AFTER SEVEN YEARS of theological, historical, and pastoral conversation, leaders of Reformed and Catholic churches in the U.S. this January signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other's churches. This agreement represents dedicated—and inspiring—ecumenical work.
The agreement was signed by representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Christ. This agreement is not unprecedented, coming as it does nearly five decades since Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, in which the Catholic Church recognized non-Catholic baptism whenever "duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and ... received with the right dispositions." However, for each tradition, baptism gives sacramental expression to that tradition's understanding of the church and what it means to be a member. For these churches to recognize each other's baptismal rites gives visible witness to their mutual desire for unity among the members of Christ's body.
This desire for unity between the churches is not an add-on to the gospel; it is not something we do if we happen to get to it. It is central to the saving work and mission of Jesus.
This January's agreement is spare in its requirements. It states that the use of water and a reference to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all that are needed for mutual recognition. By specifying these two simple elements, the ecumenical team made a decision to respect the liturgical tradition of each church. The unique way that components of the rite have developed in each church—how catechesis is done, the use of scripture, the use of sponsors, anointing, and other elements—do not need to be changed.
The authors of the agreement urge liturgical hospitality—that is, that family members, friends, and members of congregations be invited to be present for baptism. Such hospitality is a powerful and simple way to provide a deeper mutual understanding of what is fundamental to being received into a Christian church. The agreement also urges that members of the churches participate in the celebration of the rite, I imagine in the roles of reader, sponsor, and in other appropriate ways.
Those who wrote this agreement also urge all churches to use baptismal registers to appropriately document when a baptism is celebrated. This comment is based on good sense; documentation of an event is evidence of its seriousness. Furthermore, the routine request for a baptismal certificate at the time of marriage or other sacraments in the life of a Christian is an unequivocal way to show respect and acceptance. Without it, there is room for all kinds of mischief and disrespect.
The agreement closes with a strong, evocative invitation to theologians and pastoral leaders to continue regular dialogue on the local, national, and international levels.
In 2017, Lutherans and Catholics will observe the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Martin Luther on the front door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Five hundred years—think of it! In seeking greater unity, this year's agreement is one of many steps needed for the theological dialogue, the practice of liturgical hospitality in the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, and the fundamental conversion to the gospel that will always be present in true ecumenical activity. Ultimately, there cannot be ecumenism worthy of the name without personal conversion and the renewal of Christian churches.
John Klassen, OSB, is the abbot of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., and co-chair of Bridgefolk, a Catholic-Mennonite grassroots movement.
Image: Baptism candle, Joel Calheiros  / Shutterstock.com