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Cardinal Willebrands Research Centre

Cardinal Willebrands Research Centre

On Cardinal Willebrands

The Early Years (1906-1934)


Johannes Willebrands was the eldest son of Herman Willebrands and Afra Kok, and was part of a family of 9 children. His father was the director of the “Groenteveiling De Tuinbouw” at Grootebroek. Willebrands attended primary school at Bovenkarspel and Enkhuizen, and at the age of 12, expressed the desire to become a Redemptorist priest. From 1921 to 1927, Willebrands did receive his secondary education at the Minor Seminary of the Redemptorist Congregation at Roermond, and subsequently in Vaals. Upon completing his secondary school Willebrands effectively entered the Redemptorist noviciate in ‘s Hertogenbosch, but his curriculum was already interrupted – from the side of the Redemptorist order – in 1928, indicating that he was more suited to become part of the secular diocesan clergy. As a consequence Willebrands had to “double” one year of study (1928-1929) at the diocesan Minor Seminary of Hageveld, in order to prepare himself for entering the Major Seminary of the diocese of Haarlem, located at Warmond. At Warmond he was to have his priestly education, doing the curriculum in Philosophy and Theology in the years 1929 to 1934, until he was ordained to the priesthood on May 26, 1934.

Priest and Professor (1934-1941)

In the Summer of 1934, Willebrands was then sent to Rome by bishop Aengenent to do graduate studies in philosophy at the Angelicum, while living at the Pontifical Dutch College. In this period Willebrands focused himself upon the study of the epistemology of John Henry Newman. In 1937, and after significant tension because he decided to abandon his initial promoter, Prof. Vincent Kuiper, not sharing the latter’s scholastic approach of the epistemological question, Willebrands obtained his doctorate in Philosophy cum laude, with a thesis on ‘the Illative Sense in the Thought of John Henry Newman’. After that, Willebrands returned to his home country where he was soon appointed chaplain of the beguinage church of Amsterdam, as an assistant to deacon Van Noort – a former professor of Theology at the Warmond Seminary. In this period, Willebrands teaches some courses in pastoral theology, but also develops his first contacts with the Dutch Jewish community of Amsterdam, while also collaborating with the apologetic lay movement, called Gilde van de Klare Waarheid. Willebrands will keep close contact with the Jewish community during the period of the Second World War, and will stick to this sensitivity throughout his entire further career. In 1940, Willebrands is appointed professor at the Philosophy Institute of the Warmond Major Seminary, where future priests received two years training in philosophy, before starting their theological studies. His main teaching subject was the "History of Philosophy".

An Ecumenical Conversion (1941-1960)

