Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Convalescence, as most of you know from your own experience, is a period of ups and downs. There are days when you almost feel yourself again and other days when you barely have energy to keep yourself together. As doctors and others tell me, anyone after a major trauma like a cancer operation has to allow the body to heal according to its own rhythm. I remain deeply grateful, during these days of recuperation, to the many people who have been praying for me. As my strength returns, I pray for them more consistently than I have been able to do in the immediate past. Christ heals, but he asks us to ask.
We, along with St. Paul, call the Church the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ, through the ages, has received many wounds, some of them self-inflicted. The deepest wounds are those that have visibly divided disciples of Jesus Christ from one another. The healing process is called ecumenism. It proceeds at a rhythm not entirely of our making, although we have to be eager to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church and the principal of her unity.
I write about ecumenism in this column because the Church recently lost a premier ecumenist who helped create the structures that enabled Catholics to enter into contemporary ecumenical dialogue officially. Cardinal John Willebrands died in Holland over a month ago. He was 96 years old. Before the Second Vatican Council, he brought together pastors and scholars to discuss Church unity informally and unofficially. During the Council, he served as secretary for the commission on ecumenism, set up by Pope John XXIII to help the Orthodox and Protestant observers at the Council contribute to the discussions of the Council Fathers. Willebrands helped draft the Council's decree on Ecumenism and contributed as well to the Declaration on Religious Liberty, the Declaration on the Church's relation to non-Christian religions and the Constitution on Divine Revelation. After the Council, Willebrands was made a bishop and eventually became, in the Roman Curia, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. His was a life dedicated to healing the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ by the visible disunity of those baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Because of Cardinal Willebrands dedication and hard work, the Church has a Directory on Ecumenism, a sort of guide on how to heal our wounds. He set up many of the bi-lateral theological dialogues with major Christian confessions. He established a Catholic relationship with the World Council of Churches that is not membership but that allows cooperation with a number of the World Council programs. He encouraged the various bishops' conferences around the world to create their own ecumenical committees.
Beyond the search to heal the Body of Christ, Cardinal Willebrands and the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity also responded to a call from our ancestors in the faith to enter into Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism was created in 1974 and attached to the Commission for Christian Unity rather than to the office for dialogue with other religions. This administrative decision reflects the unique relationship between peoples covenanted with the Lord. The Jewish-Christian dialogue opened the door for the significant gestures and words of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Here in Chicago we have been blessed with ever strengthening relationships between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church.
Though unity with other Christians remains elusive, the death of Cardinal Willebrands reminds us that we must continue on the path he helped to open up for the Church. The rhythm of ecumenical healing seems slower these days, and so it is all the more important to remember a time of hope and expectation and to pray for the healing that Christ wants for his people.
Finally, I'm writing this on September 11, five years after our nation received wounds that have not yet healed, wounds inflicted by terrorists who used passenger planes as weapons of destruction in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. How to understand people who were convinced that their killing of several thousand innocent people advanced their cause, how to respond effectively in a united manner, how to protect ourselves now and in the future — these remain questions for which we do not have satisfactory answers. But a remembrance not only of the dead but also of the months after that attack, when people seemed to take more time for one another, when projects were second to compassion, when we reached out to one another in the midst of a shared tragedy — these remain ways that give us courage to go forward.
In the midst of all our wounds, physical and psychological, spiritual and political, let us keep praying for the courage to go forward. God bless you.