Two years of Pope Francis. In an interview, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Kurt Cardinal Koch, talks about the difficulties of ecumenism, the commemoration of the Reformation and the personality of the Pope.
Interviewer: Cardinal, Pope Francis is often referred to as an "icebreaker," can this also be applied to ecumenism??
Cardinal Koch: No, I think that first of all Pope Francis is in a great continuity with his predecessors, who all had an open heart for ecumenism and opened doors. Pope Francis opens a little bit different doors than before, because he comes from Latin America and he already had a good contact with evangelical, Pentecostal movements. This opens some doors for us.
Interviewer: You have just mentioned the new emphases that the Pope is setting. With Benedict XVI. it was the churches of Orthodoxy, the Eastern churches, now it is about the Evangelicals. How do these churches distinguish themselves, and where is the difficulty in dialogue??
Cardinal Koch: Pope Benedict XVI. was not only concerned about the Orthodox, but just as seriously about the churches that emerged from the Reformation. Among the evangelical, pentecostal movements there are some groups that are quite anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical. You have some prejudices against the Catholic Church. But because the pope has such an open heart and also meets many people and invites them, such prejudices can be overcome. This opens new doors for new dialogues.
Interviewer: Nikolaus Schneider, then chairman of the EKD Council, virtually raved about Pope Francis after his first meeting with him. Is this his Latin American way, this cordiality that Francis lets play here?
Cardinal Koch: It is a completely different personality. Many who have visited Pope Benedict have also spoken of cordiality, but it is a different cordiality. He comes from a different cultural context. It is this openness, and I think one can be surprised by it. Many have had prejudices against a pope from Latin America. It was feared that Francis would not bring much to ecumenism in our latitudes. By now, hopefully, everyone has been convinced of the opposite. Pope Francis knows Orthodoxy, the Oriental Churches, but also the Churches that emerged from the Reformation very well. He has had personal experience also in Buenos Aires. These dialogues are very close to his heart. What is perhaps typical for him: he puts a very strong emphasis on the dialogue of love, the cultivation of friendships, of relationships. And he says that the theological dialogues are sometimes difficult, but that should not prevent us from working together, from witnessing together to Jesus Christ in this world.
Interviewer: What are the big construction sites in the matter of ecumenism at the moment??
Cardinal Koch: It depends very much on which communities you are in contact with. We basically have two divisions, the Eastern Division and the Western Division. In the Eastern Department, the dialogue with all the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches is ongoing. Of course, the crucial question of the Petrine ministry is in the foreground: that is, the question of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome for a future unity between East and West.
For the churches and ecclesial communities that emerged from the Reformation, the challenges are quite different. In world Protestantism as a whole, there is no longer a tendency toward unity among ourselves. There is a tremendous fragmentation. New churches are emerging all the time.
The second great challenge is that there is hardly any real consensus any more about the goal of ecumenism, about where the journey should actually go. It's a difficult question, because if I get on the train here in Cologne and I don't know where to go, I don't have to be surprised if I arrive not in Berlin but in Basel. We must always reflect anew on where the journey should go.
And the third problem is that new divergences are emerging in the ethical field: During the 1980s and 1990s, the slogan "Faith divides – action unites" was coined in the ecumenical movement. Today one would actually have to say the reverse. We have been able to deepen many questions of faith, new divergences are emerging in the ethical field. Above all bioethical questions, but also on the subjects of family, marriage, sexuality, gender. This is a very big challenge, because if Christians cannot speak with one voice on the central ies in today's society, the Christian voice will become weaker and weaker.
Interviewer: A major project is the reform of the Curia, which Francis is pushing ahead with. There is supposed to be resistance in the curia. In his Christmas address to the Curia, Francis also had harsh words for Curia members. How do you perceive that?
Cardinal Koch: I think the address and many statements he makes indicate that spiritual reform is much more important than structural reform. That everyone who works in the Curia becomes aware again that he is at the service of the Church, that he is at the service of the Pope and at the service of the local Churches. So not being the controller of the local churches, but being in their service. This seems very important to me. As far as the structural reforms are concerned, there are different opinions. I don't know anyone who is against reform, but there is of course a discussion about how this reform should be carried out, where the accents should be placed. But I would not speak of opposition to the Pope.
Interviewer: When you talk with Francis about ecumenism, are you on the same wavelength?? Or are there also differences?
Cardinal Koch: No, he has of course the higher wavelength, I am only in his service. We understand each other very well, he has an open heart for Christian unity – going together, working together, witnessing together, is very important to him. What he always emphasizes is the ecumenism of blood. 80% of all people who are persecuted for reasons of faith are Christians. And they are not persecuted because they are Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or Pentecostal, but because they are Christians. Pope Francis once told me that sometimes the persecutors of Christians have a better ecumenism than we have. For you would know that we belong together. And this blood that is shed today in the name of faith is something that unites us. This ecumenism of blood – Pope John Paul II. Has already spoken of ecumenism of the martyrs – is for me the most intimate core of all ecumenical efforts.
Interviewer: Do you think Francis will come to Germany in 2017 to commemorate the Reformation?
Cardinal Koch: I believe in God. Everything else is a question of organization. Of course, there will be careful consideration of what the Pope's contribution is in the Reformation commemorative year. But the Reformation is of course much bigger than Germany. The Lutheran World Federation is also a universal institution, so it will have to be carefully considered what the pope's contribution will be.
The interview was conducted by Jan Hendrik Stens.