On 30 October 2014 the International Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference met in Rome for a working visit. The main items on the agenda were a discussion with Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and other members of the Council; and a private audience with Pope Francis.
Working visit to the Council for Promoting Christian Unity
During their meeting with Cardinal Koch, the delegations of the Roman Catholic and Old Catholic Churches discussed their respective current bilateral dialogues. Cardinal Koch stated that the Council for Promoting Christian Unity regularly reviews the consistency of dialogues taking place with various churches as a matter of credibility vis-à-vis the dialogue partners.
The members of the two delegations then discussed the next steps in the Roman Catholic–Old Catholic dialogue. A report published in 2009 titled “The Church and Ecclesial Communion” marked the conclusion of the first stage of discussions. Currently the Dialogue Commission is examining the remaining issues, including papal infallibility, the relationship between the local and the universal church, Mariology, and the traditions on which church teachings are based and the reasoning behind those teachings. The Commission will also discuss how papers on these subjects can supplement the 2009 report.
Both delegations were of course aware that new hindrances have arisen over the years. The Old Catholic handling of ethical questions and the ordination of women pose major challenges. However, the Roman Catholic Church is also debating these questions with other dialogue partners. As Cardinal Koch stated, the Old Catholic Church holds a special position in this regard because it aims to tackle such questions within Catholic practice.
Cardinal Koch was open to the Old Catholic suggestion of formulating interim aims for the dialogue, but he reminded the delegates that the ultimate aim should not be forgotten. This requires not only a Mosaic spirituality, but also patience, hope and full commitment to that aim, even if its achievement is beyond the lifetimes of those who pursue it.
The Old Catholic delegates suggested that Old Catholic observers could be invited to other Roman Catholic dialogues and to episcopal synods. These observers would be able to share insights into issues with which the Old Catholic Churches have already had a great deal of experience. Cardinal Koch responded positively to the suggestion.
Private audience with Pope Francis
Following the working visit, Cardinal Koch and Monsignor Matthias Türk, Co-Secretary of the Dialogue Commission, accompanied the Old Catholic delegation headed by Archbishop Joris Vercammen to a private audience with Pope Francis. It was the first visit of the Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference to the Bishop of Rime since the Union of Utrecht was founded 125 years ago.
After receiving a personal welcome, Archbishop Bishop Vercammen, President of the International Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference, gave an address to the Pope. He summarised the achievements of the bilateral relations since 1966, when the way was paved for dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Old Catholic Churches. In addition, he highlighted how much work is still to be done to resolve the important questions that continue to divide them.
Archbishop Vercammen also emphasised that the Old Catholic bishops have always acknowledged the unique position of the Bishop of Rome within the Church as a whole. They firmly believe that the office of the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares would have a higher moral authority if it were embedded in the synodality of the bishops who represent their respective Catholic Churches.
Pope Francis noted in his address that the visit of the Old Catholic bishops was a valuable opportunity to reflect on the shared ecumenical journey. It has become possible to build new bridges thanks to a deeper mutual understanding and cooperation on practical matters. Consensus has been reached in many areas, and the differences between the two Churches have been identified more precisely and placed into new contexts.
Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Vercammen emphasised that a common future in Europe can be achieved only on a path of repentance, reconciliation and peace. “It is a spiritual journey from encounter to friendship, from friendship to brotherhood, and from brotherhood to communion,” stated the Pope. “Change is inevitable along the way. We must always be ready to listen to the Holy Spirit, who leads us into truth.”
Following the brief addresses, Pope Francis was presented with the missals of all of the Old Catholic Churches, each containing a personal dedication.
After the audience, Cardinal Koch and the members of the Bishops’ Conference visited St. Peter’s tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where they prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.
The visit to the Vatican ended with an informal lunch with Cardinal Koch and Monsignor Türk in the guesthouse where the Old Catholic delegation was accommodated. During the excellent Italian meal, the participants had time to talk together and strengthen their personal contacts.
Communication Officer of the International Old Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Union of Utrecht
Photos: Kvetoslav Krejci and servizio photografico del Osservatore Romano