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Success for the Pope in the United Kingdom also in the ecumenical field

· Archbishop Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity ·

Benedict XVI's Visit to the United Kingdom was also a great success in the ecumenical context. Archbishop Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, affirmed on his return from his first journey in the Pope's entourage. He told L’Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition of his impressions that were not limited to the meetings with Anglicans but also the political and pastoral gatherings. And, he said, they were immediate and spontaneous on the eve of another important ecumenical event, the 12th Plenary Meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (as a whole), which began on Monday, 20 September, in Vienna, Austria.

[ For all the Addresses the Holy Father gave during his Visit to the United Kingdom, see “L’Osservatore Romano” English edition, 22 September 2010 ].

Before leaving for Great Britain you expressed the hope that the most authentic aspects of the Pope's Visit would not be clouded by disagreements or prejudice. How did it go in the end?

Very well in my opinion. I and the other members of the Papal entourage had the impression that the people of the United Kingdom truly saw the Pontiff as he really is, with his simplicity and depth. The feeling is that he was welcomed with affection by everyone and that all in all this journey proved to be a great success – from every point of view.

How did you feel about this experience that was new for you?

In fact, I already had a first-hand experience of a Papal Journey abroad when, on 13 May 2009, I welcomed Benedict XVI at the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem as Bishop of Basel and President of the Swiss Bishops' Conference, one of the main supporters of the pediatric hospital. On that occasion I was struck by the fact that the Pope did not keep his eye on the clock during that Visit. I remember that he spent a long time talking to the sick children, especially to the premature ones. It was a marvellous experience. Yet this time my joy is even greater. I took part in every event in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham; and I had the impression everywhere that the Pope succeeded in showing himself as he is and that the people gave him a warm welcome.

What do you think was the most significant moment from the ecumenical viewpoint?

The whole journey had an ecumenical dimension because, in each one of his 18 Discourses, the Pope referred to the role of the community of believers in European societies, continuously referring to the Continent's Christian roots. However, to answer your question, it was obvious from our point of view that Friday afternoon, 17 September, was the most important day.

Are you speaking of the first ever Visit of a Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury's London residence or of the subsequent celebration, also the first in history, in Westminster Abbey?

Both these events had unprecedented importance. At Lambeth Palace the two meetings with Archbishop Rowan Williams – the public meeting and the other, more private one – were very friendly and fraternal. The Joint Communiqué released at the end of the cordial conversation stressed that Benedict XVI and the Primate of the Anglican Communion had reaffirmed, among other things, the importance of improving ecumenical relations and of continuing the theological dialogue, particularly on the subject of the Church as communion

And then there was the ecumenical Evening Prayer service in Westminster Abbey. What did you find the most striking in that most evocative rite?

First and foremost their prayer together at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, the English King venerated as a Saint in both traditions. However I would also like to reflect on certain gestures: the embrace and kiss of the Pope and Archbishop Williams, which sealed the exchange of peace in simplicity and friendship; and also, at the end of the celebration, the Blessing they imparted together. These were deeply moving moments and in the various speeches I had the feeling that they had both discovered that they were in agreement on many points and were proposing a shared Message, i.e.: that in a secularized society a common witness is absolutely essential. All the interventions focused on Jesus Christ. These meetings offered a true witness to the Christian faith in the society of England and Scotland, the two countries visited by the Pope on his Journey.

Having analyzed the progress made, perhaps it would be right to speak of the problems. Or have they suddenly disappeared?

They exist, of course, but with the keen awareness that it is absolutely necessary to persevere in the dialogue that has already borne fruit as there is much work ahead. On more than one occasion several Anglican Bishops greeted me and told me that they are pleased at the way this dialogue is going and hope that unity between the two may really be sought.

Even though not long ago the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus seems to have raised some difficulty?

It should be immediately explained that the pastoral offer of the Ordinariate for Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church was the Pope's response to explicit requests in this regard. I repeat: there were requests from Anglicans to rediscover the Catholic Church and the Pontiff could not refuse. The difference in comparison with former times is that there have always been individual conversions and Cardinal Newman's example is illuminating; but now it is a matter of groups who wish to enter the Catholic Church with their pastors and possibly with their Bishops. Benedict XVI is making a magnanimous gesture by opening the door to those who knock at it. But this does not affect the dialogue that must continue. I would also like to explain that everything which concerns the dialogue comes within the province of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, whereas the application of Anglicanorum Coetibus is incumbent on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is good, because it means that we have two paths on which to continue our quest for communion with the Anglicans.

In his Address to the Bishops of England and Wales and of Scotland, the Pope once again asked them to be generous in implementing the Apostolic Constitution. Is this a sign that problems still exist?

I think that above all it concerns practical matters. For example, what is the procedure should an entire Anglican community wish to enter the Catholic Church with its Bishop? Should these groups and their Bishops be integrated by the institution of a personal ordinariate? We have no precedent for this to date. I believe it is always a bit like this when innovations are introduced, but with common sense it is also possible to overcome these fears.

And is this the spirit in which you are preparing for the event in Vienna?

I would say “yes”. The 12th Plenary Meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (as a whole) is meeting for an entire week, until 27 September, and I hope that steps ahead will be taken in studying the topic on the Agenda: “The primacy of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter, in the first millennium”.

This crucial topic is inherent in the historical and doctrinal questions raised by the East and West. Since there are differences in interpretation concerning the testimonies and scriptural and theological foundations, it is significant that both parties should be making an effort to interpret the texts in a new way, through a common investigation and a shared hermeneutic. It is only in this manner that the outlook can change and that it will be possible to resume a fruitful journey towards the future.

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