Cardinal Kurt Koch

Pope Benedict has chosen a quiet, thoughtful, relatively young Swiss theologian to head the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. (Born as the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity under Pope John XXIII in 1960 the dicastery was given its prrsent name under Pope John Paul II in 1988 with the Ap­ostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus). His name is Cardinal Kurt Koch, and for his steady, much-needed work on behalf of deeper understanding between Christians, and between Christians and Jews, we honor him as one of our “Top Ten” people of 2011.

When Koch was appointed on July 1, 2010, as head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, succeeding Cardinal Walter Kasper, who retired for reasons of age, he was already well known for his openness and deep ecumenical commitment. Now, his first six months of work in his new post have shown the wisdom of the Pope’s choice.

Benedict XVI has made a habit of choosing as Vatican officials men with as experience of the Church outside of Rome, especially as diocesan bishops. Koch was bishop of Basel, Switzerland, when Benedict called him to Rome in mid-summer.

Immediately upon his arrival, Pope Benedict asked then-Archbishop Koch to give the main talks at the annual gathering of scholars who had done their doctoral research with him when he was a professor in Germany (the Ratzinger Schuelerkreis, or student circle). Koch gave two thoughtful lectures at the meeting at the end of August: “The Second Vatican Council: Between Tradition and Innovation,” and a second on the Council’s document on the liturgy and the liturgical reforms it launched.

Named a cardinal in the consistory of November 20, Koch’s chief task now is to try to improve relations with the Eastern Orthodox and with the various Protestant denominations, in view of eventual closer unity with Rome.

Koch was born in Emmenbrücke, Switzerland. He studied theology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and at the University of Lucerne, graduating in 1975 with a doctorate in theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1982 and ordained bishop of Basel by Pope John Paul II in 1995. He was named President of the Swiss Episcopal Conference in 2007 and held the post until 2010.

Koch received international “notice” in 2004 when he replied firmly to a widely publicized petition letter asking that John Paul II retire from the papacy. Swiss intellectuals and theologians, priests and lay people alike, joined in the call, praising John Paul’s papacy for “moving the world” but saying the pontiff should respect the retirement age of 75 set for bishops. The letter was intentionally released on May 14 that year to coincide with John Paul’s 84th birthday on May 18, and with his then-looming visit to Switzerland.  Koch made headlines when he said the decision to publish the letter as the Pope celebrated his birthday was “disgusting and disloyal.”

Benedict XVI and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, during a private audience with Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and his delegation at the Vatican December 4 (CNS photos)

Two years later, replying to Swiss opposition to the building of minarets in Switzerland, Koch came out in favor of minarets and appealed for tolerance toward the Muslim community. In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Koch said he had nothing against Muslims building minarets in Switzerland, but at the same time he expected respect for the religious freedom for Christians throughout the Muslim world. “The bishop of Arabia, for example, is not allowed in certain countries to celebrate the Eucharist.” Koch said. On that occasion, the bishop of Basel said people are often afraid of things that don’t know and underlined. “Islam is something quite different from the terrorist aberrations that exist,” he said.

In his first official visit in 2010, Koch traveled to Istanbul to talk with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and to celebrate the patronal feast of St. Andrew on November 30, an annual tradition since 1979.

Asked recently about a possible meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Koch was diplomatic: “Such a meeting is not on the agenda,” he said. “Both the Holy Father and His Holiness wish this meeting to take place, but it should be thoroughly prepared.” So the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue continues.

In November, in Belarus, Koch participated in an international conference on the theme: “Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue: The Ethical Values of Christianity as a Contribution to Social Life in Europe.” The conference “served to underline the desire to continue dialogue, and to develop concrete collaboration in promoting and defending Christian values in Europe.”

In October in Assisi, during the 25th anniversary of the 1986 inter-religious meeting that took place in the same place, Koch said: “Let us remember that there is no peace without justice; that there is no justice without forgiveness.” Koch is a man with the strength of spirt and gentleness of heart to help bring about better relations between Christians despite centuries of separation, and we wish him well in his difficult but essential task.

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