Willebrands would maintain his position as professor of Philosophy at Warmond for eighteen years, something wich enabled him to develop a keen sense of the importance of historical contingency for the development and formulation of christian truth claims, in line with his earlier study of Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Still, along the way, he combines his professorship with a broad range of other activities. First, as of 1947 Willebrands becomes director of the Warmond Philosophy Institute. At the same time, already since the War period, he had become actively engaged in ecumenical circles, as a regular member of the Laren Circle, founded in 1943. The Laren Circle was an informal ecumenical group, which gathered in the house of Lizzy Breman-Schouten, and aimed at conversation between a group of Dutch Catholics and Protestants – several members of the latter would later convert to Catholicism, a.o. Willem Hendrik Van de Pol und Hendrik Van der Linde. Willebrands’s membership of this group, through mediation of a priest, his close friend Frans Thijssen, was a very first starting point toward an ‘ecumenical calling’ which Willebrands himself has placed as early as 1946. Two years later, on June 1, 1948, in the year of the foundation of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Willebrands was appointed chair of the Saint Willibrord Association (SWA), an association that succeeded the former Apologetic Association Petrus Canisius, which in turn had existed already since 1904. While the former Petrus Canisius Association was primarily engaged in contact with Dutch Protestantism in a spirit of apologetic self defense and practiced an ‘ecumenism of return’, the succeeding SWA marked a turnabout given its intention to evolve towards genuine interconfessional dialogue. Willebrands played a key role in its change of attitude from an ecumenism of return and conversion toward the common rediscovery of unity and the praxis of ecumenical love. He did so in constant collaboration with Thijssen, Dutch pioneer in the field of ecumenism, who had been placed in the service of ecumenism by Utrecht Cardinal Johannes De Jong. Thijssen, who had been active in the Dutch underground movement during the War, aiding Jewish refugees to escape from the Nazis, had also played an important role in bringing Willebrands into contact with the Dutch Jewish communities in the 1940’s. It is not surprising then, that in 1951, under Willebrands’s leadership of the SWA, a Catholic Council for Israël (CCI) was established in the Netherlands, as a branch of that same association. Also in the year 1951, Willebrands and Thijssen travelled throughout Europe and met with several western European bishops and theologians about the possibility to set up an organisation for ecumenical specialists. Even while they were not present at the time, their initiative appears to have been partly inspired by an initiative taken by Charles Boyer, founder of the Foyer Unitas, in the Greek-Catholic Abbey at Grottaferrata in the Holy Year of 1950, uniting a group of Catholic Ecumenists. At the same time, Willebrands and Thijssen felt encouraged by the relative openness toward ecumenical engagement created through the publication of the Instruction De motione oecumenica in March 1950 (published in 1950, yet officially dated December 20, 1949). After the negative stances that had been taken by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 1928 encyclical Mortalium animos, and the 1948 Monitum Cum copertum, reacting to the establishment of the WCC, some space was now given to Catholics engaged in ecumenical contact. Although the pan-European initiative by Thijssen and Willebrands was not an official endeavour, they nevertheless informed the Dutch episcopate as well as various influential Roman protagonists, such as the Dutch Jesuit Sebastiaan Tromp, and his confrères Charles Boyer and Augustin Bea, of their plans. Eventually, their efforts resulted into the establishment of a new, and this time international structure, gathering members of already existing catholic organizations on an European level: Christophe-Jean Dumont of Istina (Paris); later on also Lorenz Jaeger of the Johann-Adam-Möhler Institut für Ökumenik(Paderborn) – also with Josef Höfer, a close collaborator of Jaeger, and involved in the German Una Sancta-Movement; Charles Boyer of the Foyer Unitas (Rome), … Moreover, Willebrands equally maintained warm contacts with members of ecumenical study centres such as Theodore Strotmann from the Benedictine Abbey at Chevetogne. This new organization, which went by the name of “Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions” was officially constituted in August 1952, with Willebrands as its permanent secretary. At the conference’s first meeting, held in Switzerland August 11-13, 1952, in the house of the bishop of Fribourg, François Charrière, it was stated that the primary purpose of the Catholic Conference was to promote harmony, collaboration and a common spirit among Catholic ecumenists, and to keep them widely informed on the progress of the ecumenical movement. Significantly, the Conference’s directorial committee did not only bring together leading catholic ecumenical centres, it also developed unofficial contacts with the World Council of Churches, a.o. through an ongoing correspondence with the WCC’s Dutch General Secretary Willem Adolf Visser ’t Hooft, as well as with the director of the WCC’s Study Division, Dr. Heinrich Harms. These contacts made it possible that in the period between October 27 and November 11, of 1958, Willebrands became the first Roman Catholic ever to lecture at theWCC’s Ecumenical Institute at Bossey (Geneva), which had been founded in 1946.

Also, since 1956 Willebrands kept regular contacts with the secretary of the International League for Apostolic Faith and Order (ILAFO), an association of Protestant and Orthodox theologians founded in 1950. Moreover, Willebrands’s Catholic Conference kept constant kept track of the developments in these ecumenical organisations, often by treating the same study topics during a series of plenary meetings at various locations, thereby always seeking permission from the local ordinaries and asking them to assume the presidency of the meeting. Such gatherings were held at Fribourg (1952), Utrecht (August, 6-8, 1953), Mainz (April 21-24, 1954), Paris (August 1-4, 1955), Chevetogne (1957), Paderborn (October 27, November 1, 1959), Gazzada (September 19-23, 1960), Strasbourg (August 21-25, 1961), and once more Gazzada (August 26-31, 1963). While maintaining these many contacts, Willebrands at the same time kept informing the heads of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches (Cardinal Eugène Tisserant), and in particular of the Congregation for the Holy Office (Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani) of the actions undertaken by the Conference, so as not to run into conflict with the central instances of his own church. All this turned Willebrands’s role in the Catholic Conference, even when not leading to a great degree of output in the sense of published material, into a central one, putting him in a crucial position in the early development of Catholic ecumenism on an international level, which rendered him into an ecumenical pioneer appreciated for his honest, practical and open sense of ecumenical diplomacy.

