The fifth meeting of Phase III of the international dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic Church took place Dec. 12-16, 2022, in Rome, Italy, hosted by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.
The goal of the Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue is not to achieve full visible unity but to gain mutual understanding as well as clarification of theological matters and identification of possibilities for cooperation. The general topic of the current phase is “The Dynamic of the Gospel and the Witness of the Church Today.” The meeting in Rome was devoted to drafting and editing the report from the dialogue and planning for its subsequent reception, as well as to discussion of possible directions for a future phase of dialogue.
The commission is co-chaired, on the Catholic side, by Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, Bishop Emeritus of Paterson and adjunct professor of biblical studies at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey, and on the Baptist side by Dr. Elizabeth Newman, adjunct professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, and chair of the BWA Commission on Baptist Doctrine and Christian Unity. Newman succeeds Rev. Dr. Frank Rees of Australia who served the group in this position from 2017-2021. This year the dialogue was enriched by the presence of Rev. Dr. Elijah Brown, BWA general secretary.
Each day of the fifth meeting began and ended with prayer services. On Dec. 14, Pope Francis received the commission in a private audience and engaged with them in conversation concerning different topics of common interest such as the importance of learning how to be pastors according to the gospel who avoid the dangers of clericalism; growing in mutual concern for one another as well as for the poorest and needy in the world; and establishing relationships that allow Baptists and Catholics to discuss the theological problems at the heart of their divisions. Rev Dr Tomás Mackey, elected President of the BWA, referred to the importance of growing in a mutual recognition that provides new possibilities for joint Baptist-Catholic witness to the world and expressed the readiness of the BWA for any initiative that encourages peace and reconciliation. At the end of the audience, Pope Francis and the members of the commission said together the Lord’s Prayer.
After the audience with Pope Francis, the commission visited the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity and met with DPCU Prefect Cardinal Kurt Koch. The program included a prayer that highlighted witnesses to the power of the gospel from both traditions, a presentation concerning the current phase of dialogue, and an exchange concerning the challenges and opportunities for the ecumenical movement in general and for Baptist-Catholic relations in particular. Cardinal Koch, in expressing his gratitude for the work accomplished by the dialogue, expressed his personal interest in receiving its final result. On behalf of the BWA, Brown evaluated positively his participation in the dialogue session and expressed openness to exploring new patterns of collaboration as well as to continuing the dialogue beyond its current phase. Some participants also attended the Evening Prayer service at Santa Maria in Trastevere and visited the Cultural Center for Migrants and Refugees of the St. Egidio Community and prayed for both the migrants and those who serve them.
The commission for Phase III met initially in 2017 to discuss “Sources of Common Witness” in Waco, Texas. Its second meeting in Rome in 2018 focused on the “Contexts of Common Witness” represented by six continents of the world. A third meeting examined “Challenges to Common Witness” in Warsaw, Poland, in 2019. The dialogue postponed its plans for a fourth meeting in 2020 due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, but held a two-day continuation meeting virtually in June 2021 to discuss the written record of their work to that point and to discuss possibilities for holding a meeting in December 2021. A fourth meeting of the dialogue employed a “hybrid” format in light of the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, with an in-person meeting in Durham, North Carolina, for North American and Caribbean participants, and other commission members joining virtually; it took up the theme of “Forms of Common Witness,” recognizing ways in which Baptists and Catholics have already been engaging in a shared witness to the dynamic of the gospel and envisioning ways in which the two communions might more intentionally and more fully collaborate in offering the world a common witness to Christ.
Baptists and Catholics have been engaged in international conversations since 1984. A first phase of international dialogue took place in 1984-1988, resulting in a report in 1990 titled “Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World.” A second phase of the dialogue met from 2006 through 2010 and produced a report in 2013 titled “The Word of God in the Life of the Church.”
Members of the Baptist delegation to this year’s meeting were: Dr. Derek Hatch (USA), Rev. Dr. Glenroy Lalor (Jamaica), Rev. Dr. Tomás Mackey (Argentina), and Rev. Dr. Lina Toth (Lithuania/UK); Rev. Dr. Paul S. Fiddes (UK) attended virtually. Dr. Valerie Duval-Poujol (France) participated as consultant, and BWA Director of Integral Mission Rev Everton Jackson (Jamaica/USA) represented the BWA staff.
Members of the Catholic delegation are: Dr. Peter Casarella (USA), Rev. Dr. Stephen Fernandes (India), Rev. Dr. William Henn OFM Cap (Italy), Rev. Prof. Przemyslaw Kantyka (Poland), Sr. Dr. Marie-Hélène Robert NDA (France), Rev. Dr. Jorge A. Scampini OP (Argentina), and Sr. Dr. Susan K. Wood SCL (USA/Canada).
The secretaries for the co-chairs are Rev. Dr. Steven R. Harmon, professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity, Boiling Springs, North Carolina, on behalf of the BWA and Msgr. Juan Usma Gómez, head of the Western Section of the DPCU.