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How Baptists, Catholics Have Pursued Common Ground – Part 2

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What’s an ecumenical dialogue like?

For those who have some experience in higher education, it’s pretty much like a departmental faculty meeting that lasts most of the day, five days in a row – except that it’s infinitely more interesting (to me, at least) and of greater import for the life of the people of God (we trust).

Actually, because we also present and discuss papers at various points in the meeting, it’s more like a cross between a marathon faculty meeting and a small academic conference.

In Rome this year at the latest meeting of the Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue Joint Commission, we addressed “Contexts of Common Witness” as part of our ongoing exploration of the theme of “The Dynamic of the Gospel and the Witness of the Church” during the current five-year phase of the conversations.

Members of our joint commission and guest observers were commissioned to present papers on five geographical contexts in which we envision Baptists and Catholics bearing witness to Christ together: Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

In this year of #MeToo, it was interesting that both Baptist and Catholic presenters of papers on multiple geographical contexts identified patriarchal attitudes and oppressive actions toward women as pressing issues that the church must address in its witness to the gospel.

Whereas the previous two phases of conversations employed a comparative approach to identifying commonalities and differences in Baptist and Catholic faith and practice, with Phase III – in which many members of both delegations previously worked together as members of the joint commission for Phase II – we’ve moved from comparative to collaborative work, seeking together to envision possibilities for offering common witness.

After discussing paper presentations as a stimulus to our thinking during the first half of the week, we divided into small working groups to draft subsections of a memorandum of our constructive conclusions, which will be edited over the next few months and reviewed at the beginning of next year’s meeting.

These revised memoranda will serve as the raw materials that we will shape into a final report for Phase III during the fifth year of this series.

One highlight of this year’s meeting was a visit the joint commission made to the Chiesa Evangelica Battista di Trastevere – the Evangelical Baptist Church of Trastevere, a Roman neighborhood where the church has been offering a Baptist witness since 1873.

We were deeply moved by the church’s witness today in the form of solidarity with and advocacy for refugees from North Africa who often end up homeless on the streets of Rome.

Another highlight was a brief visit with Pope Francis at the conclusion of his weekly general audience.

Early in Phase II, we had been granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, and we enjoyed watching his eyes light up as he leaned forward with great interest upon learning that we had found helpful that week a commentary on one of the key documents from Vatican II that he’d written as a young theologian – transforming momentarily from the Pontifex Maximus into a career academic who’d just learned that someone was actually reading something he’d written decades ago.

When we met Pope Francis, we were impressed with his genuine joyfulness. He greeted us by imploring, “Pray for me!”, and we assured him that we do and would continue to do so.

When we were introduced to him as the Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue Joint Commission, Pope Francis said to us, “We must find a way to get together, or they will eat us raw!” (We interpreted this to mean something like, “If we don’t find a way to live in unity, the enemies of the gospel will eat us alive!”)

May God help us to find a way to get together, through Jesus Christ our Lord, that the world might be transformed by the good news God has made known in Christ.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.

Steven R. Harmon

Steven R. Harmon, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, was a member of the Baptist delegation to Phase II of the international Baptist-Catholic dialogue (2006-2010) and serves as Co-Secretary for Phase III (2017-2021). His most recent book is Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press).