Next to all of this, it is worthwile to mention that as of 1955, Willebrands, as a Newman-scholar, started fostering plans for the foundation of an Oratory in the tradition of Philippus Neri. This community of prayer, in Willebrands’s eyes, was to become an ecumenical community. But, notwithstanding the fact that Mrs. Breman-Schouten offered her Laren home as accomodation for this purpose, the plan never came about. On a spiritual level then, Willebrands kept close ties with the Sankt Lioba convent, led by Hildegard Michaelis, and located at Egmond, within the diocese of Haarlem. On various occasions Willebrands advocated on behalf of the convent with Johannes Huibers, bishop of Haarlem.

Soon, Willebrands could hardly combine of his functions as director of the Warmond Philosophicum with his growing ecumenical engagements as Chair of the SWA and as secretary of the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions was no longer tenable. This led to a constant and repeated insistence to bishop Huibers of Haarlem to create a new function focussing entirely upon maintaining ecumenical contacts. Such complaints are already found in a letter dated as early as February 11, 1953, and would go on for many years. Only in 1958, after Willebrands had made efforts to convince several members of the Dutch episcopate of the importance of such a function, had tried to implicate international figures, and had referred to the Holy Office’s instruction De motione oecumenica, did Huibers – in consultation with colleagues such as Bernard Jan Alfrink – create such an entirely new function. The Dutch bishops thus officially appointed Willebrands as “Episcopal Delegate for Ecumenical Affairs” on August 1, 1958. Through this appointment, Willebrands’s ecumenical work finally became institutionalized. An unprecedented event was created since this was the first such appointment anywhere in the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it still took several years before the Warmond professor – who, in the mean time (1955) had been granted the title of Secret Chamberlord of His Holiness – received a positive answer to his request to be totally freed for for ecumenical work. Thus, Willebrands was finally freed from having to combine his ecumenical work with the directorship of the Warmond Philosophy Institute. On the other hand, it should be noted that the ecumenical work did not always go easy. When, in August 1959, Willebrands and Dumont were invited unofficially (as ‘journalists’) by Visser ‘t Hooft to attend the WCC Central Committee meeting held at Rhodes, this led to a severe and international ecumenical crisis. Willebrands and Dumont, the two catholics invited by the WCC (three other catholics were present on their private initiative: Antoine Wenger, Theodore Strotmann and Maurice Villain) consented to having a private diner meeting (held in the margins of the Assemblee) among Catholic and Orthodox attendants. Due to miscommunications this gave rise to serious tensions between Dumont, Willebrands; the leadership of the WCC; and various Orthodox representants. On the one side events such as the “Rhodes incident” gave rise to a heightening of mutual mistrust and highly complicated the engagement in interconfessional dialogue, but on the other hand they also sharpened to the problematic awareness of a lack of any “official address” for ecumenical contacts from the side of the Roman Catholic Church.

A Roman Career (1960-1975)

