Remembering Our Common Baptism

The quincentenary of the Reformation is being marked in ways big (e.g., papal visit to Lund, Sweden) and small (e.g., prayers of individual Christians for healing and reconciliation among the churches).  The Philadelphia Liturgical Institute, an association of liturgists from a number of churches in southeast Pennsylvania, is marking the occasion with “Celebrating Our Common Baptism: An Ecumenical Commemoration 1517-2017,” which will take place this October in the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia.  (Of note in this regard is the fact that the baptismal font in the cathedral was a gift from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)

Tentatively, in addition to Scripture readings featuring baptismal themes and homilies from Lutheran and Roman Catholic figures, the celebration will also involve having the assembly form a procession to the baptismal font.  There, clergy from various denominations will make a sign of the cross using water from the font on the forehead of the first people in line, saying “Remember your baptism and give thanks.”  The clergy will then return to their seats.  The first person in line will then turn around and repeat the gesture / words for the second person in line and so on until all have had their foreheads signed with water.  What this means, of course, is that sometimes a Lutheran might sign the forehead of a Baptist.  An Episcopalian might sign the forehead of a Catholic.

Of itself, this liturgical celebration will not end division among Christians around the world or even in Philadelphia.  But it seems to me to be the sort of thing that Christians who desire unity should be doing.  I will post more about this event afterwards, but in the meantime, I wonder what observances or liturgies might be on tap in other corners of the PrayTell-verse with respect to this anniversary.


  1. The ritual described here sounds very positive and might even be moving.

    If I may be forgiven for saying so, I struggle with this milestone. What I think of as “grassroots ecumenism” – the profoundest expression of which are interdenominational marriages – is a wonderful thing, and should be fostered. So should more formal and official dialogues aimed at resolving differences and fostering greater unity. But the reality of the vast predominance of the last 500 years has been division and hatred, and even the spilling of copious amounts of blood. In my observation, pockets of hatred and division still are out there.

    I guess I think that an interdenominational service, in addition to the mutual blessings of one another with the waters of baptism, which sounds wonderful, should be preceded by a penitential component. Before we bless one another, let’s beseech one another’s forgiveness.

    My apologies if I’m not in the spirit of this.

      1. @Rev James A Bucaria:
        Oh come on. We’re not celebrating the fact that we SPLIT – I would think everyone realizes that.

        What we do commemorate, celebrate, give thanks for, is this: God is always renewing his church, and he did so 500 years ago.

        This is not to say or admit that Protestants were right and Catholics were wrong – I say this for those Catholics for whom it’s important that we’re always right. It is to say that, in the whole mix of things that went right and went wrong among the Reformers, there are things that went right and came from God.

        Think of the points of agreement between Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Church at Vatican II. If V2 can reemphasize Scripture, Bible-based preaching, church as all the baptized, participation of all in comprehensible worship, etc. etc. etc., then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion: those things in the Protestant Reformation were good.

        And for that matter, there are points of agreement between the Reformers and Trent. Trent’s decree on justification clearly shows that the authors were aware of the problems and difficulties, and went a good way to meet the Reformers’ concerns. Trent makes clear that the initiative is with God, and that our response and growth in holiness is made possible by God. For that we can give thanks (even if later Catholic tradition failed to emphasize what Trent taught).

        Because of the reformers, we did away with selling indulgences! Surely we can be thankful for that, yes?

        Ecumenism is hard work. One of the hardest parts of the endeavor is that it requires humility. The Catholic Church as a whole has not always done the best on that point these last 500 years.


      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        I am grateful when God brings good from ill. But it’s not an unequivocal celebration (as opposed to commemoration) in the conventional sense of that word, and am wary of smooshing it all together in the facile way our culture tends to prefer. I fully agree with your comment about the necessity of humility, but the thing is that humility – which I understand in part to involve beholding the reality (both ill and good) of ourselves as God beholds it – is gritty work, not facile. I am glad the Catholic Church is doing more gritty work than it long avoided in this regard. But it doesn’t make a celebratory ending yet.

  2. I understand Jim’s worry, but I’m not in sympathy with Karl’s unwillingness to enter into this commemoration in the irenic spirit that has been exemplified by Pope Francis — which truly seems to permeate the celebration Tim recounts. (The Philadelphia episcopal cathedral, by the way, is an amazing worship space, beautifully renovated under the leadership of Richard Giles.)

    The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century showed a great spiritual gift is being given to the church in our time, to mend longstanding historical divisions and seek new common understandings and insights into how we can overcome past controversies.

