was "Veritate in Caritatem" -- "The Truth in Love."

And, from the American Jewish Committee, these words of praise:

"Under Cardinal Willebrands' leadership the Catholic-Jewish relationship was institutionalized in a way we take for granted today," said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC's international director of interreligious relations. "He was the captain of the Catholic-Jewish ship and steered its significant voyage in the transition from the pontificate of Paul VI to the remarkable pontification [sic] of John Paul II."

AJC worked closely with Cardinal Willebrands in the years leading up to the landmark 1965 Catholic declaration, Nostra Aetate, which fundamentally changed Catholic teachings about and dealings with the Jewish people.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who at the time was head of AJC's interreligious affairs department, was central to those interactions. In 1963, Cardinal Willebrands visited AJC headquarters in New York to meet with Rabbi Tanenbaum. "The Jewish people preserve special values, very important and precious and they are of permanent meaning," Cardinal Willebrands told Rabbi Tanenbaum. "The Jewish people and Judaism have a permanent mission in the world, and we must work together side-by-side to serve God's people."

In case you were curious, there's been no statement from Mel Gibson.

But the WCC chimes in, its head calling Willebrands "an honourable and devoted servant of the Gospel and of the cause of Christian unity."
He especially broke fresh ground in 1983, at celebrations in the then East Germany to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. There Cardinal Willebrands hailed the German theologian whose break with the papacy inaugurated the Protestant Reformation as “a religious genius” – though acknowledging wrongs on all sides, including the slaughter of Anabaptists.