VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The importance Pope Benedict XVI places on the search for Christian unity was evident in his decision to focus on ecumenism during a Nov. 23 meeting with members of the College of Cardinals, said two U.S. cardinals.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, the retired archbishop of Baltimore who has been involved in ecumenical and interfaith activities for years, said the fact that the pope chose ecumenism as the theme for the meeting shows “that this is a very vital thing for the church worldwide.”
Cardinal Keeler, who was one of 33 cardinals to speak during the meeting, told Catholic News Service the discussion demonstrated that there are different experiences and levels of ecumenical dialogue.
“Different ecumenical forms have evolved in different parts of the world, and the progress in each region is different,” he said.
“For the pope, ecumenism is not a subject for discussion, but a mandate,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the main speaker chosen by the pope to address the meeting, told journalists afterward.
The meeting brought together 120 cardinals and the 23 men Pope Benedict inducted into the College of Cardinals the following day. Sixteen prelates from the U.S., including the two to be inducted, participated; Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit was ill and did not come to Rome.
While the discussion about ecumenism was planned for only the morning session, the Vatican said so many cardinals asked to comment on the topic that the discussion extended into the evening session.
The Vatican said that “collaboration among Christians of different confessions for the defense of the family in society and in the juridical order,” the importance of prayers for Christian unity and the central role of friendships for promoting ecumenism were among the points raised.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles told CNS: “A big part of any dialogue is the personal relationship. We are not going to bring about Christian unity through theology, but through our personal relationships with Jesus Christ and with each other. That is what we will build unity on.”
In the area of dialogue, the cardinals also spoke about relations with the Jewish community and with Muslims, the Vatican said.
The cardinals discussed “the encouraging sign represented by the letter of the 138 Muslim scholars,” who wrote in October to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders proposing a dialogue based on a common belief in one God, in God’s love for humanity and in the obligation to love one another, the Vatican said.
Cardinal Mahony said the cardinals did not make recommendations on how the pope should respond to the letter, but rather spoke about “the next step,” which is likely to be “an invitation to open a new level of dialogue” with Muslim leaders.
At the end of the evening session, Pope Benedict summarized what he had heard “and announced the upcoming publication of his new encyclical dedicated to hope,” a virtue that needs to be emphasized in the modern world “in response to the deepest expectations of our contemporaries,” the Vatican said.
In his formal presentation, released by the Vatican, Cardinal Kasper told the cardinals that the overall status of ecumenism highlighted “the action of divine providence, which leads separated Christians toward unity in order to make their witness an increasingly clear sign before the world.”
Still, the cardinal said, looking at all the ecumenical dialogues under way there is a sense of “fragmentation and centrifugal forces at work” with progress coming in some areas and differences deepening in others.
“While on one hand we work to overcome old controversies, on the other hand there emerge new differences in the field of ethics,” particularly regarding human life, the family and homosexuality, Cardinal Kasper said.
While differences on moral questions are pushing Catholics and some Anglican and mainline Protestant communities further apart, they also are providing new terrain for improved relations with some evangelical and Pentecostal communities, he said.
Taken together, the charismatic and Pentecostal groups have an estimated 400 million members around the world and, among Christian communities, are second in size only to the Catholic community, Cardinal Kasper said.
Some of the communities are open to dialogue with the Catholic Church, he said, while others are hostile to Catholicism and aggressive in trying to win Catholic members.
The Pentecostals, he said, are responding to a desire among modern men and women for a strong spiritual experience.
Rather than talk about what is wrong with the Pentecostals, “it is necessary to make a pastoral examination of conscience and ask ourselves in a self-critical way why so many Christians are leaving our church,” Cardinal Kasper said.
He told the other cardinals that in any ecumenical endeavor, dialogue makes sense only if it is based on a solid faith and a common search for truth.
“We must not offend the sensitivity of others or discredit them; we must not point the finger at that which our ecumenical partners are not or at what they do not have,” he said. “Rather, we must witness to the richness and beauty of our faith in a positive and welcoming way.”
But most of all, Cardinal Kasper said, Christians must realize that unity is a work of the Holy Spirit and will be a gift from God.