9-10 May 2011




Cardinal Kurt Koch


Anyone who has at some time been present at the deathbed of a person near and dear to them has surely realised that a person who is dying is not concerned with irrelevancies, but expresses that which weighs most heavily on his heart, and which he feels compelled to leave to posterity. The last words that a person near and dear to us has spoken shortly before their death we customarily try faithfully to keep alive in our memory. We ascribe particular importance to them. It is as though the whole life story of an individual is concentrated as a last will and testament in those last words. With that same basic attitude, with special attentiveness, we also listen to the farewell prayer of Jesus, in which the unity of His disciples has such a prominent place. Since Jesus in this prayer looks beyond the community of disciples of that time and directs his gaze to all who “will believe in me through their word” (v 20), we can on the basis of this prayer discern most clearly the most profound significance of all ecumenical efforts. If the motivation of ecumenism is not simply philanthropic but genuinely christological, it can ultimately be nothing less than “participation in the high- priestly prayer of Jesus”[2]. I would simply like to attempt to suggest a few orientation points in this well-known but nevertheless inexhaustible text from John 17, in order to re-affirm our ecumenical responsibility.



“That all may be one”. This prayer shows us first of all that Jesus does not command unity to the disciples or demand it of them, but prays for it. The prayer for the unity of Christians is and remains the defining keynote of all ecumenical efforts. This orientation point found its tangible expression from the outset not only in the fact that the week of prayer for the unity of Christians stood at the beginning of the Ecumenical Movement and continues to be celebrated every year in January, but also that the Second Vatican Council identified spiritual ecumenism as the “soul of the Ecumenical Movement”[3]. With this prayer we give expression to our conviction that we cannot create unity, but can only allow it to be granted to us. For unity comes, as Pope Benedict XVI has stressed, “not from the world; with the forces of the world it is not possible. The forces of the world lead to division. We can see it. As far as the world is effective in the church, in Christianity, it gives rise to division. Unity can only come from the Father through the Son.”[4]

The door into this Father-Son relationship is open above all in prayer. It challenges us not to be so vain that we imagine we are above placing our lives as Christians and as churches before God as they really are in deed and in truth. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that the fundamental situation of our lives and of the churches consists in our dependence and helplessness. Prayer means recognising our own poverty and placing ourselves completely in God’s hands. Man is “God’s beggar” as Saint Augustine rightly said. There are of course also strange beggars who behave as though they were rich, who are proud and defiant, who however gain nothing from all their begging because of their deception. Such beggars are in the end foolish and ridiculous figures. In the same way, Christians who pretend that they do not need God’s gift of unity and are therefore unable to pray to God for it, are caricatures of themselves, because they behave as though they are beggars disguised as millionaires – of course in vain.

The prayer for unity reminds us on the contrary that even in oecumenicis we are to see ourselves as God’s beggars, that not everything in life or in ecumenism is achievable, that we must leave room for the working of the Holy Spirit, which is not at our disposal, and trust in it at least as much as in our own accomplishments. Ecumenism can only be carried out in the presence of the Spirit. As the living We between the Father and the Son in the inner life of God, the Holy Spirit becomes the creative We between the triune God and us Christians, and the liberating We between the Christians and the Christian churches, so that ecumenical relationships become more Spirit-filled.



With the primacy and the centrality of prayer we encounter the first orientation point. Jesus prays in a very precise way for the unity of the disciples. “They shall be one as we are one, I in you and you in me (v 22).” Jesus himself discerns the most profound foundation of unity among the disciples in the trinitarian unity of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit in the inner life of God. It is at the same time the transparent primal image of the unity of Christians and churches.

Precisely what this consists in becomes apparent when we consider that in the trinitarian life of God two dimensions come into force with equal originality. In God there is in the first place room for the life of the Other, and therefore for multiplicity. For the Father is other than the Son and the Son in turn other than the Holy Spirit. Within the divine trinity there exists a wonderful diversity of persons. But in God there is also a wonderful unity of divine life.  Although the Father is other than the Son and the Son in turn other than the Holy Spirit, the divine persons nevertheless live as heavenly trialogue partners on the same plane of being. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. The threefold God is within Himself living communion in the original relationship of unity in love.

In the light of this divine mystery the church appears as the dimension of salvation modelled on the threefold God or, as the Second Vatican Council emphasised, “the people united on the basis of the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”[5]. Ecclesial and ecumenical unity is therewith ultimately grounded in the trinitarian communion, and the church is the icon of the trinity. But the church can only be and ecumenism can only become an icon of the trinity if in a process of purification and reconciliation the church-divisive differences are overcome and it can live in a reconciled diversity. Ecumenism must also today be oriented towards and on its way this destination.



From this point the third orientation point comes into view. If the mystery of faith of the threefold God is to be discernible in the unity of Christians, this unity cannot be merely an invisible unity; it must instead take on a visible form. For that it does not of course suffice that the various churches and ecclesial communities simply acknowledge one another reciprocally as churches and therefore as part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That would mean that the sum of all existing church bodies is identified with the body of Christ, and the one church would in the end be a phantom, when in fact it is precisely its corporeality which is essential. An essential part of this corporeality however is also the visible communion of faith, the sacraments and ecclesial ministry.

