January 10, 2008
During the first week of December, representatives from the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic Church met to continue a five-year conversation. I am privileged to chair the Catholic delegation. Rev. Professor Paul Fiddes of Oxford University chairs the Baptist delegation. We gathered together for a week of common prayer and intense theological dialogue on our faith in Jesus Christ.
We gathered from England, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Italy, Jamaica, Singapore, Poland, Ghana and the United States. Last year, the Baptists hosted our meeting in Alabama. This year, The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity hosted the delegates in Rome.
Rome provided an ideal setting for our discussions. In this ancient city, modern life throbs with activity. Roman ruins serenely look down on Fiats and
motorini charging at each other in the streets. Tourists stretch their eyes in every direction to feast on fountains crowned with sculptures and store windows boasting the best of fashion, while Italians and Poles, Rumanians and Africans hurry off to work. In the very city where the apostles Peter and Paul preached the Gospel and shed their blood in witness to the Faith, we came as believers of the new millennium to re-discover our common past. Our meetings left us little time to visit Rome, to see her monuments or slowly sip her wine. But our time together gave us a grace-filled opportunity to appreciate Christ’s gifts that bind us to him and one another.
The major basilicas, the many churches, oratories and wayside shrines that bathe Rome in the Catholic faith reminded us of how much religion is tied to culture. People from Germany, England and the Netherlands brought their culture and the beliefs of the Reformers to North America. Today, North America remains predominantly Protestant. Missionaries from Spain, France and Italy went to South America. South America remains mostly Catholic. Just as Catholics at times face prejudice and misunderstanding in the United States, Baptists face the same challenges in Latin American countries. We were very much aware of the need to seek what unites us in the love of the Lord.
During our discussions, we carefully listened to each other’s traditions on three important elements of Church life: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, and Sacraments. We heard from both Baptist and Catholic theologians that Christ continues to work in the Church. He uses the celebration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as moments of grace and strengthening for believers. We heard from each other the necessity of faith, the need to enter personally with heart and mind into the gift of salvation that Christ offers.
Both honesty and charity presided over our conversations. We did not close our eyes to our differences. Ever since their beginnings in the 17
th century, most Baptists do not baptize infants. They only administer baptism to believing adults. They hold that the act of faith on the part of the person being baptized is essential. For some, the water-baptism is merely a symbol of what has already taken place through the act of faith.
From apostolic times, Catholics have been baptizing infants who are children of believers. By Baptism, an infant is joined to Christ and becomes an adopted child of God. Through the waters of Baptism, the child is reborn of the Holy Spirit and shares in the divine life. With the baptism of infants, the Catholic tradition emphasizes the gratuity of salvation. The Baptists, on the other hand, place their emphasis on the necessity of personal faith.
When discussing the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, both Catholics and Baptists hearken back to Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). Our discussions clearly put before us our different understanding of what takes place when we do as Jesus instructed. According to Catholic faith, the Eucharist is Christ present to the Church in the very offering of the sacrifice of the Cross. The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Baptists see celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial or a remembrance. The bread and wine remain bread and wine; but there is a special presence of Jesus to his Church as believers share in this service.
The Reformation is a fact. Catholics and Baptists are divided. Many of the divisions came as historical responses to bad theology and abuses within the Church. Many of the terms we use today to express our faith bear the polemic of the 16
th century. In our discussions, we discovered that the more we went back to the time of the New Testament and post-apostolic period and tried to frame our understanding of our faith in terms from before the Reformation, the closer our hearts became.
On December 6, we had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI. There was excitement and enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle! I had the great privilege of speaking for the group to our Holy Father. He was warm and welcoming. His gentle and humble demeanor made everyone feel at home in Rome. He reminded us that “
the world needs our common witness to Christ and to the hope brought by the Gospel. Obedience to the Lord’s will should constantly spur us, then, to strive for that unity so movingly expressed in his priestly prayer: ‘that they may all be one… so that the world may believe’ (Jn 17:210).” The antidote to the secularism and materialism of modern society is the unity of Christians in belief and practice. Where we are one, we are strong.
At the end of our audience, I had the opportunity to speak again directly and personally to our Holy Father. I could not let the moment pass. I asked him for a favor. I asked him to give me a special blessing to bring back home for the faithful, religious, clergy and seminarians of our diocese. With a sparkle in his eyes and a few very encouraging words, he imparted his blessing to all of you. I returned home happy.