After Pope John XXIII made public his announcement to gather an Ecumenical Council (January 25, 1959), the Archbishop of Paderborn, Lorenz Jaeger, through the mediation of Cardinal Augustin Bea, forwarded a petition to Pope John,on March 11, 1960, to create a pontifical commission to promote Christian unity. The Pope agreed to this and asked Bea to organise such a commission and appointed him to head it. On June 24, Willebrands was proposed as candidate for the function of secretary, and on June 28, 1960, Willebrands’s role on the Dutch national scene officially ended, with him entering the international scene with an official mandate. This officialization immediately became apparent through various events: For instance the fact that from August 16-22, 1960, Willebrands was invited at the thirteenth WCC-Central Committee gathering in St. Andrews, Scotland, this time not as ‘journalist’, rather as an official Roman Catholic Observer. Also in September 1960, at the gathering of the Catholic Conference in Gazzada, Italy, Willebrands noticed that the Catholic hierarchy was more than ever present, with the attendance of Cardinal Bea, Cardinal Alfrink, and Cardinal Montini of Milan. All of this had become possible now, since Willebrands was appointed secretary to the newly created Secretariatus ad Christianorum Unitatem Fovendam (SCUF), led by Cardinal Bea, and organ officially established by the Motu Proprio Superno Dei nutu of June 5, 1960. Even though this papal document established the SCUF together with various other organs and bodies in replacement of the Antepreparatory Pontifical Commission (1959-1960), and in view of the practical and theological preparations of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965), it soon became apparent that John XXIII did not perceive of the new Secretariat as a mere temporary but rather as a permanent structure for the Catholic Church’s ecumenical engagement. From that point in time, Willebrands became an international public figure, not only within the Roman Catholic Church, but in the Christian world at large. For eight years, the tandem Bea-Willebrands organized a new type of “curial” organisation that led to an ecumenical turnabout in the history of Catholicism. In his position as secretary to the SCUF, and in close collaboration with staff members Jean-François Arrighi and Thomas Stransky, Msgr Willebrands was largely responsible for its organization and established official contacts with representatives of many Churches and ecclesial communities, as well as with various ecumenical organizations such as the WCC. From Bea, Willebrands had a clear mandate to not merely reflect upon what Catholic Ecumenism ought to be, but to organize an ecumenical network and praxis. In carrying out that task, it does not come as a surprise that Willebrands much benefitted from the network of international and multidenominational contacts he had already built up in the period before. As a consequence, many members and consulters of the initial phase of the SCUF were former members or collaborators of the “Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions.” Already in August 1960, a name list of members was prepared by Willebrands and Bea, and soon the new Secretariat set up its base in the Via dei Corridori, 64, in Rome. During the Second Vatican Council – and much in contrast to cardinal Bea – Willebrands never once held a conciliar intervention, notwithstanding the fact that he became titular bishop in 1964. Nevertheless, as its secretary, Willebrands took up a major role behind the scenes by directing the SCUF’s daily activities work during the Council. This did not only include assisting the many non-Catholic observers and hosts of the SCUF to the Council, but also assist in drafting some of the Council’s most important documents, such as Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom), Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). Equally, the SCUF was involved in the redaction of substantial parts of the Dogmatic Constitutions on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and on the Oriental Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum). At the same time, Willebrands was involved in preparing other crucial events that have shaped Vatican II’s ecumenical legacy. For instance, the fact that already in 1962 Willebrands travelled to the Middle East twice, having lengthy conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Constantinople from February 14-20. Willebrands’s visits helped preparing the historical encounter and embrace of Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras on the Mount of Olives on January 6, 1964. A year before that, in January 1963, as a result of a series of negotiations between Rome and Moscow, Pope John XXIII confided the SCUF with the task of handling the release of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Metropolitan Joseph Slipyj. On January 24, 1963, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Kruthchev allowed the release, and – as a result of the contacts he had built during a journey to Moscow Willebrands made from September 27 to October 2, 1962 in order to obtain permission for having Russian Orthodox delegates invited at Vatican II – Willebrands was again sent to Moscow to accompany Joseph Slipyj on his journey to Rome, via Vienna. Within the same context, Willebrands’s conciliatory involvement regarding the complexity of tensions that arose between the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hierarchy present at Vatican II and representatives such as Vitali Borovoj and Vladimir Kotliarov from the side of the Russian Orthodox Church cannot be left unmentioned. All of Willebrands’s ongoing efforts resulted into his promotion on June 4, 1964, when Pope Paul VI appointed him titular bishop of Mauritania, with his consecration on June 28. As episcopal motto Willebrands chose Veritatem in caritate (Eph 4:15). Aside from his conciliar activities he constantly tried to establish direct contacts with other ecclesiastical communities, as can be seen in his frequent travels to the French regions of Poitou and Lyon in 1964 and 1965, with as a goal to establish relationships with members of La Petite Église, a French community originating from the refusal to accept the concordat between Pius VII and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801. As for his conciliar role, the second to last day of the Council, Willebrands held his sole public appearance: On December 7, 1965, in the presence of Paul VI and of the Greek Orthodox Metropoliton Meliton of Constantinople, Willebrands read in French the Common Declaration of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, in which they removed from memory and from the midst of the Church the mutual excommunications expressed in 1054. When on November 16, 1968, SCUF-President Augustin Cardinal Bea died, Willebrands’s name soon circulated among the candidates apt to succeed him. On April 12, 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed Willebrands as second President of the Secretariat, and a few days later, during the Consistory of April 28, 1969, Willebrands was created cardinal. For twenty years, Willebrands held the office and together with staff members such as Jérôme Hamer, Pierre Duprey, and Charles Moeller, he set up the necessary structures to implement, ad intra and ad extra, the irreversible ecumenical option of Vatican II in manifold ways. For instance in 1967, Willebrands was engaged in arranging the ecumenically important visit of Dr. Michael Ramsey, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to Pope Paul VI in Rome, thereby opening the path for improved relationships between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. Next, there was the Ecumenical Directory that the SCUF had already started preparing during the Council constituted a framework for ecumenical commitment within the local churches, and, a series of bilateral dialogues were initiated to clarify the relationship with the different churches or confessional communities. As regards the Geneva WCC, official forms of collaboration were established, even though the Roman Catholic Church never became an actual member of it. When, as a result of the conciliar doctrines expressed in Nostra Aetate 4, the Pope decided in 1974, to found the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, this commission was placed under the reponsibility of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, with Willebrands as its president.

