With the passing last week of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, we have taken a step closer to the end of an era in the life of the Church: of clear-eyed, practical idealists who worked to conform the world to our fleeting vision of celestial Jerusalem, with the full knowledge that the work could never be perfect.
A priest who served as a peritus (theological expert) at Vatican II, later Archbishop of Marseilles, and a Vatican official who led both the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – the pope’s charitable arm – and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Cardinal Etchegaray was also a diplomat of great accomplishment.
Pope St John Paul II sent him to Baghdad in the days before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2002, as part of Vatican efforts to prevent war. More successfully, but with the same quiet professionalism, Cardinal Etchegaray also worked in China, which he visited four times, and Cuba, where he celebrated a New Year’s Mass in Havana in 1989, helping to secure the conditions necessary for an historic papal visit, which took place in 1998.
Cardinal Etchegaray was a principal architect of the encounter of world religious leaders in Assisi in 1986, and stood by the historic meeting in the face of often ferocious criticism. He worked on ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and worldwide Orthodoxy, especially with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II. He witnessed the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
Born in France in the lean years between the wars and a witness to all the devastation of the last century’s terrible upheavals, Cardinal Etchegaray was made a bishop in 1969. He refused to adopt an episcopal motto or coat of arms, regarding them as a “medieval legacy”. He was among the last of a generation of consummate churchmen who were, in the words of veteran Vaticanologist Andrea Gagliarducci, “men of the Second Vatican Council” in the very best sense of the term, “devoted to the future, but with their feet on the ground in serving the Church”.