Churches come together on baptismal agreement

By Enedelia J. Obregón

Senior Correspondent

The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and four Protestant denominations are a step closer to unity after signing historic documents that formally recognize each other’s liturgical rites of baptism.

The five denominations signed the agreement at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin during the Christian Churches Together in the USA annual meeting Jan. 29-Feb. 1. Representatives of the five denominations who entered into the agreement signed the documents at an evening of prayer at the Cathedral.

Under the agreement, the five denominations agree to recognize baptisms from each of those churches in recognition that, "Baptism is to be conferred only once, because those who are baptized are decisively incorporated into the Body of Christ."

Also, they agreed that for "baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite."

The churches also agreed to keep baptism records, which the Catholic Church has always done, and that the rite will be performed by the pouring of water.

The agreement was approved by the leadership of the different denominations prior to the signing. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the agreement for the Roman Catholic Church.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas Weinandy, a dialogue member from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Doctrine, said the agreement brings the different Christian denominations closer to "being one" as Christ asked.

"We still have a lot we disagree on, but the validity of baptism is something we can agree on," he said.

For the average parishioner, this means that people entering the Catholic faith from these Christian denominations do not need to be re-baptized.

Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Austin Diocese said the event had "double significance."

First, he said, the signing ceremony "was a witness to the call of Christ, who said ‘that they may all be one, Father, as you and I are one’" (Jn 17:21)

"That’s Christ’s intent and therefore we have to work at trying to become one," Bishop Vásquez said. "We know there are divisions and separations among the churches and we don’t always believe in the same thing or respond the same way to different situations, but we have to work toward this unity and that requires hard work, a lot of commitment, time, energy, discussions and clarity."

Secondly, it is important to understand the CCT group, formed in 2001, has decided to take common issues on which they can agree and work together. He cited the statement on racism which arose from the week-long gathering. He said the statement makes it "clear what racism is and how to stand up against it" and that racism is a "‘social sin."

The group also dealt with the issue of immigration, noting that they engaged the issue "as followers of Jesus Christ who commanded us to welcome the stranger."

The group issued a statement that calls for an earned path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the U.S. without authorization, the priority of family reunification in any immigration reform, protecting the integrity of our borders and protecting due process for immigrants and their families, improving refugee protection laws and asylum laws, and reviewing international economic policies to address the root causes of unauthorized immigration.

"We are working on those things to say that even though we can’t agree on everything there are issues that unite us," Bishop Vásquez said. "We can stand together as Christians to witness to the world what the Body of Christ is."

The bishop said ecumenical efforts are important.

"It’s a part of who we are as Catholics," he said. "Vatican II made it clear we are to work for unity ... We need more sincere dialogue and conversation, even about our differences so we can understand and appreciate who we are and what we believe."

Bishop Denis Madden, chair of the Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said focusing on the commonalities rather than the differences is a good way to begin that unity.

"In dialogue you learn more and you treasure your own faith all the more," said Bishop Madden, who also serves as auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. "That doesn’t mean our tradition or our faith is anything less. But you treasure that and look for ways as to how can we be united as much as possible with the other Christian churches."

The agreement is one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, which opened the way to ecumenism, Bishop Madden said.

He said he was reminded of a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in which Pope Benedict XVI and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew began Mass with both sitting on a throne at the main altar. When it came time for the Consecration - which the respective churches disagree on –– the patriarch moved to another chair on the side.

"To me, that was so symbolic," he said. "That was the best they could do together right now –– being together for the Word."

The rest, he said, is in God’s good time.

     Signatories to the Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism were Rev. Joel Boot, interim executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America;  Bishop Denis Madden, chair, Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Nash, South Central Conference, United Church of Christ; the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.; and the Rev. Dr. Tom Smith, president of the General Synod, Reformed Church in America.

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