Vatican Official Hopes Orthodox Churches Will Send Observers to Council

There are still hopes the Orthodox churches will send observers to the ecumenical council, according to the head of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., told newsmen here that despite the failure of past efforts to have the Orthodox churches represented, “one must hope that something may be done, since this would doubtless be more useful for both parties [Catholic and Orthodox] and for the cause of union.”

The Cardinal spoke Nov. 8 at the third of the regular Thursday press conferences organized by the council press office.

Cardinal Bea told reporters that “if the work of the secretariat has had such a widespread impact on world public opinion, a considerable part of the merit belongs to your profession.”

U.S. Congregationalist Douglas Horton, second from left, is pictured with observers from other religious denominations at the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Around 60 representatives from most of the major Christian denominations attended the council sessions. (CNS file photo)

Answering a question about non-Catholic reaction to the council, Cardinal Bea said that the “union in prayer” among all confessions has been nothing short of miraculous, if one compares present attitudes with those regarding the First Vatican Council (1869-1870).

He spoke of the appeals for prayers for the council’s success made by Protestant leaders all over the world.

This, he continued, is a “first beginning of unity and, above all, a sound foundation for our trust in God.” “If Jesus gave assurance that He would answer the prayers of two people joined in asking something in His name, how much greater will be the answer to the prayer of all those baptized in Christ who united in the prayer of Jesus to His Father ‘that all may be one’.”

Cardinal Bea said that the reaction of the council observers had generally been good. He noted that many were particularly impressed with the freedom of discussions. He expressed the belief that this factor might be helpful in bringing Catholics and non-Catholics closer together.

As to the prospects for the council’s success generally, Cardinal Bea said:

“I regard it with trust in God, largely confirmed and sustained by the great blessings which have descended upon this providential and gigantic undertaking ever since its beginning.”

He urged newsmen to contribute to the council’s success by making its aims understood. He added:

“There is no need, of course, to shut one’s eyes to the human shortcomings and limitations which you may notice when they are really such. …

“I beg you, moreover, not to try to see things with the eyes of petty nationalism and not to try to understand the council and its actions with the aid of political categories. All of the council Fathers obviously belong to their own countries which they ardently love. But in addition to this they are ‘one in Christ’.”

Cardinal Bea

Following is the text of a press conference given by Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, at the council press center in Rome on Nov. 8.

Introduction: Allow me to begin with a personal word. The Holy Father has told you wonderful things about the importance and the grave responsibility of your profession, and he has also expressed his heartfelt thanks to you for all you have done to inform your readers about the Council, about its intentions and its preparation. But I wish to express very sincere and personal thanks to you for all the collaboration that so many of you have given to the work of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, or to my personal work, in the press, on the radio and on television. This collaboration was certainly not always easy, if only because it was not in any way possible to satisfy all the requests and because on more than one occasion it was necessary — though with sincere regret — to refuse even important requests. I can tell you in all sincerity, however, that, with the exception of a very few cases, the collaboration was carried out in a satisfactory manner — and I believe for both sides. If the work of the secretariat had the widespread echo that it did in world public opinion — and consequently also in the council itself — a considerable part of the merit belongs to your profession. Therefore, my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

I would also like to add a word of what is almost an anticipated apology. During the work of the council it will not be possible for me, unfortunately, to continue the aforementioned collaboration with the lively and steady rhythm it has had in recent months. Everything must come in its own time. The work of the council with all the accompanying studies and consultations must now have absolute precedence. I do not doubt that you will understand this fact and that you will agree. I accepted this meeting with you today almost as a consolation for this sacrifice and to give you information on the work of the secretariat.

I believe that the first question which will interest you is: whether we are satisfied with the reactions of the non-Catholic Christians at the council.

Answer: In recent days the words I expressed after the audience the Holy Father granted to the observers of the non-Catholic Christian communities have been quoted. At that time I said: “It is a miracle, a true miracle.” I did, in fact, say those words and they were not only the fruit of the impressions of that audience — which was so unique in its kind and all the more moving because of the gracious and familiar form which the Holy Father in his kindness wishes to give to it. No, those words reflect the whole picture of the experiences we have had during the two years since the institution of the secretariat. It can truly be said with complete objectivity that all those experiences have grown gradually and have acquired constantly greater vastness and depth with the inauguration of the council.

