“We saw in the Face the mercy of God”: A dialogue with Cardinal Koch
Paul Badde interviews the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity on a special event
By Paul Badde
(Manoppello, September 2016 / 9:15 a.m.)
In 2017, it will be 500 years since in the West the Lutheran brothers and sisters began to separate themselves from the Pope and from the Roman Catholic Church. However, even older than the Reformation and the division of the Western Church is the Great Schism of the East, and the division of Christianity into the Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West, which occurred in 1054 between Rome and Constantinople. Only on December 7, 1965 Pope Paul VI from Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras from Istanbul solemnly cancelled the reciprocal anathemas “from the memory and from the center of the Church” “abandoning them to oblivion.” But the Eastern Church and the Western Church remained estranged, above all from the cultural point of view. Now, however, at the invitation of Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, on September 18, 2016, seventy Orthodox bishops celebrated the “Divine Liturgy” of Saint John Chrysostom under the Face of Christ, there exposed above the principal altar, together with two cardinals and numerous other prelates of the Roman Catholic Church in the Basilica of the Holy Face of Manoppello.
CNA: Lord Cardinal, Archbishop Bruno Forte calls the “Holy Face” of Christ “the polar star of Christianity.” For him, there is no reasonable cause to doubt that the image on the veil is the sudario of Christ that John cites in the Holy Sepulchre near the burial clothes. But is it not also a provocation for the Orthodox brothers?
Cardinal Koch: Christians believe in one God who showed his concrete face in Jesus Christ. When we know more closely the Face of Christ and when we more deeply identify ourselves with him, the more deeply we become one, as well. For this is a miraculous event to be in front of the Face of Christ, to pray, to venerate the Face, because it fulfills his [Christ’s] desire that we be one.
Catholics have something to bring to the Orthodox. Also for the Orthodox it is so, as for instance for their culture of the veneration of icons. Could it be that from this day forward also in the Catholic Church the images can come to be understood and evaluated in a new way – in the midst of that mighty “Iconic Turn” that the experts of communication today note, in which the images expect a general role in communications like never before?
Yes, the very profound mystery of ecumenism is an exchange of gifts. Today the Church has her gifts. And a particular gift the Orthodox have are the icons. So I think that also many Christians in the West can find a new access to the icons and thus deepening the faith. It is a great gift. It is very important that we also re-evaluate the images in the Western tradition. With the Reform of the sixteenth century, we have placed a whole new accent on the word. But the Word has become flesh, the Word became visible, so also the images belong to the faith. This is a gift from the Orthodox that we welcome gratefully.
At Chieti, in these recent days the delicate question of the theological and ecclesiological relations between primacy and synodality in the life of the Church, then the role of Peter and that of all bishops, was discussed within the commission that has come on pilgrimage to Manoppello. Ten years ago Peter came here in the vesture of Pope Benedict. Since then, there has been an enormous turning point in the evaluation of this image of Manoppello that has become famous throughout the world. What significance do you think will be given to this day of pilgrimage, in which the synod of bishops gathered here?
It is very beautiful that we could come here on this anniversary ten years later. Pope Benedict came in the name of the whole Catholic Church. Today is present here the Church of the East and of the West. So this anniversary maybe can also help in the search for the unity between the Church in the East and the Church in the West.
You, as president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, are responsible to Rome for ecumenism. In this regard, Pope Francis affirmed: “Look at Christ and go ahead with courage!” Which next step would indicate to you today to go with courage to encounter Christ, in a day in which notwithstanding the difference between the Eastern Church and the Western Church you have come together before this image?
In reality, we are always on the way towards Christ. Because it is His Will that we find unity, it is not a human project. Christ himself on the eve of His Passion prayed that His disciples might be one, that the world might believe. The credibility of this testimony depends on the fact that we are one. This is also a particular request of Pope Francis, when he says that when we can walk on the same road toward Christ, then we find unity.
“Misericordiae Vultus”: with these first Latin words begins the Bull of Indiction with which Pope Francis announced this year of the Jubilee of Mercy. The “Face of Mercy” has given to this year a very particular meaning. What do you sense today being here before the merciful gaze of Jesus, who looks at us from this wonderful veil?
It is a magnificent message that we can have a merciful God, for which we know that there are no cases without hope. Per as long as a man can fall down, he can never fall lower than the hands of God. Now you can really see this face, encounter it, it is naturally a marvelous deepening of this message of the Holy Year. The men of today need nothing more than the mercy of God. And if they can look on the Face of the merciful God it is a marvelous gift.
And what will you tell Pope Francis about this event in case you will have the opportunity?
I will certainly tell him that we saw in the Face his great message of the mercy of God. And that this Face is important for the whole Church. It is in a certain way the manifesto of the Church: the merciful Face of God!
(Re-printed with the Author’s permission) Translation from the Italian by Fr. Daren J. Zehnle