HOMILY OF CARDINAL WALTER KASPER
Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church, Rome 22 June 2003It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning as you join with Methodist congregations throughout the world in celebrating the 300th anniversary of John Wesley. Your invitation to preach on this occasion is a generous ecumenical gesture for which I am most grateful, and I would like to extend my thanks in particular to your pastor, Rev Pieter Bouman, and to all of you, for the warm welcome. It is also my pleasure and privilege this morning to bring you greetings and the blessing of Pope John Paul II. As you know, the longing to recover full communion among all Christians is a desire he carries deeply in his heart. When twenty years ago my predecessor at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands, gave an address on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, he quoted Saint Augustine on the complexity of the human person: “Grande profundum est ipse homo” (the human person is a vast depth). Indeed each human being is a great mystery, created and sustained by God, in a relationship with God the depths of which we cannot understand. John Wesley was a complex figure, and his relationship with and view of the Catholic Church was complex. He was a priest of the Church of England, though decisions at the end of his life anticipated the separation of Methodism from Anglicanism. Methodist-Catholic relations today have been influenced by the fact that there is no history of formal separation between us, as Methodism grew out of the Anglican tradition; hence we have no difficult memories of separating. While John Wesley understood the Roman Catholic Church to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and acknowledged that Roman Catholics could be saved through faith, his writings and sermons contain certain hostile references to ‘popery’ and ‘the errors of the Church of Rome’, which hopefully he would phrase differently if he were alive today. His commentary on the Book of Revelation reflects a rather ungracious view of the Papacy; so much so that it is somewhat daring of you to invite me here today, and perhaps equally daring of me to accept! The Catholic response to Wesley and early Methodists was, however, no better, and happily we have ceased to blame each other.
Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, written during the anti-Methodist riots in Cork in 1749, was something of an exception to all of this. Indeed it has been referred to as an ecumenical classic. In a plea for greater understanding, Wesley outlines what he sees as the essential beliefs of “true, primitive Christianity”, wherein most of what is said could be easily embraced by the Catholic Church. He invites Methodists and Catholics “to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom”, and proposes that “if we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike”, and finally, expresses his hope that they will meet in heaven.
A Catholic reflection on John Wesley needs to grapple with his ambivalent understanding of the Catholic Church, but cannot stop there; we must also seek a wider view, to see what dynamized Wesley’s ministry, to see the evangelical passion which gave direction to his life and the movement he started. Furthermore, we do so today in a new context, engaging in a reassessment of John Wesley’s life and ministry from a very different starting point. Following upon the positive experience and reports of Methodist observers at the Second Vatican Council, a dialogue was initiated between the member churches of the World Methodist Council and the Catholic Church. Our 36 years of dialogue have already borne much fruit. A genuine friendship has emerged between us, not only on the level of the official dialogue, but in many local contexts as well, where Methodists and Catholics see themselves as ecumenical partners who feel an obligation to take their relationship further and to offer common witness. The hostility has passed, and we have come to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
At least in part, we now look to John Wesley through eyes educated by our dialogue, and by our experience of Methodists today. A recent study of John Wesley notes that he left a lasting imprint on Methodism in much the same way as Ignatius of Loyola did on future Jesuits. In like manner, just as you continue to turn to the ministry of John Wesley for inspiration and guidance, we can look to see and find in him the evangelical zeal, the pursuit of holiness, the concern for the poor, the virtues and goodness which we have come to know and respect in you. For all of this, we can all afford to be profoundly grateful.