The archbishop of Chieti-Vasto recently made his five-yearly "ad limina" visit to the Holy Father, together with the other bishops of the Italian regions of Abruzzi and Molise. During his time in Rome, ZENIT spoke with about ecumenism, as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is under way.
ZENIT: Excellency, what is the state of health of ecumenism 50 years after Vatican II?
Archbishop Forte: In his opening address to the Council (Oct. 11, 1962), Blessed John XXIII stressed the importance of overcoming mistrust and of looking at God's action in history with faith, stating that the unity of those who are baptized Christians was a priority of the Council. Of course the unity of all Christians cannot be realized if there isn't a profound unity with God. In a certain sense, ecumenism is not the conversion of one Church to another but the conversion of all the baptized to Christ.
Hence I see a profound continuity between Benedict XVI's teachings and the teaching of the Council. I think this Pope is a reformer and that he is so precisely from the fundamental point proposed by the Council, namely faith. He calls the Church to renew herself not in an administrative way but in a return to Christ, affirming his absolute primacy and by following him and witnessing him. The more the Church fulfills this program, the more we will be able to say that the ecumenical path will develop.
A second consideration regards the differences between the Churches: if at times the fruit of dialogues has not brought about – as some, perhaps naively, expected – an immediate process of reunification or at least of strong rapprochement, it is also because reflection on the truth also leads to knowing the differences. Of course, in the light of the Spirit and of faith, the differences are not recognized simply to consider them as insurmountable factors but to understand if, despite the differences themselves, which are perceived with extreme lucidity and clarity, there isn't a more profound source of unity that, also at the doctrinal level, can be discovered.
ZENIT: What has happened regarding the Orthodox Churches?
Archbishop Forte: The Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, of which I am a member, produced in 2007 the Document of Ravenna where for the first time all the autocephalous Orthodox acknowledged that the fundamental principle of Eastern ecclesiology is expressed in the Canons of the Apostles in no. 21. This principle, which the Orthodox Churches have always applied at the level of local Church (the bishop is at the base, then the metropolitan, finally, at the top, the patriarch), was also applied at the universal level. There is need of a first and a head at the universal level, who can be the voice of the whole Church, and this first head – Orthodox brothers also acknowledge this – cannot but be the Bishop of Rome, because Rome is the first of the five great patriarchal Churches of the ancient world. Although at times this dialogue had repercussions at the base – some Orthodox communities accused their patriarchs of being too condescending to Rome – it is a path of great and mutual listening and listening to God and it is charity that must support the ecumenical endeavor.
ZENIT: At the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI was seen as a Pope that would stop ecumenical dialogue. However, the opposite has occurred.
Archbishop Forte: We must stress, first of all, the profound connection of Benedict XVI's teaching with Vatican II. He, who was a consultant theologian of the Council, and has confirmed many times that Vatican II -- as Blessed John Paul II also said -- is the "compass of our time." He is a Pope who wants to re-launch Vatican II, but he wants to do so in the right way, that is, not in a superficial juxtaposition between "break" and "continuity," almost as if Vatican II were a break with Catholic tradition. Instead, he wishes to show how, in Vatican II, the Spirit acted in the Church, because, in fidelity to her identity and her principle, who is the living Christ, the Church can be renewed and proclaim the Gospel in a comprehensible and effective way for the women and men of today.
In this spirit, Pope Benedict has also made his own the cause of Christian unity in a convincing way, as all the initiatives of these years of his pontificate demonstrate, and all the occasions in which he has affirmed that ecumenism is not just one activity among others but a fundamental dimension of the life of the Church. Hence, rather than thinking of -- as some would like to suggest -- a sort of change in regard to the thinking of the Council in the ecumenical field, the Pope represents a deepening, which is something very different.
It is a question of taking up the great advances of the Council and of taking them to their deepest roots which is, in fact, a Trinitarian vision of the Church, a vision which finds its origin in the Trinity. Just as in the Trinity three are one, though each one is himself, so there is a profound unity in the Catholic Church, which is realized in the profound variety of the particular Churches, or the historical dimension of this unique mystery of the Church.
There is no need to take fundamental decisions in haste but there is need to have trust and hope in a path that leads to the full realization of God's plan. Seen in this way, Benedict XVI's teachings can be taken up in all its potential of profundity and richness in continuity with the message of Vatican II.
(to be continued)