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Reconciliation begins with listening

· ​Progress in relations with Reformed, Anabaptists and Baptists ·

November 21, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. As such, the 2014 offered an opportunity to reflect on relations with some of the major ecclesial communities of the West, and look for ways to move forward in the search for Christian Unity. Certain elements are common in each of the communities that will be addressed, yet each relationship is also unique. Our conviction regarding what St Paul affirmed, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5-6) drives us to continue the journey towards the unity of Christians.

One of the first communities with which the Catholic Church entered into ecumenical dialogue after Vatican II was with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). Relations with the Reformed have grown over the past 50 years, with gains and setbacks, as in all ecumenical relations. One persistent problem affecting global Christianity is the increasing fragmentation of Christianity, with the number of Christian ecclesial communions growing at a geometric rate. While not immune to the problem of fragmentation, the Reformed have made a conscious decision to commit to growing into a worldwide communion, not just an alliance, as in the previous alliance. This is a hopeful sign, one shared in our dialogue.

The initial conversations, from 1998-2003, focused on a process of reconciliation. The two dialogue partners had had no official dialogue previous to this, and the purpose was to assist Mennonites and Catholics to overcome the consequences of almost five centuries of mutual isolation and hostility. The conversations focused on three main topics: “Considering History Together,” which studied three crucial eras (and related events) of history that shaped our respective traditions and have yielded distinctive interpretations. These are the rupture of the sixteenth century, the Constantinian era, and the Middle Ages as such. The aim of the study was to re-read history together for the purpose of comparing and refining our interpretations. The second topic, “Considering Theology Together,” examined our common and differing understandings of the Church, of Baptism, of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, and of peace. Of particular significance is the theological study and comparison of our respective teachings on peace. The third topic, “Toward a Healing of Memories” sought to overcome centuries of hostility or isolation, and was aimed at healing bitter memories that have made reconciliation between our communities difficult.

The initial conversations went well between the Catholic Church and the Mennonite World Conference, as did the round of dialogue the Mennonites had with the Lutherans. Since both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) had expressed their interest and readiness to initiate new rounds of conversations with the MWC, and since both the PCPCU and LWF had recommended baptism as a topic for such conversations, a tri-lateral dialogue began in December 2012. A study of baptism, which is one of the principal historic points of theological division with Anabaptists, offers the opportunity to look both at the theological points of departure as well as to begin conversations about the mutual recognition of each other’s baptism. The general topic of the dialogue is “Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church”. The challenge of a three way dialogue is still being worked out, nonetheless, the wrestling with the basics of our journeying in Christian initiation has challenged all three partners to look at discipleship, initiation and mission in invitingly provocative ways.

The relationship between Baptists and Catholics has known some difficulties over the years. A first series of conversations took place between the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Catholic Church from 1984-1988. Especially in areas where there is a Catholic majority and Baptist minority, there was some resistance to the initial conversations, and it took nearly twenty years for a second set of conversations to be initiated. During this time two major consultations were held to assist Catholics and Baptists to meet and dispel some misperceptions about each other. The first was held in Rome in December, 2000 on the theme of “Historical and Contemporary Issues Confronting Us” and then a year later in December, 2001 in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the topic of “Issues between Baptists and Catholics in Latin America; Notion of ‘Communio’ as a Framework for Conversations on Controversial Issues”. It is a direct result of these intense efforts on both sides that a second set of conversations was made possible.

Initial reactions to the report are largely favourable, especially in the Baptist world. After the first conversations report, there was a 19 year hiatus between rounds of dialogue, due to hesitation in predominantly Catholic nations where Baptists feel persecuted. This report seems to have helped lessen those tensions, as it focused on many problematic areas of theology between our communities. The two communions are beginning to explore the opportunities for a new round of conversations, which will begin on a much stronger footing.

In the fifty years since Unitatis Redintegratio much has been accomplished towards reconciliation between Christians. Yet, we still have a long way to go. One common link in the above relationships is the re-reading of history together, healing of memories, and an attempt to view the past in the eyes of the other. Reconciliation begins with the listening to the historic values, as well as historic injuries, of each side. Only with reconciliation can healing take place, and all sides recognize that the primary actor in this is God, not us. This was attested by the Council fathers: “The Council moreover professes its awareness that human powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective - the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father’s love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit.” (UR, 24). 500 years of separation have not yet been overcome, and there is much work to do. Nonetheless, as members of the one Body of Christ, we are hopeful that the inspirations of the Holy Spirit continue to lead Christians in their own time and pace towards the unity Christ prayed for: “that they all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. (Jn 17:21). 

Gregory J. Fairbanks

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