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Willebrands, Johannes Gerardus Maria


Cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, archbishop of Utrecht and primate of Holland; b. Sept. 4, 1909, Bovenkarspel, Netherlands. Willebrands studied in the seminary of Warmond and was ordained a priest May 26, 1934. He earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome, in 1937 with a dissertation entitled "The Illative Sense in the Thought of John Henry Newman." Back in Holland he taught at Warmond, becoming rector of the seminary in 1945.

In 1946 Willebrands accepted the presidency of the St. Willebrord Association, a group devoted to promoting Catholic apologetics. Through his efforts it developed into an instrument for promoting ecumenism in the Netherlands. Even more significant was his cooperation with a priest friend, Frans Thijssen, in founding the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions. This unofficial group of Catholic scholars became, with the knowledge of the Dutch bishops and the Holy See, a kind of informal contact from within the Catholic Church with Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant ecumenists and leaders. It contributed notably to the coming into being and operation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In 1960 Pope John XXIII chose Monsignor Willebrands to be the secretary of the preparatory commission on ecumenism for the Second vatican council, under the presidency of Cardinal Augustin bea, S.J. In 1962 Willebrands visited Orthodox leaders, secretaries of world confessional families (e.g. Lutheran World Federation, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, etc.), and the World Council of Churches to explain the new ecumenical outreach on the part of the Catholic Church. This prepared the ground for other confessions to send observers to the council and, in the long run, led to the bilateral theological dialogues that began after the council and were to be central in the Catholic ecumenical enterprise.

Working with a number of scholars who had been in the Catholic Conference, Willebrands produced the text that was the basis for the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. Willebrands also had major responsibility for the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae ), the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate ), and a substantial part of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum ).

Pope Paul VI consecrated Monsignor Willebrands titular bishop of Mauritania in 1964. Before the council ended, the preparatory commission for ecumenism was declared a permanent organ of the Roman Curia with the title of Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. (In 1988 it was renamed the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.) After Cardinal Bea died in 1968 Willebrands was named president of the new dicastery and created cardinal deacon of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

Under his guidance the secretariat produced a Directory on Ecumenism and initiated a series of international bilateral theological dialogues with major Christian confessions (as of the year 2000 there are nine of these) as well as a cooperative relationship with the World Council of Churches, especially its Faith and Order Commission. To promote reception of the ecumenical stance of Vatican II within the Catholic Church, Willebrands encouraged the establishment of ecumenical commissions in bishops' conferences and began to have occasional meetings of their representatives in Rome. In 1974 Willebrands established within the secretariat the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, based on Vatican II's Nostra Aetate 4. He guided it carefully to focus on questions of doctrine, pastoral practice, and religious formation, avoiding complicated political questions. This approach bore visible and striking results with the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Rome synagogue in 1986 and ultimately to the more spectacular papal visit to Israel in 2000.

In 1975 Pope Paul VI asked Cardinal Willebrands to become archbishop of Utrecht and primate of Holland while remaining president of the secretariat. This meant living in Utrecht but coming to Rome at regular intervals. These visits became less frequent as he dealt with a Church whose institutions had been deconstructed by postconciliar polarization and by secularization. Using his sympathetic style and human relations skills he was able to win respect for his leadership and establish some sort of equilibrium without being able fully to recuperate the forces of the Church. It was a relief in 1983 to hand over the archdiocese to a successor whose way he had prepared. He returned to Rome at an important moment as several of the relationships and ecumenical dialogues were reaching new maturity. His collaboration with Pope John Paul II became closer and ever more fruitful. He provided leadership in such events as the 1986 Assisi World Day of Prayer for Peace and responded to the crisis in relations with the Anglican Communion and with the Orthodox Churches, as well as encouraged the evermore promising theological developments with the Lutheran World Federation and with the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

When Willebrands reached the statutory age of retirement at seventy-five, John Paul asked him to continue in office; he did so until his eightieth birthday in 1989, at which time he became president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Willem Vissert Hooft, the founding secretary of the World Council of Churches, described Cardinal Willebrands as "a man with a fine combination of vision and realism." That quality enabled him to give a stamp and direction to Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement. For the communications media, he never became the iconic figure that Cardinal Bea was. Yet Willebrands has been the architect of the current Catholic official ecumenical engagement, which has had Pope John Paul II as its immensely talented entrepreneur.

Bibliography: The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity: Information Service, nos: 1101 (1966 to 2000) contains most major addresses, letters and articles by Cardinal Willebrands. Number 101 is devoted to him and includes biographical material, a selection of his writings and speeches and an evaluation of the present ecumenical situation. j. grootaers, "Jan Cardinal Willebrands: The Recognition of Ecumenism in the Roman Catholic Church," One in Christ 6, no. 1 (1970): 2344. j. willebrands, "The Future of Ecumenism," One in Christ 11, no. 4 (1975): 310323.

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