By Bob Allen
A U.S. scholar representing the Baptist World Alliance at a recent Vatican gathering of Catholic bishops described his presence as “a moment of historic significance.”
“Baptists and Catholics differ on important ecclesial and theological issues but we are committed to seek greater mutual understanding through a process of loving dialogue and respectful listening,” Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George said Oct. 16 in remarks delivered at the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops hosted by Pope Benedict XVI.
George, chair of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity, said he was moved during a visit to the Basilica of St. Bartholomew to see an icon of 20th and 21st century Christian martyrs from around the world that included two Baptists. One was a believer imprisoned and then killed by the Communists in Romania and the other was Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor and civil rights leader in the United States assassinated in 1968.
“Jesus prayed to the heavenly Father that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe,” George said. “As of old, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, so now the blood of today’s martyrs is the seed of the church’s unity.”
George, invited as a fraternal representative to the Oct. 7-18 synod, themed “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” said Christian unity is not an end in itself but “is always in the service of evangelization.”
“Where our witness is fractured, our message is unpersuasive, if not inaudible,” he said.
George said Baptists confess with all Christians “a robust faith in the one triune God who in his great mercy and love has made us partakers of his divine life through Jesus Christ, the Great Evangelizer, who saves us by his grace alone.”
He also cited Baptists’ historic commitment to religious freedom not only for themselves but for everyone.
“Today in many places, religious freedom is under assault in many ways — some blatant and others more subtle,” George said. “All Christians who take seriously Jesus’ call to evangelize must also stand and work together for the protection and flourishing of universal religious freedom, both for individuals and for institutions of faith.”
The synod, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, explored new ways of proclaiming the gospel amid growing secularization, particularly in countries with a Christian tradition. Rather than seeking to “re-evangelize” Europe by appealing to its former Christian heritage, the pope is seeking new methods and expressions of the gospel that recognize realities of the present day.
George said Baptists resonate with Pope Benedict’s Oct. 11 homily, kicking off the Catholic Church’s Year of Faith, that used the image of a desert to describe the world Christians are called to evangelize today.
“Indeed, we are faced on many sides with a barren wilderness of disorientation and detachment from faith,” George said. That includes both “secularism and relativism, resulting in a culture of violence” and “the anguish of loneliness and isolation, giving way to the despair felt by so many in our time.”
“May the Year of Faith and the Synod for the New Evangelization be a harbinger of gospel renewal and refreshing for the church and for the world in our time,” George said.