BY MOYNA BANERJEE
cARDLNAL JOHANNES Willebrands, a leading ecumenist, has died at the age of 96 in a nursing home in the Netherlands.
For nearly 30 years Cardinal Willebrands served the Secretariat for Christian Unity, established in 1960 during the papacy of Pope John XXIII.
Cardinal Willebrands arranged the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras . He negotiated the mutual lifting of the excommunications that had formalised the split between Christianity in the East and West in 1054. Pope Benedict XVI has paid tribute to Cardinal Willebrands's life. The Pontiff described the cardinal as "a tireless pastor in service to the
People of God and the unity of the Church" and somebody who gave "new life to ecumenical dialogue." Cardinal Willebrands initiated the idea of a "uniate" solution for the Anglican Communion during a visit to Cambridge in England in 1970. This meant that if the Anglican Communion and the Church reached a formal agreement, Anglicans could retain their rites, traditions and married clergy.
Throughout his life he travelled the world helping relations between Catholicism and Judaism, often rejecting the notion that the New Testament was anti-Semitic. One rabbi hailed him as "the captain of the Catholic-Jewish ship".
Born in September 1909 in Bovenkerspel, northern Holland, Johannes Willebrands was the eldest of seven children. He studied at Warmond Seminary near Leyden and at Rome's Angelicum University where he did his thesis on Cardinal Newman. He was ordained in
1934. Pope Paul VI elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 1975. He served as Archbishop of Utrecht from 1975 to 1983. In 1984 he offered his resignation, as required at the age of 75, but John Paul 11 chose to keep him in office.
Speaking about the dead prelate last week Pope Benedict prayed that "God would welcome into the peace of his Kingdom this faithful servant of the Word and of brotherhood among Christians".
In this country, Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, chairman of the Committee for Christian Unity, said he felt "indebted" to Cardinal Willebrands.
"Few people have embodied total commitment to the ecumenical venture more than [him' he said.