Members of Pope Benedict's student circle meet to discuss the Reformation

Benedict XVI’s decision to meet his former students for a discussion about ecumenical relations, especially Catholic relations with Anglicans and Lutherans, demonstrates the importance he gives to the search for Christian unity, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has said.

The Austrian cardinal, one of the former doctoral students of the former Professor Joseph Ratzinger, spoke to Vatican Radio on the eve of the annual three-day meeting of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis – literally, the Ratzinger student circle.

“The fact that the Holy Father chose this theme for this year’s meeting is a sign that for him the ecumenical question is of primary importance”, especially as the Catholic Church prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which formally set out the Church’s ecumenical agenda, the cardinal said.

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The Pope’s former doctoral students will base their discussions on retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book, Harvesting the Fruits, a comparative collection of the agreements reached in theological dialogues with the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed communities since Vatican II.

Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who succeeded Cardinal Kasper as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will participate in the meeting of the Schülerkreis in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence about 15 miles south-east of Rome.

The Pope and his students have invited guest speakers to the closed-door meeting: retired Lutheran Bishop Ulrich Wilckens, a New Testament scholar, Theodor Dieter, director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, and Swiss Bishop Charles Morerod of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg.

The choice of focusing on relations with Anglicans and with Lutherans, Cardinal Schönborn said, reflects that the two communities came out of the Reformation and the churches are preparing commemorations of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017.

As Pope Benedict has taught, the theological discussions with other Christians must be “a dialogue in truth and charity”, the cardinal said, and one that “does not conceal the drama of division among Christians in Europe and, as a consequence, all over the world”.

Cardinal Schönborn also said he expected a discussion about what it really means to speak of the reform of the Church, which is “a theme of utmost importance to the Holy Father. We only have to think of all that he has said and taught about reform in continuity as a model of Catholic reform. Of course, as part of the jubilee of the Reformation there will be a lot of talk about what constitutes real reform, which we need even today.”

The cardinal said the students have been holding the annual meetings with their former professor since 1977 and real friendships had developed. But, he said, what really counts at the meetings is the scholarly validity and rigour of the arguments advanced, the reflection, discussions and search for truth.

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