Wednesday, February 3, 2010

People of the Year - #9

From Inside the Vatican

Each year for the past 10 years, Inside the Vatican has chosen 10 "People of the Year" -- men and women of courage, vision, learning and faith.

I find myself unable to write currently, and so in my desire to bring Freedom Through Truth, will be bringing to you things that I have seen and admire for their veracity.

Here is the ninth member of that illustrious group.

Professor Johann Marthe
Working quietly, out of the headlines, a retired Austrian scholar has become one of the key figures in recent years in improving relations between Christians, and in trying to reunite Europe after the devastation of the Iron Curtain and its consequences.
His name: Dr. Johann Marthe.

Dr. Marthe, 76, is both the head and the heart of the small but highly respected “Pro Oriente” Foundation, headquartered in Vienna, Austria.

Since 1964, the “Pro Oriente” ("For the East") Foundation, a project of the Vienna archdiocese, has conducted “unofficial” dialogues between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.
The man who has made the key decisions at “Pro Oriente” for the past decade, the man who has traveled ceaselessly thoughout the East, from Romania and Bulgaria to Russia and down to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Iran, is Dr. Marthe.

Founded in 1964 by Austrian Cardinal Franz Koenig (who died just five years ago, on March 13, 2004, at the age of 98) the “Pro Oriente” Foundation is one of the leading promoters in the world of dialogue between Christians.

In a sense, Dr. Marthe is Cardinal Koenig’s spiritual son and heir. As such, Dr. Marthe is the torch-bearer for all those in the early 21st century who continue to labor, often without recognition, on behalf of Christian unity.

Cardinal Koenig’s work for the reconciliation of the various Christian confessions, and for world peace (after retiring as archbishop of Vienna in 1985, Koenig was elected president of the international Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi) “radiated far beyond the boundaries of his homeland,” the late Pope John Paul II said in a telegram of condolence after Koenig’s death.

John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to preside in his name at Cardinal Konig’s March 27, 2004, Funeral Mass in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Koenig had been a cardinal for more than 45 years and has been recognized widely as one of the leading promoters of the 1978 election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, as Pope John Paul II.

In a March 13, 2004 telegram to Cardinal Konig’s successor as archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, John Paul said Koenig had been committed to promoting “the truth in love” and praised him as “a special resource” for the Church.

The words could just as well have been spoken about Dr. Marthe. Marthe, a man of enormous dignity and exquisite manners, is committed to promoting “the truth in love” and he is a “special resource” for the entire Church, especially for Europe.

Marte traveled with the Cardinal Schoenborn, on an historic five-day visit to Iran in 2001 (February 17 to 21). The highlight of the visit was, he said, a “very friendly” meeting on February 21 with Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which had included a “sensational discussion” about Christian-Muslim ties. “He [Ayatollah Khamenei] talked about Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammed, and smiled many times,” Marthe said. “Although we expected a good atmosphere in talks with other leaders, this show of friendliness came as a surprise.”

In 2006, Dr. Marthe helped organize an important  conference on the delicate Union of Brest issue, held in Lviv (Ukraine) from August 20-23 of that year. This scholarly project, which began in 2002, is an attempt to analyze together the different positions and the circumstances which lead to the “Union of Brest” between 1595 and 1596. The “Union of Brest” remains a delicate topic today after 400 years because at that time most of the Orthodox bishops in the territory belonging then to the Polish-Lithuanian Republic – including today’s Ukraine and Belarus – officially recognized the Pope’s primacy. This led to a new schism that still complicates relations between Rome and Moscow.

Most recently, from September 22 to 26, 2009, Marthe was in Thessaloniki, Greece, at the 5th patristic colloquy of “Pro Oriente.” Some 25 professors and scholars of patristics, both Orthodox and Catholic, coming from 18 countries of Western and Eastern Europe (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Ukraine), participated.
The study of the heritage of the Fathers of the Church is one of the rare academic disciplines that can be pursued together by the two Churches, Dr. Marthe believes, and that is why “Pro Oriente” has chosen to sponsor these meetings.

Dr. Marthe was born and raised in Austria. His father was a soldier in the German army on the Eastern Front in World War II, and never returned, so Marthe grew up without a father.
In the 1990s, he went to Moscow and was able to obtain access to records that showed that his father had been taken prisoner at the end of the war, then shipped across Siberia to the Pacific, then back to Ukraine, then once again out to Siberia, where he died near Novosibirsk.

In a sense, Marthe’s life work has been dedicated to building a different and better world than the one which took the life of his father.
For that reason, we have chosen to honor this learned, kind and gentle man as one of our “Top Ten” people of 2009. —Robert Moynihan

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