20Nov Mercy can heal the wounds of the Church

Cardinal Walter Kasper   – The Tablet
“After the Second Vatican Council hard and fruitful ecumenical work was done. Piles of documents were drafted. But did we really fully implement the conciliar heritage? I think we are only halfway in the reception process. The twentieth century brought a good deal of progress and aroused great hopes, but in the twenty-first century, by contrast, clear signs of fatigue have become apparent. We are not living in a springtime of the ecumenical movement; for some it seems more like autumn or even winter. But even in winter the seed grows, the seed sown in the tradition. We need to start anew, not from point zero to a mystery tour, but from the still undiscovered treasures of the tradition. 

In these last decades we have tended often to construct a new scholasticism out of the conciliar documents. We have felt at home inside this new castle, but we have lost the council’s prophetic vision. Now Pope Francis stirs us up to be once more a Church at the start of a journey, and he does it under the cue of mercy, which goes out to the peripheries of the Church and of human existence.

This is not a totally new programme. It has deep biblical roots. Already Pope John XXIII, in his memorable opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, told the council Fathers that the time had come not to use the arms of severity but the medicine of mercy. In this way, he set the tone of the entire conciliar endeavour.

At its end Pope Paul VI emphasised that the spirituality of the council was that of the Good Samaritan. So mercy has to be understood as the soul of the council, and Pope Francis opened a new phase of the still unfinished reception process of the council. 

What, under the headline of mercy, will be the future of ecumenism in the twenty-first century? This is a truly hard question. In our ever faster-changing world, to talk about the future is to risk being compromised and made ridiculous the very next day. Ultimately, a serious theological answer in regard to the future is only possible if we remember the future that dawned once and for all with Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God reconciled the world with himself and entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church is in Jesus Christ the visible and effective sign of unity with God and between all humanity. Unfortunately, neither the world nor the Church itself looks like that. 

In order to be faithful to the biblical faith in a still unreconciled world, we Christians must become reconciled human beings, and reconciled with one another. To that end, on the night before his death, Jesus prayed “that all may be one, so that the world may believe”. Ecumenism is grounded in this prayer of Jesus, ut unum sint. It is not a marginal issue; it is anchored in God’s plan of salvation. It is the way of the Church for the salvation of the world. 

But how is reconciliation possible? How can we heal the many wounds of the Church caused by its divisions? How can we heal the many wounds of our world? Once more Pope Francis gives us the right cue. It is taken from the very centre of the Gospel; its name is mercy. Reconciliation, including reconciliation of divided Christians, can be achieved only by mercy. This should be the programme of a renewed ecumenical vision and a new hopeful beginning.

For many, mercy seems to be a term out of fashion. It sounds for them like “bonhomie” or even “compliance”, which does not take seriously issues of truth and justice. However, we can see that the rediscovery of mercy is a response to the enormous extent of suffering in the twentieth century, suffering which continues in our twenty-first century. 

Pope John Paul II wrote his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (1980), as a response to his terrible experiences during the Nazi occupation and the Communist period in Poland. For Pope Francis mercy is the response to the globalisation of indifference. According to St Augustine, mercy is heartfelt compassion for the misery of another person, which urges us to help as much as possible. In this way, God revealed himself in the burning bush to Moses. He had seen the misery and listened to the cry of the people, and promised to liberate it from slavery in Egypt. But very soon the people fell away in a much more sinful slavery. 

God’s reaction was not, as Moses first did, in just wrath to join the fight, but in a new revelation he revealed himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. This phrase in the Bible is often repeated and became a kind of cantus firmus in the Psalms.

Why does God react in this merciful way? Because God – as the New Testament summarises – is love and because he is just to himself he can be simply merciful with the sinner who repents and cries for redemption. So mercy is God’s justice and the name of our God. Because he is God, he can open a new future in hopeless human situations, he can forgive sins and create a reconciled new world. 

Our mission for reconciliation confronts us with our fundamental theological task, that is to speak about God, about God as witnessed in the Old and in the New Testaments, about God who by his holiness we should fear, but who for his mercy is attractive and fascinating. So the message of mercy is the answer to the deepest problem of our time, the God question, the centre of new evangelisation and the way of ecumenical reconciliation. 

The ecumenical vision of the Second Vatican Council was part of its overall vision of the mission of the Church to foster reconciliation ad intra and ad extra. Ad intra the council rediscovered the original and full meaning of Catholicity, not as exclusive but inclusive. According to Ignatius of Antioch, the Catholic Church is where Jesus Christ is. The Church is the reflection of the unity of the Triune God. It is a unity within the variety of churches. The one Church exists “in and of” local churches, which make the one Church present in legitimate diversity. 

