Netherlands: Death of Cardinal Willebrands, propagandist for ecumenism

Source: FSSPX News


The president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, died on August 2, 2006 at the Franciscan monastery of Denekamp (Netherlands). Cardinal Walter Kasper celebrated the Requiem Mass on August 8 in the Saint Catherine’s Cathedral of Utrecht (Netherlands), in the presence of Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, archbishop of Utrecht and Mgr. François Bacqué, papal nuncio to the Netherlands. The cardinal highlighted the work of the deceased cardinal for the promotion of ecumenism and dialogue with the Jewish community. Among the many representatives of different Christian Churches, Mgr. Maximos d’Evmenia (auxiliary of the Orthodox Bishopric of Belgium and Exarchate of the Netherlands and Luxembourg), representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, chanted a prayer for the repose of the soul of the deceased at the end of the ceremony.

Benedict XVI sent a message of condolence to Cardinal Kasper: “Learning of the death of our very dear brother Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, who was one of your predecessors as president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, let me assure you and all your colleagues, of my prayers and my spiritual support.” (…). “I give thanks to Our Lord for all the work accomplished by the cardinal in ecumenical relations, of which he was an ardent promoter from the start of his priesthood and in an outstanding way immediately after Vatican II. He contributed to the development and deepening of the dialogue between all the Churches and Ecclesial communities. Entrusting to the mercy of God, he who humbly served Jesus in response to His prayer in favor of unity, I ask the Lord to welcome him in the peace of his realm and to bring forth fruits from the work he accomplished.”

The Sovereign Pontiff also sent a message to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis: “I give thanks for this pastor unstinting in his service of God’s people and the unity of the Church, who was called by my predecessor Paul VI in order to give a fresh impetus to ecumenical dialogue.”

Born on September 4, 1909 at Bovenkarspel (Netherlands), the eldest of a family of nine children, Johannes Willebrands was ordained priest on May 24, 1934. After having obtained a doctorate in philosophy at Rome’s Angelicum – where his thesis was on Cardinal John Henry Newman – he was appointed chaplain in Amsterdam in 1937 and professor at the Warmond seminary. In 1942 he was appointed rector of the seminary in Warmond. He subsequently presided over the association of St. Willibrord in favor of ecumenism in the Netherlands. An ardent promoter of rapprochement with the Protestant and Orthodox Churches, Johannes Willebrands founded in 1951 the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions.

On June 5, 1960, John XXIII created the Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians as one of the preparatory commissions for Vatican II, and entrusted its direction to Cardinal Augustin Bea. On June 24, of the same year, Johannes Willebrands was named by the pope secretary of this Secretariat. A Council peritus, he was skilled in convincing the Orthodox Churches to be present as observers at the sessions from 1962 to 1965. He actively participated in the documents produced by the Secretariat during the Council: Unitatis redintegratio, Nostra aetate on the non-Christian religions, Dignitatis humanae on religious liberty.

On June 5, 1964, Fr. Willebrands was consecrated bishop of Mauriana. He was the impetus behind the meeting between Paul VI and the patriarch Athénagoras I, and read out their joint declaration on December 7, 1965 which stated: that they “regret the offending words, the baseless reproaches, and the blameworthy symbolic acts […] and remove from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed.” (i.e. the Great Schism of the East in 1054).

In 1966, after the Council, Paul VI established the Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians as the permanent organ of the Holy See. On the death of Cardinal Bea, Mgr. Willebrands was appointed president of the Secretariat on April 12 1969. He was made a cardinal immediately afterwards, in the consistory of April 28, 1969.

On December 6, 1975, he was named archbishop of Utrecht and primate of the Netherlands, a post which he resigned on December 3, 1983. John Paul II, through the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of June 28, 1988 changed the Secretariat for the Promotion of Unity of Christians to a Pontifical Council. Having retained his office, Cardinal Willebrands secured the presidency of the Council until December 12, 1989.

In 1997, he retired to the Franciscan convent of St. Niclaasstichting, at Denekamp, where he passed away at the age of 96.