Bishop Pierre Duprey

Ecumenist at the Vatican

Pierre Francois Marie Joseph Duprey, priest: born Croix, France 26 November 1922; ordained priest 1950; consecrated a bishop 1990; Secretary, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity 1983-99; died Rome 13 May 2007.

For more than three decades, Pierre Duprey was one of the great ecumenists within the Vatican, building on the warm contacts with other Christian churches unleashed during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Not as prominent as his more visible bosses at the Secretariat for Christian Unity (from 1988 the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) – Cardinal Augustin Bea, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and then Cardinal Edward Cassidy – Duprey worked hard behind the scenes to organise ecumenical meetings and push for progress.

A fluent Arabic speaker, he was intent especially on building ties of friendship with the Orthodox and Oriental churches of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Duprey also played a behind-the-scenes role with Willebrands to ensure that Arab Catholic bishops would not publicly resist the new opening to the Jews in the key 1965 Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate on the Church's relations with non-Christian faiths.

Born in 1922 in Croix in northern France, Duprey decided early on that he wanted to be a priest. He left his Nazi-occupied homeland in 1940 for Tunisia, and entered the novitiate of the White Fathers (now called the Missionaries of Africa) in 1942 in Algiers. He was ordained priest in Carthage in Tunisia in February 1950. After receiving a doctorate in Eastern Christian studies from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, Duprey studied Orthodox theology in Athens and Arabic in Beirut. From 1956 to 1963, he was Professor of Dogmatic Theology and Church History at St Anne's Melkite seminary in Jerusalem.

In 1961, Duprey was one of the Catholic observers at the first Pan-Orthodox Conference on the Greek island of Rhodes, which brought together 61 representatives from 12 self-governing Orthodox churches.

When the Orthodox churches accepted Pope John XXIII's invitation to send observers to the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Duprey was brought in to help them as an interpreter and guide. Duprey himself saw the council as momentous, speaking of it later as the moment "when the Church took what I might dare call a complete U-turn in its attitudes to the Orthodox Church, and towards its ecumenical commitment."

The following year Duprey was named under-secretary (third in command) of the recently created Secretariat for Christian Unity, where he would remain until his retirement at the age of 76 in 1999. He was its secretary from 1983 and was consecrated a bishop in 1990.

Duprey was the Vatican go-between in preparing the historic meeting between Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964 and the cancellation of the reciprocal excommunications between Rome and the Orthodox churches. He was an important influence in opening theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches .

Duprey also served as vice-president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and was a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. The Vatican's ecumenists were acutely aware that their cause was frowned on by some who feared that ties to other Christian churches could imperil Catholic doctrine.

Duprey was delicate on such tensions. "The Doctrinal Commission is concerned with the purity of faith. We are concerned with the purity of faith and rising above the ways of expressing it to find common ground with other Christians," he declared in 1985. "The relationship is not always smooth, but this is healthy."

Felix Corley