Christ in differentiated ways is present also outside the institutional borders of the Roman Catholic Church. Notwithstanding the claim of the Catholic Church that the Church of Christ is concretely present in her, it intends to make room outside its boundaries for churches and ecclesial communities in which elements of sanctification and truth are to be found, which as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ urge towards Catholic unity. 

Thus there is no ecclesiological vacuum outside the Catholic Church. Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches – and these often give clearer expression to individual elements of being church than the Catholic Church – the complete realisation of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin. 

Through one baptism all the baptised are members of the one body of Christ. But this body of Christ is deeply wounded and disfigured by existing divisions. They, as the council told us, openly contradict the will of Christ, scandalise the world and damage that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature. These wounds are concretely felt and suffered in the daily life of many families, friendships, all kinds of associations. They ask us, how we can invite families, including ecumenically mixed families, to go together to Sunday Mass, but then officially separate them in receiving Holy Communion? I think this question urgently needs new reflection on the basis of conciliar openings, which are not yet fully implemented.

Today there are signs of a regression into the old self-satisfied denominationalism. Often we are so anxious for our own denominational identity that we forget that this identity is only possible in ecumenical co-existence. So old sensitivities that we had believed to be overcome long ago rise up from their graves like ghosts. Healing of memories, an ecumenism of love, of encounter, listening and friendship are what is needed. 

Ecumenism and world mission have belonged indissolubly together from the beginning of the ecumenical movement. Only ecumenically can the Church as a messianic people of God be a sign of hope, Gaudium et spes for all mankind, and in particular for the poor and those oppressed in any way.

Not the least important aspect of the ecumenical movement was that it was prepared in the last century during dark times under totalitarian systems. In the concentration camps, in the gulags, Christians of different Churches were united in common resistance against inhuman systems; enemies became friends. Today all churches are confronted with new persecution of Christians. Persecution does not discriminate between Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox: Christians are oppressed, persecuted and murdered because they are Christians. Thus the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have given rise to an ecumenism written not in printer’s ink but with the blood of martyrs. 

Therefore, for the sake of world peace and the salvation of mankind, it is our sacred duty that we do not come to accept division between Christians. We should work together for the good of all mankind. In this sense, working together brings us closer together. Mercy for a world that suffers can and should move our hearts to go ahead. 

Pope Francis has understood the heartbeat of the current Church. At the same time, he is no innovator. He stands in the best tradition of church renewal movements, which all referred back to the Gospel. The path to unity is not the path of institutional merger. The Pope, however, goes beyond the image of concentric circles familiar to all Catholics. The model he proposes is that of the polyhedron, a multifaceted body in which all parts form a whole; but they participate in the whole in different ways, and it is precisely because they maintain their uniqueness that they contribute to the beauty and attraction of the whole.

Every conversion begins with each individual in person to be merciful, just as our Father is merciful. There are, however, not only the sins of the sons and daughters of the Church, there are also structures of sin. Therefore Francis speaks – in a quite unusually open manner for a pope – of the conversion of the episcopacy, the conversion of the primacy and a conversion of the pastoral. 

So ecumenism does not involve the conversion of one Church into another; it involves the conversion of all to Jesus Christ. To the extent that we are one in Christ, we will also be one with one another. Without such a conversion to Christ, all structural reforms, no matter how necessary, are like threshing empty straw. The ecumenical movement began in the nineteenth century with ecumenical prayer: prayer and penitence must constantly be the soul of ecumenism. In the end, we cannot make unity, nor program or organise it. 

Conversion to God and conversion to our neighbour belong together. Conversion to the Gospel includes opening up to other Christians and other churches. Only in this way is the full realisation of the Church’s unique Catholicity and the realisation of her mission possible. Catholicity includes all: women and men, young and old, clergy and laity. The laity are not merely recipients but also actors, not only objects but, above all, subjects in the Church. So the doctrine of the sensus fidei given by baptism to all is important. It was emphasised by the council, but then, unfortunately, suppressed again. Francis now wishes to give it concrete validity. He wants a listening Magisterium that makes its decisions after it has heard what the Spirit says to the Churches. 

Catholicity thus means the reinforcement of the synodical elements in the Catholic Church. Following the model of the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, Church tradition recognises synodical traditions in all Churches in both the first and the second millennium. Leadership on all levels – local, regional and universal – and synodality are not mutually exclusive, they should complement one another. That signifies a great step closer towards the Orthodox and also to the Protestant understanding of the Church. With this in mind, Francis has taken up the offer made by John Paul II and renewed by Benedict XVI to enter into a conversation regarding a new form of exercising primacy.


Cardinal Walter Kasper is president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the author of Mercy: the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life.

One Response

  1. John

    We have the curious story of the Italian journalists who are being prosecuted by the Vatican for writing stories revealing corruption in the Vatican.


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