The Cardinal of Unity: From April 13, 1963

The words “humble,” “gentle” and “love” were in frequent use to describe Cardinal Bea while he was in this country. Thus, the president of 100-year-old Boston College, in conferring the degree of Doctor of Civil and Canon Law on the cardinal, said that “in this humble German scholar, this gentle Roman prince, as in none other save Pope John the Great, we find our hope for a united flock which may hear unblushing testimony to the still pre-Christian world: ‘See how these Christians love one another.’”

The slightest hint of criticism from such a man, therefore, would be striking. In the first of his talks during Harvard University's four-day Catholic-Protestant colloquium, the cardinal said: “We can even hope that this genuine spirit [of ecumenical attitude and concern] will grow more intense, especially if there be present [at the Second Vatican Council] more delegate-observers from the venerable Orthodox Churches of the East.” In his third and final talk at Harvard, the cardinal quoted Heidelberg professor D. Bornkamm, president of the German Evangelical Union, as saying that every Christian as well as every denomination has an interest in the Second Vatican Council. “In this light,” the cardinal continued, “one can see a certain justification for the criticisms which have been directed against church authorities, for instance, of the Baptist Alliance and the Greek Orthodox Church, who did not send observers to the Council.”


In all of his talks, the cardinal stressed that readiness to listen to each other surely gives witness to the working of God’s Spirit among those who hear the name of Christ. The cardinal’s frequent references to the World Council of Churches and the Anglican Church, to Dr. W. A. Visser 't Hooft and the Archbishops of Canterbury, clearly showed how much he respected the working of the Holy Spirit in these world bodies and officials who have been outstanding in the cooperation they have given the cardinal and the Secretariat of which he is the head.

Basic to Cardinal Bea’s whole approach to unity is, as he said, “the fact that we seriously accept the New Testament teaching of baptism and its consequences. Each baptism, validly conferred, makes one a member of the Mystical Body of Christ and therefore effects an organic union with Christ and an intimate relationship with all the other baptized.” He obviously rejoiced in saying: “The realization that we are all members of Christ has really spread like wildfire.”

Cardinal Bea frankly acknowledged that Christianity today is far from the perfect unity that consists in both invisible union (faith and love) and external profession and witness of the same faith (in the use of the same sacraments “and at least somehow in the direction of the same Church ministry and order”). He joyfully pointed, however, to the 1961 resolution of the World Council’s Faith and Order Commission, accepted at New Delhi, that called for this perfect unity.

The cardinal stressed that we must work out what the different confessions have in common, and he could quote Pope John in support of this approach. Then, he explained, comes clear understanding of differences. Wherever he went—Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington—the cardinal gave assurance that the Council will lay stress on the means which every son of the Church should employ in the work for unity—prayer, sacrifice, understanding and truly Christian love both in word and in action. The Council will also point out the possibilities for wholehearted cooperation with our separated brethren in areas of activity “where differences in belief do not enter, where all can co-operate to ensure the concrete realization of natural-law concepts which all Christians hold in common and to strive for the relief of our suffering and oppressed fellow humans.”

Reading the Bible, meditating and applying its teachings were other areas of common endeavor the cardinal recommended. As he said, “Holy Scripture is the common ground of all Christians.” The Boston College doctoral citation quite rightly declared: “To him, as to few others in the scriptorium of time, is due the quickening interest in the Sacred Scripture by which the word of God, once the armory of disunity, has become again the common treasure and inheritance of all the brethren of Jesus.”

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