I will not dwell on the warm welcome which was given to the institution of the secretariat and on the vast interest which it awakened and still awakens little by little, one can say, in the whole world. I will stress only two facts of these recent weeks.

The first fact is the presence of more than 40 delegated observers or guests of the secretariat who represent almost all of the great federations of the non-Catholic Christian confessions which resulted from the Reformation, and also a fair number of the Oriental churches. It is true that our joy — I say our joy, including also the observers and the confessions they represent — is disturbed by the absence of a good number of venerable Orthodox churches of the East. It must be recognized, however, that great efforts were made to overcome the existing obstacles and, after failing, a careful study was made in order to avoid that the reciprocal relations in Christ might not suffer from this temporary lack of success.

The second fact is even more important, when considered through the eyes of faith, and that is this: that so many communities of non-Catholic Christians have repeated appeals, even official ones, to their own faithful, calling on them to pray for the council. I will give a certain number of names, more than anything else to illustrate the variety of confessions and the fact that these appeals come a little from every part of the world. I obviously do not claim that they are complete and I am certain, indeed, that many other appeals have not come to my knowledge. It is hoped that later on, when things have calmed down a little, it will be possible to make a more complete list.

Let us begin with Europe. The following have called for prayers for the council in one form or another: The Evangelical Federation of Switzerland; the Austrian Protestants; Dr. Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of all England, which he addressed to the English Anglicans; the Old Catholics of Switzerland; the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany; the World Alliance of Christian Youth Associations (Protestant).

In the United States a similar appeal was made by the Bishop President of the Episcopalians, Dr. Lichtenberger, who, in November, 1961, paid a visit of courtesy to the Holy Father; and by the United Presbyterian Church of the United States. In Canada the appeal was made by the United Church of Montreal.

Appeals in other continents are reported from the Anglican Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia, and from the Archbishop and Bishops of the West Indies who met in Georgetown, British Guiana. Calls for prayers were also made by different communities which, for one reason or another, have not been able to send observers, as for example, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the World Baptist Alliance.

It was chiefly in reference to this union in prayer that I spoke of a true miracle, for it is truly this if we compare this attitude with certain positions which were adopted at the time of the First Vatican Council. Speaking of this union, the Holy Father said in his discourse at the opening of the council that the unity which Christ invoked for His Church with ardent prayers shines also, among other things, with this ray — and I quote textually — “the unity of prayers and ardent desires with which those Christians separated from this Apostolic See aspire to be united with us” (cf. Osservatore Romano, Oct. 12, 1962). This is, therefore, already a first beginning of unity and, above all, a sound foundation for our trust in God. If Jesus gave assurance that he would answer the prayers of two people joined in asking something in His name, how much greater will be the answer to the prayer of all those baptized in Christ who, spread all over the world, unite together in the prayer of Jesus, the Supreme Priest, to the Father, “that all may be one. …”

Question: What is the probability that one or the other of the venerable Orthodox Churches may still send later official observers to the council, or at least some of their members who would attend in a personal capacity as guests of the secretariat?

Answer: It is very difficult to say. You know well that there have been different reports about the rather ample consultations which have been made in various places in this respect, but until now we have nothing concrete in this matter. In any case, one must hope that something may be done, since this would doubtless be more useful for both parties and for the cause of union.

Question: Up to now, are the observers pleased with the possibilities which have been given them and with what they have seen and heard?

Answer: This question should really be addressed to them and not to me. However, speaking in general, I have the impression — which is confirmed also by others — that they are truly pleased. You know that several of them have already made statements to the press about this, in which they have expressed their satisfaction, if not their admiration, for example, for the organization of the council, for the way in which they have been welcomed and are treated, for the confidence which is given to all, and for the trust with which all the documents have been placed at their disposal which the council Fathers have received. Others, for example, praise the universality of the council. Others have been impressed especially with the freedom which reigns in the discussions. In any case, I can say that the secretariat has done everything to help them fulfill their delicate task. Greeting them at the reception which the secretariat gave in their honor, they were asked to trust the secretariat by telling it everything that displeased them, their criticisms, suggestions and wishes. For this purpose the secretariat, in fact, organized a meeting at least once a week for the observers and the different members of the secretariat at which one might speak freely.

Question: In reference to the fact that many were impressed with the freedom of discussion, I have been asked whether I believe that this particular aspect of the council may favor the mutual drawing together of the Church and non-Catholic Christians.

