.- A tireless promoter of Christian unity and the Catholic Church’s oldest cardinal died this week. Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, was 97. He had served as a priest for 72 years. Since the announcement several non-Catholic and non-Christians have expressed their condolences.
As rector of the seminary in Warwand, the young priest had developed a keen interest in Christian unity. In 1951, he proved himself as somewhat of a forerunner in the field by organizing a Catholic conference on ecumenical relations. Nine years later, Pope John XXIII had named him secretary of the newly established Secretariat for the Union of Christians.
Yesterday, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia expressed his condolences for the death of Willebrands who, he said was a, “gifted theologian and diplomat.”
Patriarch Alexy said that the cardinal, who in 1964 assisted in arranging a meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras, “made an invaluable contribution to the development of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.”
In 1969, Pope Paul VI named the ecumenist, who had been ordained bishop five years earlier, to the new Vatican office for Christian Unity, following the Second Vatican Council. The Dutch cleric had contributed significantly to the council in the areas of ecumenism, religious liberty and relations with non-Christian religions.
He also served as president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, which was created under the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Several Jewish leaders have also expressed their condolences. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Jewish Anti-defamation League called Willebrands, “a pioneer in interfaith affairs who was instrumental in beginning the historic reconciliation between Catholics and Jews during the Second Vatican Council.”
Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Relations for the American Jewish Committee said that, “under Cardinal Willebrands’ leadership the Catholic-Jewish relationship was institutionalized in a way we take fro granted today.”
A native of the Netherlands, Cardinal Willebrands was eventually appointed Archbishop of Utrecht and primate of the country in 1975. Pope Paul VI elevated Willebrands to the College of Cardinals that same year.
He retired after a tumultuous stint as Archbishop of Utrecht in 1983, though he continued to serve in his rolls at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity until 1989.
In a telegram Wednesday to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the current president of the council, Pope Benedict XVI extended his sympathies and recalled the distinguished manner in which Cardinal Willebrands worked for Christian unity.
“He was an ardent promoter [of Christian unity] since the beginning of his priesthood,” the Pope said. “He contributed to developing and intensifying the dialogue among all of the churches and ecclesial communities, confident in the mercy of God.”
Cardinal Willebrands “served Christ humbly, in answer to his prayer for unity,” he added.
The Pope said he gives thanks to God for the late cardinal’s accomplishments in advancing ecumenical relations and prayed that the Lord will allow his labour to bear fruit.
The Pope also sent his condolences in a telegram to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, current Archbishop of Utrecht, in which he described the late cardinal as “an indefatigable pastor” He assured his brother–bishops and their collaborators of his prayers.
Cardinal Willebrands was born Sept. 4 1909 in Bovenkarspel, Diocese of Haarlem, the Netherlands. He was ordained a priest in 1934.
Being over the age of 80, Cardinal Willebrands could not cast a vote in the last conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.