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Benedict XVI's Quest for Unity

New Pope Reaches Out to Other Churches and Religions

ROME, MAY 1, 2005 (Zenit) - A key theme in the first public pronouncements of the new Pope is the need for greater unity between believers. Benedict XVI's determination to improve ecumenical and interreligious relations was evident in his message to the cardinals at a Mass the day after his election.

"Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel stimulated to tend to that full unity that Christ so ardently desired in the Cenacle," the Holy Father stated. He declared his intention, "as a primary commitment, to work without sparing energies for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ."

Part of this involves theological dialogue, he explained. There also needs to be a careful study of the historical background that led to past divisions. But, he continued, "what is urgent in the main is that 'purification of the memory,' so many times recalled by John Paul II, which alone can dispose spirits to receive the full truth of Christ."

Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also declared his willingness to enter into dialogue with followers of other religions, or those "who simply seek an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it."

The homily during the inaugural Mass last Sunday invoked two biblical images of unity: that of the shepherd and the fisherman's net, which, in spite of containing many fish, remained intact. Unfortunately, the net has now been torn, the Pope said. Yet, "we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint, and let us do all we can to pursue the path towards the unity you have promised."

Then, in an encounter with representatives of other religions last Monday, the Pope in his address thanked them for their presence. The search for unity, he commented, requires docility to the Holy Spirit and constant prayer, he said, addressing the representatives of other Christian churches.

Benedict XVI also greeted the leaders there from other religious traditions and offered his "warm and affectionate greetings." The Pope added: "I assure you that the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole."

Messages of support

In the first days after the election of Benedict XVI many Christian denominations and other religions sent messages of congratulations. A key point in many of these was the desire that to continue the strong commitment by John Paul II to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.

A message from the Lutheran World Federation stated: "The unity of the church, prayed for by Christ himself, is an important goal to strive for, which will also be a major contribution to the unity of humankind. Pope Benedict XVI will meet strong expectations in this area as well, since the hope for Christian unity calls for significantly new approaches."

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Reverend Dr. Samuel Kobia, acknowledged the progress made in recent years. "We pray to our common Lord Jesus Christ, asking that your Pontificate strengthen existing instruments of working together and initiate new ways of cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches," stated Kobia.

Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and Russia expressed the hope that under the Pope there will be "the development of friendly relations between our Churches and the fruitful dialogue between the Orthodox and the Catholics." He added: "I believe this to be one of Christendom's most crucial tasks."

And Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, sent a message to Benedict XVI calling for the establishment of "a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance." In this way, he said, "the official representatives of the two churches to be able to elaborate a common position on all major social and ethical issues, and to speak with one voice."

Bishop Hilarion called for attention not to be exclusively focused on the issues that divide the two Churches. "My fear, however, is that by concentrating exclusively on the dividing issues we are likely to lose precious time that could be used for a common witness to the secularized world. Europe, in particular, has so rapidly de-Christianized that urgent action is needed in order to save it from losing its centuries-old Christian identity."

On the day of the Pope's installation last Sunday more than 60 representatives of British and Irish Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and Pentecostal churches sent a message of welcome to Benedict XVI. The representatives, which form a group Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, stated: "We welcome Pope Benedict's early assurance of developing engagement and dialogue not only with other Christians towards fulfilling the prayer of Christ himself that 'All may be one' (John 17:21), but also with sisters and brothers of other Faiths in God's own world."

Jewish defenders

Some of the British press, strongly criticized by its German counterparts, highlighted the fact of the new Pope's membership in the Hitler Youth when he was a teen-ager, even though this was obligatory for all young people at the time.

However, spokesmen from a diversity of Jewish groups quickly defended Benedict XVI. Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, dismissed the attacks. The Jerusalem Post on April 19 reported Rosen saying of the new Pope: "His own national background makes him sensitive to the dangers of anti-Semitism and the importance of Jewish-Catholic reconciliation."

And on April 20 the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz cited Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, who said Cardinal Ratzinger "was the man who provided the theological underpinnings for Pope John Paul II's decision to open relations with Israel. He solved the real problem that existed -- the 2,000-year-old theological question. He was the one who had the keys to open that lock. In the last 20 years he has changed the 2,000-year history of relations between Jews and Christianity. I believe he will continue the policies of John Paul II with regard to relations with the Jews and Israel."

One of the first acts of Benedict XVI was to send a message to Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. Following this gesture, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa on April 23, Rabbi Segni commented that the Pope's desire to send a message so soon after his election was a strong sign that Benedict XVI wished to continue the special relationship between the Church and the Jewish community in Rome which begun with Pope John XXIII and reached new heights under John Paul II.

Nevertheless, the road ahead does not promise to be easy, as the centuries-old divisions will not be remedied easily. In fact, Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II poured cold water on one of the unfulfilled dreams of John Paul II, a visit by the Pope to Russia, the Associated Press reported April 25.

Such a visit by the new Pope would not be possible until the differences between the Churches are resolved, said Alexy II. "There cannot be a visit for the sake of a visit. There cannot be a meeting purely for television cameras," the patriarch insisted. Benedict XVI, whose desire for real ecumenism seems evident, would likely agree with the Orthodox leader on that point.

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