Answer: I believe that the answer to this is definitely yes. It is sufficient to ask oneself why the freedom of discussion has surprised and impressed them. I believe the reason for this is the following: Since it is known that the principle of authority is often strongly stressed in the Catholic Church, even in matters of doctrine, one might easily imagine that its members, bishops included, were almost enslaved by it and in such a way that they would be prevented, if you will excuse the expression, from thinking with their own heads. Some of them were surprised about this, seeing how a cardinal can voice an opinion which is contrary to the opinion of another cardinal. In other words, they could not understand how the most complete loyalty to the authority of the magisterium of the Church would not in any way exclude freedom of opinion in so many matters which have not yet been clarified or defined. It is, therefore, most useful to observe in the council the very positive support of the doctrine of the Church insofar as it has been clarified and defined, as was evident in the profession of faith which both the bishops and the Pope himself solemnly made at the opening of the council.

It is, in fact, simply a question of absolute fidelity to the body of doctrine which was received from Christ and which has been explained by the Church through the centuries. However, it is well to see, together with this fidelity, also the freedom of opinion and discussion in those areas where doctrine must still be clarified and defined or in matters of practical application.

Question: What are the functions of the secretariat during the council apart from its contacts with the observers and helping them? Or to be more precise: will it be the duty of the secretariat to defend before the council assembly the projects it drew up during the preparatory period and which were presented to the central commission and discussed by it?

Answer: It will, of course, be the secretariat who will uphold them. As you know, a few days ago on Oct. 22, an authentic interpretation given by the Pope through His Eminence, the Secretary of State, was read in the general congregation. It was pointed out in the declaration that the secretariat, like the commissions themselves, would examine and discuss the projects within its jurisdiction, submit them to the general congregations, correct them if necessary, and so forth. In addition, it will also be called upon to collaborate with other commissions in matters related to Christian unity.

You will ask me how I regard the council and its prospects for success?

Answer: I will tell you that I regard it with trust in God, largely confirmed and sustained by the great blessings which have descended upon this providential and gigantic undertaking ever since its inception, as is shown by all that has already been accomplished. A pledge of these blessings can be found, among others, in the aforementioned numerous prayers for the council, rising throughout the world from Christians of every confession, and in the great fruits that this has already borne in the cause of unity.

Conclusion: Will you permit me to make a recommendation as a friend. I have not the slightest doubt that you have at heart the best possible success of the council, for anyone would have it at heart who has also at heart the happy and better future of mankind. I would ask of you, therefore; to give the council Fathers a hand, as it were, in this monumental work. I would ask you to make the aims of the council understood, as well as the laws which govern the action and the life of the Church which are valid also for the council. There is, of course, no need to shut one’s eyes to the human shortcomings and limitations which one may discover, when these are truly present. But I would ask you to check the sources of information and the origin of the sources, and to be judicious in repeating criticisms.

I beg you, moreover, to strive not to see things with the eyes of petty nationalisms, and not to try to explain the council and its action in political terms. Each of the Fathers of the council evidently belongs to his own country, which he ardently loves, but in addition to this he is “clothed with Christ,” as St. Paul expresses it, and by virtue of the fullness of the priesthood, he is adorned with the greatest likeness of Jesus Christ, the High Priest. The council Fathers are, therefore, “one in Christ” (Gal. 3, 28), and all of them are like us, “baptized in one Spirit into one Body” (1 Cor. 12, 13).

Each one, naturally, has his own personality and his own opinions. Therefore, there will doubtless be difference of opinion, as there were for example also between Paul and Barnabas (cf. Acts 15, 30), and also between Paul and Peter (cf. Gal. 2, 11). But all this does not prevent that deep in their hearts they be true heirs of that first Christian community of Jerusalem which was “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4, 32) in the love of Christ, of the Church and of humanity.

Finally — and I say this just between ourselves, asking that you forgive me this confidence — your profession leads you to speak and express opinions about many things which are not always easy to judge, and to do so quickly within a few hours, or at most within a few days. One knows how especially difficult are the questions of faith which must be dealt with in the council. Let us remember that the Church is 20 centuries old! Let us strive therefore, to think together with her in terms of centuries and millenniums: The value and the fruits of the council can be assessed adequately only in this way. Indeed, it can only be assessed properly in terms of eternity.

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