Ecumenical pioneer Willebrands departs at 96

Known as the "Flying Dutchman" for his frequent trips to promote Christian unity, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, a key figure at Vatican II, has died on Tuesday in the Netherlands.

Retired Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who succeeded Cardinal Willebrands as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said his predecessor was "the driving force behind Catholic ecumenism" for more than 60 years.

"He was there from the beginning," Cardinal Cassidy told Catholic News Service. "His contributions to Christian unity and to relations with the Jewish people were fundamental.

"He was the key person as far as opening up relations with the Orthodox churches. He went and personally invited them to come to the (Second Vatican) Council," Cardinal Cassidy said.

"He was able to see how he would like things to be without being pushy when it didn't happen," he said. "He was very Dutch - very determined. He did not give up easily, which was very important for the work he was doing."

In a message to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Pope Benedict echoed similar themes.

"I give thanks to the Lord for all the work accomplished by the Cardinal (Willebrands) in ecumenical relations, of which he was an ardent promoter from the beginning of his priesthood and in an eminent way following the Second Vatican Council," the Pope wrote.

According to Catholic News Service, young Willebrands became interested in ecumenism while still a seminarian in the 1920s. As a cardinal he was named the first secretary of the Vatican's office for promoting Christian unity in 1960 and served as president of the office, now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, from 1969-1989.

Simultaneously, Cardinal Willebrands served as Archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1975-83, travelling back and forth between Rome and the Netherlands.

Before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, he also was instrumental in fostering improved relations with Jewish leaders. When the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews was established in 1974, he was appointed president.

Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, told Catholic News Service that it was under Cardinal Willebrands' leadership that "the Catholic-Jewish relationship was institutionalised in a way we take for granted today."

"He was the captain of the Catholic-Jewish ship and steered its significant voyage in the transition from the pontificate of Paul VI to the incredible pontificate of John Paul II," the rabbi said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

One of nine children of a Dutch auctioneer, Willebrands was born on 4 September 1909 at Bovenkarspek, Netherlands. He studied at the Warmond seminary and was ordained in 1934.

In 1946, he was appointed president of the St Willibrord Association, which promoted ecumenical work in his homeland. After World War II he was part of a group of 50 to 60 theologians, known as the Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions, which had informal contacts with the World Council of Churches.

When Pope John XXIII formed the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960, then-Msgr Willebrands was named secretary, and the majority of the consultors were priests who had participated in the conference meetings.

His health failing, Willebrands moved in 1997 to a convent in Denekamp in the eastern Netherlands, where he was tended by Franciscan nuns until his death.

Dutch cardinal, pioneer in ecumenism, dies at 96 (Catholic News Service 2/8/06)
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Pope commits to working with World Council of Churches (CathNews 15/2/06)
Catholics unite with Orthodox for creation catechesis (CathNews 21/7/06)
Cardinal Kasper joins landmark interfaith summit (CathNews 4/7/06)

3 Aug 2006