“That a draft proposal on ecumenism could be presented to the Second Vatican Council is in itself an event of transcending importance,” a noted German theologian said here.
Father Eduard Stakemeier, faculty member of the Ecumenical Institute of Paderborn, Germany, and of the Paderborn archdiocesan seminary, spoke at a press conference arranged by the German bishops shortly before the council began discussion of the ecumenism schema on Nov. 18.
The speaker noted that no previous ecumenical council ever dealt with the topic of ecumenism, and stated:
“We realize, of course, that there will be a rather lively debate on this topic. The draft proposal cannot be expected to furnish more than a basis for discussion, but I do not think by any means that the prospects of our dialogue with other Christians are hopeless.”
Bishop Wilhelm Kempf of Limburg, who presided at the meeting, also stressed that the interfaith dialogue must be viewed as a task requiring a great deal of patience. “But,” he said, “the most important aspect of it is that a beginning is now made.”
The draft proposal on ecumenism prepared by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity — has now been distributed to the council Fathers. It is to consist of five chapters, the fourth dealing with the relations between Jews and Christians, the fifth with religious liberty and tolerance.
Father Stakemeier emphasized that the council will not proclaim “a complete doctrine on the Church,” such proclamations not being the purpose of the council. He added that ecumenism is primarily a task to be faced by Catholics themselves inasmuch as they must obtain a proper understanding of the Church.
Interfaith dialogues are made difficult in this respect, Father Stakemeier explained, because the Catholic concept of the Church differs fundamentally from that of other Christian communities.
“By our definition,” he said, “there is a church only where there is a validly consecrated bishop in line with the apostolic succession. In this sense we can very well accept the Orthodox and the Oriental churches as true churches, but we cannot designate as such communities that are without such bishops.
“On the other hand, we fully recognize that there is a community between ourselves and other Christians inasmuch as we all are united in our love of Christ. The great difficulty is how we are to view the many different Christian communities under one and the same aspect.”
Father Stakemeier concluded that the interfaith dialogue can be promoted only on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance, without resorting to polemics. It is in this spirit, he said, that the draft proposal on ecumenism has been prepared for discussion by the council.
Meantime, the Rev. Johann Christoph Hampe, distinguished German Lutheran pastor who for a long time has been active in the ecumenical field, wrote in Christliche Kultur, Catholic weekly of Zurich, Switzerland:
“In this council we Protestants witness a real breakthrough toward reform to an extent that we must expect a new missionary fervor to arise from the Catholic Church which necessarily will bring her closer to the other Christian churches.”
Pastor Hampe added that it remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church will accept all Christian churches as churches subject to one and the same Lord. He said he feels that an “ecumenical understanding” of Catholic dogmas — such as those dealing with the Blessed Virgin and papal primacy — would help pave the way to interfaith dialogue.
“We Protestants,” he said in an article written from Rome, “realize that the renewal now in progress in the Catholic Church is also a call to ourselves, since it is all Christianity that must be renewed.”
A contribution toward that end was made by Archpriest Georges Rochcau of Paris, who spoke here at a press conference on the place of the Catholic Eastern Rites between the Western and Orthodox worlds.
“Whatever this place may be,” he said, “we Eastern Catholics will be happy to lose ourselves in the mass of the Orthodox Church the day when East and West will again be a mutual communion.”
Fittingly, amidst all these manifestations of a renewed interest in interfaith relations, an excursion was arranged by the Italian tourism association for the delegate-observers and guests who are here for the ecumenical council to the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino and the Cistercian Abbey of Casamari.
Nearly all the non-Catholic Christian representatives — among them two of the delegates of the Russian Orthodox Church, Dr. Alfred Outler of the World Methodist Council, Prof. Edmund Schlink of the German Lutheran Church and the “Protestant monks” of France, Prior Roger Schutz and Pastor Max Thurian — had accepted the invitation.
Abbot-Primate Benno Gut, OSB, of the Benedictine Confederation, accompanied the visitors together with Father Pierre Duprey, WF, of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. At Montecassino the guests were cordially received by Abbot Ildefonso Rea, OSB, and his monastic community and shown the treasures of the abbey.
At the Cistercian Abbey of Casamari they were dinner guests of Abbot Nivardo Buttarazzi, SO Cist., who said, in welcoming them, that “Christian unity cannot be achieved by the efforts of men, but only by the grace of God.” Nevertheless, he added, all mankind is called upon to do its part in promoting mutual understanding and tolerance among all Christians, irrespective of denomination.
Father Placid Jordan, OSB
NCWC News Rome correspondent