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Cardinal Koch on Christian Unity and Jewish-Catholic relations


(Vatican Radio) The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is being celebrated by many Churches in the northern hemisphere from January 18th to 25th, focusing this year on a provocative question from St Paul to the early Christian community in Corinth: ‘Has Christ been divided?’ Resources for this annual event have been developed by an ecumenical group of Christians in Canada and are available on the websites of both the Vatican’s Council for Christian Unity and World Council of Churches.


Here in Rome the week of ecumenical activities, conferences and liturgies will conclude with the celebration of Vespers, with Pope Francis presiding in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls with members of the many other Christian communities.


But what will be the Holy Father’s most important ecumenical appointments over the coming year? What contribution has Pope Francis brought to the search for Christian Unity? And how should we respond to the theme for this year’s Week of Prayer? Philippa Hitchen put those questions to the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch…


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The theme [of this year’s Week for Christian Unity, “Can Christ Be Divided?”] comes from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. This is a provocation, because Christ cannot be divided […] – but we do have many splits and many divisions within the Churches, and this a very great challenge for ecumenism, to overcome these divisions.

What impact has Pope Francis had on the ecumenical movement?

All popes after the Second Vatican Council have had a very big heart for ecumenism: Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI all had many ecumenical engagements. I think with Pope Francis we have a new engagement, an engagement in the manner of his pontificate, and of being very open to the other Churches. And he has had many visits: the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, has visited the Holy Father here in Rome, and the Patriarch of Antioch and Alexandria, and also the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Anglicans. All the heads of Churches will come to Rome, and I think this is a very good sign.

What are likely to be the most important ecumenical highlights for 2014?

The most important opportunity for 2014 is the fifty year commemoration of the first meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch from Constantinople, Athenagoras I, and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem. After more than a thousand years, this first meeting in Jerusalem was very kindly and heartfelt. I think it is very important to commemorate this meeting: it was the beginning of a relation of friendship between Constantinople and Rome, and the beginning of the dialogue of charity and the dialogue of truth. In this sense I hope the meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis can be a new opportunity, with as much engagement and passion for unity as was present in 1964.

One of the obstacles to that relationship is the difficulties between the different Orthodox Churches……

There are many tensions between Orthodox churches – I think there are more tensions between the Orthodox than between the Orthodox and Catholics. Above all, now there is this new document from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate about primacy. […]The dialogue is ongoing about this issue, and now we have a declaration with high authority, and now we must find a new way to continue this dialogue. […] I think it’s very good that now we have discussion, public discussion between Constantinople and Moscow, I think that’s a very good opportunity. This is an inner Orthodox discussion, and [the Catholic Church] cannot interfere in this discussion; when the Orthodox ask for our help, it’s clear we will be present. We have the next plenary of the Commission next September, and I think it’s very important to prepare very well for this session.

The Week of Prayer is always preceded by a day for relations with Jews – what impact has Pope Francis had on this relationship?

Pope Francis has many relationships of friendship [with the Jewish community] in Buenos Aires; above all, he has published his book with Rabbi Skorka, who is present in Rome for a conference at the Gregorian University. This friendship between Jews and Christians will be deepened, I think, in the pontificate of Pope Francis. […] And this is very important today, in a world with many challenges of new anti-Semitism and new persecution of Christians. I think we must give common witness for human rights and for the humanity of all people in this world. I’m very impressed that some synagogues in the States have convoked prayers for the persecuted Christians in the Middle East: I think this is a very beautiful sign of new friendship for the future.”