In this podcast we hear an appreciation of Cardinal Willebrands, a pioneer of ecumenism before, during and after the Second Vatican Council and about an international Congress honouring his 100th birthday on 4th September 2009.[display_podcast] This podcast was made available by Vatican Radio


Centenary of John Cardinal Willebrands

b.1909 – d. 2006

September 4th, 2009 will be a day of commemoration: the first centenary of John Cardinal Willebrands. An international Congress on ecumenism and the role of Cardinal Willebrands will be held in Utrecht (the Netherlands) from 2-5 September 2009.

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Funeral Homily for Cardinal Johannes Willebrands

given by Cardinal Walter Kasper
Cathedral of Utrecht, August 8, 2006

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-18).


These words of Jesus on his being the Good Shepherd were particularly dear to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, together with the entire Gospel of Saint John. An image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd figured on the holy card for his ordination as a bishop in 1964; it was an early representation of the Good Shepherd taken from the catacombs in Rome. He used the same image of the Good Shepherd again 25 years later, on the holy card for the silver jubilee of his consecration as a bishop. To the image of the Good Shepherd he added the words Fient unus grex unus pastor. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16).

Is there any other image or any other word of Sacred Scripture more significant for the celebration of today? Called by the Good Shepherd of the Gospel and in his footsteps, Cardinal Willebrands has served the Church of Jesus Christ. He kept watch over the flock of the Lord, knowing each by name and taking care of the people he came into contact with, leading them with wisdom and charity. He also worked that there might be one flock, one shepherd, consecrating most of his life to the cause of Christian unity. We take leave today of a good shepherd, in whom we have recognised the gentle care of God for all of his flock.

Our gratitude goes to the triune God, for having given us in Johannes Willebrands such an outstanding spiritual father, brother and friend. He was one of the witnesses of our times. We now recommend him to the merciful love of God, that He may receive him into the blessing of everlasting life and into the glorious company of the saints in light.


The life of Cardinal Willebrands was related, first of all, to the Church in the Netherlands. He grew up in a family and in a community deeply marked by Catholic faith and life, as it flourished in this country. Thanks to this background and education, he carried in himself a remarkable combination of deep devotion and pragmatic realism, of scholarly competence and pastoral care, of commitment to the Church both local and universal, of regard for tradition and openness to new insights and approaches. This combination of gifts made him an outstanding person and an esteemed Church leader.

His early interest in the life and writings of John Henry Newman, at a time when the study of Newman was still in an initial phase, was significant for his own spiritual and intellectual journey. In Cardinal Newman he found a master of thought and life, whose example he wished to follow. Serving as a priest, many were able to benefit from his ministry in the training of young clergy, in academic teaching and particularly in personal counselling.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI requested Cardinal Willebrands to become the new Archbishop of Utrecht. He accepted this responsibility, knowing that it would not be easy to combine the care of a local Church with his demanding ecumenical duties in Rome. With wisdom, gentleness and patience he gave leadership to the Archdiocese of Utrecht and to the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Netherlands.

Profoundly acquainted with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, he devoted himself to a pastoral ministry that was deeply embedded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while seeking appropriate ways to meet the many challenges of modern society. In the light of the Good Shepherd, his first and main desire was to be a servant of communion, fostering togetherness and cooperation among the faithful, in a spirit of mutual understanding and shared faith commitment. In doing so, he remained faithful to his motto as a bishop Veritatem facientem in caritate: witnessing and explaining the truth of the Gospel, along the path of charity and love.

The Archdiocese of Utrecht was grateful to have had a humane and sensitive pastor, when he left in 1983 to dedicate himself fully to his ecumenical responsibilities in Rome. Many had recognised and appreciated in him the example of Jesus: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me (John 10:14).


The Gospel of Saint John on the good shepherd continues: So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16). These words, together with the prayer of Jesus on the eve of his suffering and death that they may be one. As you, Father are in me and I in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21), must have found a particular echo in the heart and mind of Johannes Willebrands. Uniting his prayer with the prayer of Jesus, he consecrated the major part of his life to the cause of Christian unity and became one of the primary artisans of the Catholic entry into the ecumenical movement.

Encouraged by the initiatives which had been undertaken in this country, including the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, he committed himself to building new paths of dialogue and understanding between Christians of various traditions, first at the national and later also at the international level. Particularly during and after the Second Vatican Council his ecumenical vocation and commitment grew to its full measure.

As Secretary and later on as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity he fully became a servant of Gods saving grace of communion. He gave ecumenical leadership through efficient administration, though his personal example and witness made the real difference. Deeply convinced that whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification (Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio, 4) he went to meet other Christians as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Through careful listening and patient dialogue he tried to break down old walls of mistrust or rivalry and to foster new relations of mutual esteem and growing communion among Christians of all traditions.

Together with his responsibility for promoting Christian unity, Cardinal Willebrands was also responsible for developing religious relations with the Jewish community at the world-wide level. He became the first President of the newly created Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In this quality he devoted himself to promoting a new approach towards Judaism, based on the deep relationship between Christians and Jews, as together they belong to the people of God. He made many Jewish friends in various countries.

After his retirement, Cardinal Willebrands eventually returned to the Netherlands, finding a new home with the Franciscan Sisters of Denekamp. We are grateful to the sisters for having taken care of the Cardinal so lovingly, particularly during the last years of his life, when his health became weaker. Our gratefulness and our prayerful sympathy also extends to the family members, the former assistants and the many friends of Cardinal Willebrands, and all those who remained close to him over the years and who now mourn his passing.


The achievements and merits of Cardinal Willebrands, for which to give thanks to God, are many and they are impressive. Yet, in the eyes of God and in the eyes of faith, there are things more important than these achievements and merits. The shepherd of the Gospel is called good because he lays down his life for the sheep (John 10,11).

Answering the call of the Lord, Cardinal Willebrands has given witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, serving the Church of Christ in an exemplary way. His spirituality was not made of great words, but deeply rooted in daily prayer and humble devotion, particularly to Mary the Mother of God. Whoever met him was touched by his profound familiarity with the Holy Scriptures and his attachment to the liturgical life of the Church. Even in difficult circumstances, his trust in the Lord and in the guidance of the Holy Spirit preserved him from anguish or mistrust. Friendship and loyalty were attributes which everyone recognised in him. As a priest and a bishop, he lived the mystery of Gods self-giving love in caring for Gods people.

Our last words today are a thankful prayer to God for having given in cardinal Willebrands such an outstanding shepherd to the Church of Christ. Looking to Jesus Christ, whose victory over death is our redemption, we make ours the quiet expectation of the psalmist: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me besides still waters; he restores my soul. () and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (Ps 23:1-2; 6). Through the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may cardinal Johannes Willebrands find eternal happiness and fullness of life in the Lord. Amen.

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