    I think it would be churlish and wrong to belittle this genuinely good movement, by giving a primary place to the remembrance of all the wrongs and hurts that belong to our past, for which both sides were frequently to blame. Confession of sin, yes, but God is merciful, and we can’t let our sins overshadow that or keep us from naming and fostering what is good in our various traditions — in pursuit of a deeper unity.

    History is littered with injustices and bloodshed and horrors. How can we celebrate any national holiday in the US? Yet love of country is a good thing, despite our history of violence and not being good stewards of the gifts we have been given. If we celebrate anything, it must be that we celebrate what is godly in it. Sinners though we are, we do have something to celebrate in the discovery of our common baptism. I have no problem with it.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      My differentiating word was “celebrating”. Remembering and mourning, sure (and not in a spirit of the Pharisaic “so sad you were a heretic” kind of way). Having been a close student of the Reformations era, there’s so much to mourn that I don’t want to see elided in that modern way of closing our eyes to difficult pasts because we don’t like things that aren’t tidily resolved before the commercial break (like the American way of dealing with the Civil War, for example).

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        ” there’s so much to mourn that I don’t want to see elided in that modern way of closing our eyes to difficult pasts because we don’t like things that aren’t tidily resolved before the commercial break ”

        Yes, that is one of my main points as well. Another is that, as difficult as it is to note this, regrettable words and misperceptions aren’t entirely a thing of the past. I would hasten to add that I have nothing but favorable things to say about the proposed ritual that Timothy Brunk describes, and I believe that acknowledging our common baptism in this way could help bridge any divides which may exist at a local-community level.

      2. @Jim Pauwels:
        While I would like to think so, I am not sure that there’s a widespread sense of baptism that runs deep (there’s certainly one that runs much more shallowly). When I see baptisms in recent years (this is affected by where I see them, of course…), there’s more of a sense of a celebration of an initiation ritual at a level that young children in attendance can grasp rather than than altering our cosmic reality.

  3. Everyone should be aware of FROM CONFLICT TO COMMUNION: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, lssued in 2013 by The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promotimg Christian Unity, which has been available on the www for quite a while, and is now available in print form in the US with introduction, study guide, and a suggested common vespers. An enormous amount of patient and painstaking work has gone into this common commemoration and I have no doubt the Philadelphia Liturgical institute has taken it all into consderation.

  4. This service is not intended to gloss over the painful divisions that persist among Christians; much less is it intended to rejoice over those divisions. Rather, it emphasizes that these divisions damage but do not destroy Christian unity. This liturgy seeks to ritualize what yet unites Christians and it does so without, of course, *effecting* full unity. Certainly, there is a long way to go before celebrating a unity fully restored.

    And yes, Mary (#7), the PLI did consult From Conflict to Communion. Thanks!

  5. I am in complete agreement with my brother Fr Anthony. The key word he uses is humility. When Luther pleaded his cause to Rome, Pope Leo refused to listen to him. Where was Leo’s humility? Where is our humility when judging others or not listening with open eyes and hearts to the reformers of our times and indeed of the past. The Church has burned too many at the stake because they did not “toe the line” with Rome. Yes, obedience is a sign of humility but killing anyone in the name of unity or purity is evil and sinful.
    I assist at a Lutheran church and yes they know I am a “Roman”. I have heard good preaching and not once have I heard anything negative said about Catholics. Pope Francis is quoted many times.
    2017 is a time to remember, study and understand the very complicated issues surrounding the breakup of the Western Church due to political, economic and religious issues.
    The best way to “celebrate” the Reformation is through understanding, prayer and living out the Gospel. As Jesus said to his Apostles who complained about “others” healing in His name and not belonging to their group: “Anyone who is not against us is for us”. Amen

  6. The Archdiocese of Omaha and the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA recently joined together to commemorate the Reformation in a similar way, using Common Prayer, the resource created by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation.

    It was a beautiful and profound reminder of our unity as Christians, yet still acknowledged our areas of disagreements. I’m hopeful that this service will serve as a positive rallying point for further ecumenical efforts.

    The event was covered by The Catholic Voice and the Omaha World-Herald.

  7. Rev James A Bucaria : @Karl Liam Saur: How can one ‘celebrate’ the rending asunder of the Mystical Body of Christ.

    Don’t we do this all the time? My first thought was “Oh happy fault!” But it is much broader than that. In Baptism we die with Christ in hopes of sharing in his resurrection. In the Eucharist we break bread, or rather we break he Body of Christ, so that the whole world might be saved. If we can do that, it should not be so hard to fit this “rending asunder” into the celebration.

    Vatican II asked us not to hold modern Christians responsible for the sins of their ancestors. We were torn apart, and we need to heal that wound. But we can celebrate what we share, as they commemorated Baptism in Philly. We have to get past the idea that what divides us is much less important than what we still share.

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