Setting in concrete an appointment that was already well known, Bishop of Basel Kurt Koch has been named as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He takes the place of Cardinal Walter Kasper at the helm of the Vatican's department for ecumenical outreach.
The announcement came at noon on Thursday in a statement from the Holy See's Press Office, by which time it was little more than a formality. Bishop Koch had already given a farewell speech to his diocese on Wednesday.
Bishop Koch, who holds a doctorate in theology, was ordained to the priesthood in 1982 and then to the episcopate 14 years ago by Pope John Paul II. He was made Bishop of Basel, Switzerland at that time, a charge he has held until now. He has been a member of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity since 2002.
The former president of the Swiss bishops will take over for Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been the council's president since 1999.
Recounting the progresses that have been made in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the last decade, the German prelate said at a June 25 press conference that the "torch" would be passed to a new generation that will treat relations with "new eyes."
To guide the first steps of this generation, the 60-year old Bishop Koch will be soon be made an archbishop in keeping with the dignity of his position as head of the council.
The Swiss Bishops' Conference welcomed his appointment on Wednesday, noting particularly how he will be able to carry out his "brilliant expertise and keen knowledge of theology in ecumenical relations, social issues and relations between Church and State” on a global level.
"Ecumenism has always been a central aspect of the theological and episcopal ministry of Bishop Kurt Koch," they wrote in a statement from their president, Bishop of Sion Norbert Brunner.
"As the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he will work even harder at this goal of the Second Vatican Council and of the Popes, continuing the theological work that he has always had at heart.”
The World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit also welcomed the appointment, saying that they "see in Bishop Koch a reliable partner for all those involved in the ecumenical movement and trust he will continue Cardinal Walter Kasper's emphasis on spiritual ecumenism."
"Bishop Koch has been given a very important responsibility as the call for all Christians to be one comes from Jesus Christ himself," Rev. Tveit added, wishing him "much joy in fulfilling this calling, and that God may give him strength."