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We learn from looking into the eyes of the other

· The relationship of the ecumenical council of Churches with the Baptist World Alliance ·

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis were of importance not only for the Catholic Church, but also for the ecumenical partners of the Catholic Church. The transition marked an opportunity for our ecumenical partners to share in the thanksgiving for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI and the joy of the installation of Pope Francis’ Petrine ministry. These events offered an opportunity to intensify relations with Christians of all communities, in our common journey to fulfil the unity Christ desires for His Church.

Against this background, the year 2013 marked the publication of two important ecumenical texts. The Faith and Order convergence text The Church: Towards a Common Vision, was published in March, 2013. It is only the second convergence text published by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches since its establishment in 1948. In addition, the second report of conversations between the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Catholic Church was published in July, 2013. This report is the result of a series of conversations which began in 2006, and is titled “The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia.”

During the long history of the Faith and Order Commission, only two texts have been granted the status of ‘convergence texts’, the first was the landmark 1982 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. The new document on ecclesiology was some twenty years in progress, during which time two study papers were published as working papers towards the final convergence text. These were The Nature and Purpose of the Church (Faith and Order Paper no. 181, issued in 1998) and The Nature and Mission of the Church - A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement(Faith and Order Paper no. 198, issued in 2005).

The Church: Towards a Common Vision is considered to be a major ecumenical statement on the nature and purpose of the church, the broadest ecumenical statement on ecclesiology ever produced in a multi-lateral framework. The document is a ‘convergence text’ (the bringing together of a range of documentary work) of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order, in which the Catholic Church, along with Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, and indigenous Churches and Ecclesial Communities have participated over many years to seek a shared understanding of the nature and development of their common life and witness.

There are several aims in the publication of The Church: Towards a Common Vision, including a renewal of the ecumenical study of ecclesiology and of the ecclesial understanding of the various churches and communions. It is hoped that this work may help the various communities to more fully examine their own ecclesial identity, and to seek greater ecclesial unity. A second aim is a further examination of and movement toward a commonly accepted definition of what it means to be “Church”. The document calls upon the churches and communities to make responses to the convergence text. Hopefully, this report will assist in the self reflection of the communities on what the use of the term ‘Church’ signifies when these communities’ self identify with the term “Church”. This, hopefully, will assist the churches and communities to grow in the desire for full visible unity.

The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches has included Catholic Church in its membership since 1968. The Catholic Church has had 12 of the 120 commission member seats (10% percent of the Commission). There have been three Catholic Commissioners on the thirty member Faith and Order Standing Commission, again 10%. The World Council of Churches (WCC) states that Faith and Order is “Christianity’s most representative theological forum”.

At the WCC General Assembly, held in October-November 2013 in Busan, Korea, a restructuring of the Faith and Order Commission was approved, which reduces the size of the commission and restores its ability to initiate and evaluate its own studies and texts. The new Faith and Order Commission will be a single body of 40 members, with 10% of the members (4) being Catholic, nominated by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The new leadership will be a moderator and five vice-moderators. At least one of the leadership, drawn from the commission membership, will be a Catholic, nominated by the PCPCU. The old Faith and Order Standing Commission will meet for the last time in March, 2014 to formally nominate new commission members. The new commission will begin its work in 2015, and is scheduled to conclude in 2022.

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) is a fellowship of 228 conventions and unions in 121 countries and territories comprising 42 million members in 177,000 churches and a wider community community of more than 110 million. As Baptists have Anabaptist roots, they do not baptize infants and young children, which explains the higher number of their community compared to the membership totals. The relationship between Baptists and Catholics has had its share of 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 “Theological Issues between Baptists and Catholics in Latin America; the 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 were made possible. Those theological conversations began in 2006, however a positive result was still quite uncertain. The themes for the new conversations were somewhat eclectic, mostly a combination of the most difficult issues raised in the reception of the first report and highlighted in the Buenos Aires consultation. The chapter titles of the second report reflect the varied topics of the document:The Authority of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, Baptism and Lord’s Supper/Eucharist as Visible Word of God in the Koinonia of the Church, Mary in the Communion of the Church and Oversight and Primacy in the Ministry of the Church.

In the end, after much work by both teams and by the PCPCU and the Doctrine Committee of the BWA, a text was finalized. The report of the second set of conversations was published in July 2013. The Catholic Church published a companion commentary by Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Baima, the Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Vice Rector for Academic Affairs of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. The Baptist World Alliance published the text with two Baptist commentaries, one by Dr. Josué Fonseca of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Santiago, Chile, and the second by Rev. Stephen Holmes of the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The proof of this text, like any text, is in the reception of the document by both communities. Both sides often find that the experience of encounter challenges not only the ‘other’ community, but also self challenges each side from within. This is exactly what Unitatis Redintegratio spoke about when it stated “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them.” (UR, 7)

Catholics too, are challenged in dialogue to look at their faith with the eyes of ‘the other’, and see a wider richness within. Among the things cited by the Catholic commentator, Fr Thomas Baima, was that “The section in no. 147 is among the best articulations of the theology of the Immaculate Conception. By situating the Immaculate Conception in the context of preparing Mary of Nazareth to make a free response to grace, the document moves the discussion out of speculative theology and into a biblical theology which shows God preparing Mary to fulfill her role in salvation history as the New Eve” (Thomas Baima, “Commentary on The Word of God in the Life of the Church: A Catholic Reflection on the Report of the International Conversations between the Catholic Church and the Baptist World Alliance 2006-2010”).Thisfocus on such a difficult issue for many protestants as the Immaculate Conception of Mary from a biblical basis, is not only helpful for protestants, but also for Catholics to continue on a more biblical approach to theology. While time for reception of the report is still needed, both sides believe a new set of conversations will not take long to commence.

These two documents, published in 2013, one a multilateral (Faith and Order), and one a bilateral (Baptist-Catholic), are each in their own way expressions of a desire to work for the unity of the Church, by challenging Christians to look both within their own tradition and in the traditions of others for ways to express the love of God in the Church. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium calls us to exactly this task: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. Trusting others is an art and peace is an art. Jesus told us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Mt 5:9). In taking up this task, also among ourselves, we fulfil the ancient prophecy: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares’ (Is 2:4)”. (EG, 244) May these texts, worked on together by faith-filled Christians, assist us on our common journey to the unity that Christ desires for His Church.

Fr Gregory J. Fairbanks, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity




St. Peter’s Square

April 24, 2019