If the unity of Christians is to reflect the communion of the threefold life of God, it can on the other hand only consist in a unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity. That is a challenge to a tightrope walk which Blaise Pascal already defined: “Unity without diversity is tyranny, multiplicity without unity is chaos”. Ecumenism today must still seek a path between tyranny and chaos. That is not at all an easy matter today, because the spirit of our times concedes unconditional precedence to diversity ahead of unity. The fundamental dogma of the contemporary spirit of the times maintains that we neither can nor may turn our minds back to before the plurality of reality, if we do not want to expose ourselves to the suspicion of a totalitarian mind-set; indeed plurality is seen as the only way in which the whole is granted to us, if at all. This abandonment of the idea of unity is characteristic of post-modernism, which is “not only the acceptance and tolerance of plurality, but rather an option for pluralism on principle”[6]. Any search for unity – also and especially in ecumenism – therefore seems suspect from the start. Unity is therefore seen as at best the tolerant acknowledgement of multiplicity.

With this basic attitude one customarily resigns oneself to or comes to terms with the pluralism of churches, without asking after unity or common bonds. It is customary to calmly accept the diversity of the various denominations without striving for communion and visible unity.  In contrast to this basic attitude which makes a show of modesty but is in the end a modesty of weakness, we must call to mind that unity is an indispensible fundamental category of Holy Scripture and the tradition. According to them, division and dispersal are the consequences of sin and the Babylonian confusion of languages. To which Holy Scripture responds with the opposing message of the one God, the one Redeemer, the one Spirit, the one baptism and the one church.



At this point we are still not yet in sight of the real goal of ecumenical responsibility. The fourth orientation point therefore consists in the insight that Jesus prays for unity among the disciples “so that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them even as you loved me (v 23). With this final clause John the Evangelist gives expression to the fact that unity among Jesus’ disciples is not an end in itself but serves the credibility of the mission of Jesus Christ and His church in the world.

The centenary celebration of the first World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910 was also a reminder of this finality of the ecumenical search for unity. This conference was faced with the scandal that the various Christian denominations were competing in their mission work, to the detriment of credible evangelisation. Since an honest witness to the world is only possible when the churches overcome their divisions in faith and life, in Edinburgh the Anglican mission bishop Charles Brent for example postulated intensive efforts to overcome those differences in doctrine and in church order which stand as obstacles in the way of unity.

With this fundamental understanding that the division within Christendom formed the most difficult obstacle for world mission, evangelisation has steadily become a more significant topic in the list of ecumenical issues. Since Edinburgh, ecumenical concerns an missionary engagement have therefore been seen in conjunction, and mission and ecumenism have been presented almost as Siamese twins mutually demanding and fostering one another. In today’s world, Christian witness must have an ecumenical keynote so that its melody does not sound cacophonous but symphonic. Within ecumenism therefore there is something far more important than any aims of ecclesial politics: The daily renewal of the maturing process of the essential, namely a faith which is realised in love. The ecumenical search for the shared truth of faith also wishes to be ethically effective in the world, in that faith becomes love and reflects that boundless love with which Jesus Christ has graced us and in which we should embed ourselves ever more deeply in order to find the unity which has already been lived out in the unity of the triune God for all eternity.



What is required of us can be exemplified most beautifully in an event in the friendship of St Francis of Assisi and St Claire. Once when they wanted to see one another again they met at a stream, but of course on opposite banks. Since the stream was too wide to cross they reached the conclusion that they needed to go back along the stream on either side until they reached the source of the stream, where it became smaller and narrower. At the source of the stream they were able to meet without any difficulty and celebrate their spiritual friendship.

In this event I see a striking and at the same time helpful image of the situation of ecumenism today. Here too we always have the impression that the various churches are located scattered along the two banks of a still relatively broad stream. Because the stream cannot be crossed they are unable to reach one another, and have to speak with one another now and then at a relatively high volume. In this situation, ecumenism needs the wisdom of Francis and Claire encouraging them to work their way back along the two banks of the stream until they reach the source. For if the various churches find their way back to the common source of the unity prefigured for us in Jesus Christ, they will also find one another.

This is the deepest mystery of the church and ecumenism, which does not lead to resignation but instead becomes a challenge to continue to follow the ecumenical path with passionate serenity and serene passion. Ecumenism can only expand its breadth if it constantly grows in depth. Only then is Christian ecumenism real participation in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus, and only then will we have taken His farewell words completely seriously. The depth into which we should embed ourselves is described by Jesus with the one word “Glory”, which the Son grants with his presence vouchsafed in the Holy Spirit (v 24). But it is up to us to continue to cooperate in the work of unity of the Holy Spirit, in that presence of the Spirit to which is our task, but which has first been freely given to us.


[1] Homily to the World Council of Churches, Geneva – 9 May 2011

[2] W. Kardinal Kasper, Wege der Einheit. Perspektiven für die Ökumene (Freiburg i. Br. 2005) 204.

[3] Unitatis redintegratio, No. 8.

[4] J. Ratzinger – Benedikt XVI., Jesus von Nazareth. Zweiter Teil: Vom Einzug in Jerusalem bis zur Auferstehung (Freiburg i. Br. 2011) 113.

[5] Lumen gentium, No. 4.

[6] Cf.. W. Kasper,  Die Kirche angesichts der Herausforderungen der Postmoderne, in: Kasper., Theologie und Kirche. Band 2 (Mainz 1999) 249-264, esp. 252-255: Absage an das Einheitspostulat: Der pluralistische Grundzug der Postmoderne, cit. 253.