Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, RIP

I’ve just learned that Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, a great ecumenist who was the very first secretary of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, has passed away. I don’t have much time for any real reflection, which would be inadequate in any case. For now, let me just quote from a Commencement Address that the late Cardinal delivered at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1989:

Love, truth and glory are precisely the three words which, with Jesus’ insistence on the unity of his disciples, are like a symphony in the great hymn to the profundity of the divine design which is chapter 17 of the Johannine Gospel. Unity is not a separate value, an appendix to the great stream of salvation which comes from the Father. It belongs to that stream. Moreoever, when Christ connects the unity of the disciples with the world being able to know that the Father has sent him, and has “loved” them all as he loves Christ (“from the foundation of the world”), he brings together, under one aspect, unity, love, truth and glory. But he shows at the same time that these things are not only a gift of God but also an association of the community of disciples with the communion of the Father and the Son in their eternal life of love, truth and glory.

Thus the unity of the Church has both its source and its heart in the uncreated koinonia of the divine Trinity. It is taken up into the ineffable unity which in God unfolds itself in divine love, divine knowledge (truth), and divine glory. Hence it is not enough to say that by faith and charity Christians mysteriously share in the mutual love and mutual knowledge which make up the life of God. We must also add that they equally share the unbreakable unity on which that knowledge and love flourish. This is why, when the unity of the Church is threatened, the “communion” in truth, love and in glory of the living God and hence the very depth of ecclesial life is attacked. To say, with the Johannine Gospel, that it is in the person of Jesus, enclosed within the life of the Trinity, that the ecclesial koinonia is held together, is to affirm the nature of the Church as “humanity” recreated “in the image and likeness” of the living God.

But to speak of Trinity (for God) and “communion” (for Church) is to speak of diversity, number, plurality. In God, there are three persons. Each has a personality so clear, strongly marked, and distinct that it is not absorbed in the infinity of the common nature nor consumed by the great fire of love, of truth, of glory which is their eternal divine life. The Fathers of East and West never ceased to insist that nothing of what constituted the paternity of the Father is communicated to the Son or the Spirit, and nothing that constitutes the sonship of the Son is communicated to the Father. The depth of the trinitarian koinonia is measured by the difference, radically indestructible or impossible to level out, by which the Father is not the Son and the Spirit is not the Father. The divine koinonia, its unity, is that of three persons who are one without being fused with each other. This is why the Johannine gospel puts into the mouth of Jesus, at the most solemn moments, words which emphasize his distinction from the Father. To blot out the distinction of the persons would be to make the Johannine Jesus unintelligible.

The Church is the image of the Trinity in that in her too the most profound unity (that unity which comes from each one of her faithful being a member of the one and indivisible body of Christ) respects human diversity. It is in this that she is Catholic. Her catholicity is, as it were, the epiphaneia of the divine triad in the complexity of humanity. We find here the idea, Pauline in inspiration, of anakephalaiosis, so well expounded by Saint Irenaios. God, in the work of salvation, brings into his own “communion” all creation with its inborn diversity, which he respects – which he saves.

Salvation consists in this, that its multitude becomes, through the Spirit of Christ, transfigured by the love, the truth and the glory that are in God. The effect of this piercing of natural realities by the supernatural was the subject of many homilies by the Fathers. Instead of walls of division creating hatred, war and death by closing in persons and groups on themselves, it produces shared riches and values which complement each other. Here again there is reflected the dynamism within the Trinity, that dynamism which draws the divine Persons to each other, in total otherness but also in the most absolute mutual self-giving.

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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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