The Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs offers the following reflection on the ecumenical commitment of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with gratitude.
By Fr. Ronald Roberson, CSP
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals and took the name Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. The very next day the newly elected Pope called the cardinals together in the Sistine Chapel to outline his vision of the papacy and the priorities of his mission. He told the cardinals that the fostering of the unity of Christians would lie at the very pinnacle of his ministry. Speaking of himself in the third person, the Pope went on to say that:
Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty. He is aware that good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.
It is clear that for Pope Benedict, the central role of the bishop of Rome is to be the guarantor of the unity of the followers of Christ, the point of unity through which all the local churches are in full communion with one another and in Christ himself. Pope Benedict would repeat this conviction in his letter to the Catholic Bishops of March 10, 2009, regarding the remission of the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre. Here the Pope wrote that ecumenism – the promotion of Christian unity– is part of the “supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time.”
In line with this general orientation, Pope Benedict encouraged the continuation of ecumenical contacts and dialogues that began under his predecessors. Among his first trips outside Italy was to Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2006. There he met with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and signed with him a Common Declaration in which the two church leaders expressed the joy they felt as brothers, and renewed their commitment to move towards full communion. The Pope and Patriarch also welcomed the renewal of the international dialogue between the two churches, which had been going through a difficult period following the end of communism in eastern Europe.
During his papacy, Pope Benedict also encouraged deeper understanding and cooperation with the Anglican Communion and other communities that trace their roots back to the Reformation. In November 2006 he received Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury during his visit to Rome and signed a Common Declaration with him in which they praised the “significant elements of shared faith” that have been discovered in the theological dialogue between the two churches and the “practical co-operation and service” that have become increasingly common among Catholics and Anglicans.
Due in part to his German origins, Pope Benedict also had a special interest in the dialogue with the Lutherans. In a message addressed to the Lutheran World Federation for its 60th anniversary in March 2007, the Pope praised the “always fruitful” dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics and the great progress that has been made in relations since Vatican II. He called these improved relations a “gift of the Holy Spirit,” which calls on both sides “not to slacken in our ecumenical endeavors.”
Pope Benedict took care to introduce a note of realism in the Catholic Church’s ecumenical efforts. He reaffirmed the teaching of Vatican II that while the fullness of the one Church of Christ is found in the Catholic Church, there are also authentic and salvific elements of the Church that exist in other communions. He pointed out that the evolving teaching of some churches of the west on moral matters, especially pertaining to sexuality, were beginning to present new barriers on the path towards full communion.
There can be no doubt that throughout his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI was firmly committed to the restoration of the unity of the followers of Jesus. He knew how deeply the Christian proclamation of the Gospel is compromised by our division, and how much stronger it would be if we spoke with one voice. It can be said that he made every effort to hasten the day when the world will see Christians fully united, and so come to believe in the risen Lord.