Swiss bishop to lead church’s ecumenical work

The Vatican announced earlier this month that Pope Benedict XVI has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Walter Kasper as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for reasons of age. Cardinal Kasper turned 77 last March. Pope Benedict appointed Swiss Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel, Switzerland to be the new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Cardinal Kasper had been at the Council for 11 years, first as secretary (the number two post), then as president since 2001. This will be the third changing of guard that I have witnessed as ecumenical director for the Diocese of Camden, the first being Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and then Cardinal Edward Cassidy.

Bishop Koch was born in Emmenbrucke, Switzerland on March 15, 1950. He was ordained a priest on June 20, 1982, and elected bishop of Basel and was confirmed by Pope John Paul II. He was ordained by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 6, 1997. He is 60 years old and the bishop to roughly a million Swiss Catholics and 744 priests, 66 deacons, 36 religious who are not priests, 499 lay theologians and 519 parishes. He is also president of the Swiss Bishop’s Conference.

He studied theology at the Ludwigs-Maximilian University in Munich where he finished in 1975 and worked as a lay theologian until his ordination to priesthood in 1982. He worked as a lecturer in dogmatic theology at the Catechetical Institute in Luzern, before finishing his doctorate in 1987 and was made honorary professor for dogma, ethic, liturgy-science and ecumenical theology at the theological faculty of the University of Luzern. Last January, Bishop Koch wrote an open letter to his flock explaining the pope’s decision to lift the excommunications hanging over the four Lefebvrist bishops.

In 2006, he voiced his disagreement with opposition to building Muslim minarets in Switzerland, while simultaneously calling for greater religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries. In a letter addressed to his diocese in Basel last month, Bishop Koch explained that the pope had asked him in February if he would take on this new ministry. The pope said that he wanted someone who had both the theological knowledge and practical experience in living and working alongside Protestant communities.

An important goal that Pope Benedict would love to see come to fruition is the reunification of the churches of East and West. This goal is also a burning desire of Bishop Koch, but improved relations with the Orthodox are not the pope’s only concern, he explained; he also desires the unity of all Christians, as Christ prayed for and instructed. As president of the Swiss bishops’ conference, he helped smooth tensions with Protestants after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document stating that the Catholic Church is the one, true church of Christ, as other Christian churches possess elements of truth and Christ’s saving grace. Bishop Koch said he understood the document looking at the term in a “strictly theological” way, explaining that if the Catholic Church believes apostolic succession and valid sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are essential aspects of the church established by Christ, it cannot recognize as “church” those communities who do not have them.

The announcement of Bishop Koch’s appointment was met with approval from many in the ecumenical community. The World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit said of the appointment, “we rejoice at the appointment of Bishop Kurt Koch as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. We welcome his appointment and look forward to working with him for the visible unity of the church.” He added, “Bishop Koch is well known for his openness and deep ecumenical commitment. His book, ‘That All May Be One; Ecumenical Perspectives’ is an excellent summary of the present state of ecumenical dialogue and relations.”

Let us pray that Bishop Koch will continue the work of bringing Christ’s church together into unity. We give thanks for the wonderful contributions of Cardinal Kasper and his predecessors at the pontifical council.

Categories: That All May Be One

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