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Theological Notebook: The Death of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands

Dutch cardinal, pioneer in ecumenism, dies at 96


By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Dutch Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, a driving force behind improved Catholic relations with other Christians and with Jews, died in Denekamp, Netherlands, Aug. 2 at the age of 96.

Pope Benedict XVI offered his prayers for the late cardinal, saying he humbly served Christ and worked tirelessly to fulfill Christ's will that all his followers would be one.

"I give thanks to the Lord for all the work accomplished by the cardinal in ecumenical relations, of which he was an ardent promoter from the beginning of his priesthood and in an eminent way following the Second Vatican Council," the pope said in an Aug. 2 telegram to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Attracted to the topic of ecumenism while still a seminarian in the 1920s, the cardinal was named the first secretary of the Vatican's office for promoting Christian unity in 1960 and served as president of the office from 1969-1989.

Before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, he also was instrumental in fostering improved relations with Jewish leaders. When the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews was established in 1974, he was appointed president.

Simultaneously, Cardinal Willebrands served as archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1975-83 traveling back and forth between his offices at the Vatican and the Netherlands.

Cardinal Willebrands was the oldest member of the College of Cardinals; his death leaves the college with 190 members, 120 of whom are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave.

Retired Australian Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, who succeeded Cardinal Willebrands as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said his predecessor was "the driving force behind Catholic ecumenism" for more than 60 years.

"He was there from the beginning," Cardinal Cassidy told Catholic News Service. "His contributions to Christian unity and to relations with the Jewish people were fundamental.

"He was the key person as far as opening up relations with the Orthodox churches. He went and personally invited them to come to the (Second Vatican) Council," Cardinal Cassidy said.

"He was able to see how he would like things to be without being pushy when it didn't happen," he said. "He was very Dutch -- very determined. He did not give up easily, which was very important for the work he was doing."

Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, said that it was under Cardinal Willebrands' leadership that "the Catholic-Jewish relationship was institutionalized in a way we take for granted today."

"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 incredible pontificate of John Paul II," the rabbi said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Rosen said Cardinal Willebrands had "an almost stereotypically Dutch" facade, but it never masked "his emotional warmth and intellectual depth," especially when it came to Catholics' special relationship with the Jewish people.

Msgr. John A. Radano, a Newark, N.J., archdiocesan priest and an official at the Christian unity council, said Cardinal Willebrands was "a Catholic pioneer in ecumenism. The church is indebted to him, and other Christians also recognize that he was instrumental in much of the progress in ecumenism."

"He was a great man," said the monsignor, who worked with him in 1984-90. "He was very gentle, very thoughtful. He was kind and encouraged the staff in its work."

Born Sept. 4, 1909, in Bovenkarspel, Netherlands, he studied at the Warmond seminary before being ordained to the priesthood in 1934.

He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome.

Returning to the Netherlands, he served as a chaplain and as a professor of philosophy. In 1946, he was appointed president of the St. Willibrord Association, which promoted ecumenical work in his homeland.

In a speech in Rome in 1994, he said that after World War II he and some of his friends traveled around Europe looking for other Catholic theologians whose experience of cooperation with other Christians during the war had sparked an interest in the ecumenical movement.

The group of 50 to 60 theologians, known as the Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions, informed the Vatican about what they were doing, but did not ask for or receive official permission, he said.

Members of the group had informal contacts with the World Council of Churches, which allowed them to contribute to WCC discussions and to keep up to speed with the topics the Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant ecumenists were exploring.

When Pope John XXIII formed the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960, then-Msgr. Willebrands was named secretary, and the majority of the consultors were priests who had participated in the conference meetings.

In a published tribute to Cardinal Willebrands marking his 90th birthday in 1999, the staff of the pontifical council said the cardinal and other secretariat staff members helped draft the Second Vatican Council's documents on ecumenism, religious freedom, relations with non-Christian religions and divine revelation.

Pope Paul VI named him a bishop in 1964 and a cardinal in 1969.
Tags: ecclesiology, hierarchy, historical, magisterium, mysticism/spirituality, obituary, second vatican council, theological notebook
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