“To work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers”. This is the “impelling duty” of the successor of Peter. Already in this first Message after his election to the Papal Throne Pope Benedict XVI spoke these programmatic words. Looking back at the more than six yeas of his Petrine ministry, we can note with gratitude that the cause of ecumenism is the central thread of his pontificate. Not only does he refer in his numerous homilies and many messages to the necessary “purification of the memory” and see “inner conversion” as the indispensable premise for progress on the ecumenical journey, but from this moment exercises ecumenical primacy in his many meetings with representatives of other Churches and Christian communities.
This clear emphasis in the Holy Father's work cannot come as a suprise if we bear in mind that already as a theologian and a cardinal Pope Benedict XVI worked very hard to ensure that the ecumenical dialogue made headway and enriched it with useful theological reflections. Iti s not of course possible in the context of a brief article to pay homage in detail to the wide range of contributions that Pope Benedict XVI has made to ecumenism. I shall therefore focus on the essential nucleus of his ecumenical action which, in my opinon, is expressed more clearly and deeply in his interpretation of the priestly prayer of Jesus, that all may be one, of which the Pope speaks in part two of his book on Jesus of Nazareth.
The new evangelization which the Holy Father has wanted in a particular way, must therefore have an ecumenical dimension, a dimension to which Pope Beendict XVI made an explicit reference in announcing the establishment of the New Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization at the celebration of First Vespers of the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul in 2010: “The challenge of the new evangelization calls into question the universal Church and asks us to continue with commitment our search for full Christian unity”. Since the new evangelization consists in bringing men and women close to the mystery of God and introducing them into a personal relationship with God, at the centre of all new evangelization must be the question of God that we must take on ecumenically, in the conviction that at the root of all evangelization lies not a “human plan of expansion but rather the desire “to share the inestimable gift that God has wished to give us, making us sharers in his own life” (Ubcumque et Semper).
With his ecumenical commitment, Pope Benedict XVI witnesses in an exemplary way to what the ecumenical responsibility of every bishop in the Catholic Church consists of, described by the Code of Canon law in the following words: The diocesan bishop “is to act with kindness and charity toward those who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, fostering ecumenism as it is understood by the Church” (Can. 383 § 3). It is clear from this in the first place that the promotion of the cause of ecumenism is implicit in the bishop's pastoral ministry itself, which is essentially a service to unity, that is, to the unity which must be understood in a broader way than the simple unity of one's own diocesan community and which also precisely includes the non-Catholic baptized. Secondly, in defining the bishop's approach and ecumenical responsibility as one of “kindness and charity toward those who are not in full communon with the Catholic Church”, there is a clear emphasis on the “dialogue of charity”. Thirdly, since this “dialogue of charity” cannot replace the “dialogue of truth”, but constitutes its indispensable premise, the bishop is bound to promote ecumenism as “it is understood by the Church”.
These three guidelines highlight the fact that the pastoral ministry which the bishop gives to the unity of his particular Church is inseparable from his ecumenical pastoral ministry, which aims for the recomposition of unity in the Church, and that both these dimensions are at the service of faith in Jesus Christ. We can and must be grateful to Pope Benedict XVI, as Bishop of Rome, for having taken on this ecumenical responsibility in such an exemplary and credible manner. To be able to be at the service of ecumenism through his mandate is a joy and an honour, but also a challenge and a duty.