Archbishop of Utrecht (1975-1983)

One year later, on December 6, 1975, Willebrands’s long period of Presidency became more complex, through his nomination as Archbishop of Utrecht (as successor of Cardinal Alfrink) by Pope Paul VI. Upon his appointment at Utrecht, Willebrands faced the delicate task of reconciling the Roman Catholic community in the Netherlands, which faced strong polarisations – a.o. on issues such as priestly celibacy – in the aftermath of Vatican II, in particular since its Pastoral Council at Noordwijkerhout held under the auspicies of Alfrink in the years 1968-1970. Willebrands, upon his return to the Netherlands, was asked to also maintain his position as pesident of the Secretariat for Unity, and was thus to combine two complex functions. Willebrands never fully succeeded in overcoming the tensions in his home country, notwithstanding the organisation of the Extroardinary Episcopal Synod of Bishops of the Netherlands in 1980, together with the Belgian archbishop Godfried Danneels who acted as co-president along with Willebrands On the level of his position at the Secretariat, Willebrands was involved in carrying conversations with representatives of the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches in March 1979, in a period when these regions were under Soviet regime. Also, during the 1970’s and 1980’s he closely followed the developments of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). After the death of Pope Paul VI, Willebrands took part in the two conclaves of August (electing John Paul I) and of September 1978 (John Paul II). He maintained a warm relationship with pope Wojtyła, which was best reflected in June 1989, when Willebrands accompanied John Paul II during his travels in Scandinavia, where the Pope delivered several ecumenically inspired speeches. On December 8, 1983, Willebrands had resigned as archbishop of Utrecht.

The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (1984-2006)

After his period as archbishop, Willebrands was succeeded by Mgr. Adrianus Simonis in Utrecht, and thereupon returned to Rome to resume his fulltime position as President of the Secretariat (from 1988 onward the name was altered into Pontifical Council for Christian Unity) for Promoting Christian Unity, a position he was asked to maintain by the pope. Also, in April 1988 Willebrands became camerlengo of the College of Cardinals, until he offered his resignation in that function in October 1997. A year later, at the end of 1989, Willebrands resigned in his function as President and was succeeded by Cardinal Cassidy on December 12 of that year. Until May 1997, Willebrands stayed in Rome, where, a.o. he was involved in the revision of the Ecumenical Directory in 1993. Also, Willebrands delivered a speech on the occasion of the creation of Yves Congar as cardinal on December 8, 1994. The last years of Willebrands’s life were spent with the Franciscan sisters at Denekamp, until his death on August 2, 2006. On August 8, 2006, Willebrands was buried at the St Barbara cemetery near St Catharina’s Church at Utrecht, with Cardinal Walter Kasper presiding over the funeral Liturgy.