Johannes Willebrands
Cardinal Archbishop of Utrecht
See Utrecht
Enthroned December 6, 1975
Reign ended December 3, 1983
Predecessor Bernardus Johannes Alfrink
Successor Adrianus Johannes Simonis
Ordination May 26, 1934
Consecration June 4, 1964
Created Cardinal April 28, 1969
Personal details
Birth name Johannes Gerardus Maria Willebrands
Born September 4, 1909
Bovenkarspel, Netherlands
Died August 2, 2006
Denekamp, Netherlands
Nationality Dutch
Denomination Roman Catholic

Johannes Gerardus Maria Willebrands (September 4, 1909 – August 2, 2006) was a Dutch Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 1969 to 1989, and Archbishop of Utrecht from 1975 to 1983. Elevated to the cardinalate in 1969, Willebrands was central to the increased ecumenism of the Church in the second half of the 20th century, and was considered papabile at the two conclaves held in 1978.


Youth and ordination

Johannes Willebrands was born in Bovenkarspel, as the eldest of the nine children of Herman and Afra (née Kok) Willebrands. His father worked as a paymaster at the local vegetable market, and one of his brothers went on to become a Redemptorist missionary in Surinam. Willebrands studied at the seminary at Warmond near Leiden, where he was ordained to the priesthood on May 26, 1934. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Angelicum in Rome, writing his thesis on John Henry Newman.

Early involvement in ecumenism

Willebrands returned to the Netherlands in 1937 and acted as chaplain of the Church of Begijnhof in Amsterdam. In 1940 he began teaching philosophy at his alma mater of the Warmond seminary. Five years later, he became the seminary's rector. Willebrands demonstrated a very active interest in the cause of Christian unity as president of the St Willibrord Association, which promoted ecumenism in the Netherlands; in 1951, he organized the Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions, which was in contact with the World Council of Churches.

Bishop of Mauriana

He was named Titular Bishop of Mauriana on June 4, 1964. Willebrands received his episcopal consecration on the following June 28 from Pope Paul VI himself, with Archbishops Diego Venini and Ettore Cunial serving as co-consecrators, in St. Peter's Basilica. On December 7, 1965, he read out the declaration by which the Catholic and Orthodox churches "cancelled out of the memory of men" their mutual excommunication following the Great Schism of 1054.

Styles of
Johannes Willebrands
CardinalCoA PioM
Reference style His Eminence
Spoken style Your Eminence
Informal style Cardinal
See Utrecht

Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

On June 28, 1960, Pope John XXIII nominated him Secretary of the newly established Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (later elevated to a pontifical council), under the direction of Augustin Bea. Aided by fluency in six languages, Willebrands was involved in building bridges to the Anglican church, and the Russian Orthodox church.

He was instrumental in persuading the Orthodox churches to attend the sessions of the Second Vatican Council as observers while it met from 1962 to 1965. During the work of the Second Vatican Council, he prepared the documents relating to scripture and tradition, ecumenism, religious freedom, and relations with non-Christian religions. Willebrands was raised to the rank of Monsignor in 1963. On April 12, 1969, Pope Paul VI named Willebrands as President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, succeeding Cardinal Bea after his death.

After his resignation as Archbishop of Utrecht, Willebrands continued as President for Promoting Christian Unity. The Secretariat began to lose much of its authority and freedom of action as it came into the orbit of Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Willebrands acted as President Delegate at the Second Extraordinary Assembly of World Synod of Bishops, held from 24 November to 8 December 1985, and was made President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity on 12 December 1989, when was succeeded as President by Edward Idris Cassidy.

Archbishop of Utrecht

On December 6, 1975, he was appointed Archbishop of Utrecht and thus Primate of the Netherlands, continuing at the same time to serve as President of the Secretariat. It was hoped that would be able to use his diplomatic talents to reconcile the conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands[1], but the qualities of patience, reticence and reservation that made him such a success in ecumenical circles did not endear him to his Dutch flock. He later resigned as Archbishop on December 3, 1983.

Cardinal elector

He was created Cardinal Deacon of Santi Cosma e Damiano by Paul VI in the consistory of April 28, 1969, and later became Cardinal Priest of S. Sebastiano alle Catacombe on December 6, 1975.

Willebrands was one of the cardinal electors who participated at the conclaves of August and October 1978, which selected Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, respectively. During the latter conclave, the highly papabile Dutch prelate willingly withdrew his candidacy in order for Karol Cardinal Wojtyła to be elected pope[2].

He became Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals in 1988, and served until 1995, after which the post was abolished.[3]

Retirement and death

Cardinal Willebrands moved to the Franciscan convent of Saint Nicolaasstichting at Denekamp in 1997, where he died nine years later, at age 96. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living member of the College of Cardinals.


  1. Time Magazine. Paul's Flying Dutchman January 5, 1976
  2. Time Magazine. A "Foreign" Pope October 30, 1978
  3. Salvador Miranda. "Cardinals camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals". Retrieved 2009-05-25. 

External links

Catholic Church titles
New title Titular Bishop of Mauriana
4 June 1964 – 28 April 1969
Succeeded by
Pio Laghi
Preceded by
Francesco Morano
Cardinal Deacon of Santi Cosma e Damiano
28 April 1969 – 6 December 1975
Succeeded by
Eduardo Francisco Pironio
Preceded by
Bernardus Johannes Alfrink
Apostolic vicar of the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands
6 December 1975 – 12 November 1982
Succeeded by
Ronald Philippe Bär
Archbishop of Utrecht
6 December 1975 – 3 December 1983
Succeeded by
Adrianus Johannes Simonis
Preceded by
Sebastiano Baggio
Cardinal Priest of San Sebastiano alle Catacombe
6 December 1975 – 1 August 2006
Succeeded by
Lluís Martínez Sistach
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Corrado Bafile
Oldest living cardinal
3 March 2005 – 1 August 2006
Succeeded by
Alfons Maria Stickler

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