On Dec. 14, Professor of Theology Peter Casarella met with Pope Francis at the Vatican as part of the Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue. The strategic ecumenical dialogue meets in five-year cycles, concluding with the presentation of a document on the theme of each cycle, which this time is “The Dynamic of the Gospel and the Witness of the Church.”

As part of his second five-year term as a delegate on the Baptist-Catholic International Dialogue Joint Commission, Casarella was in Rome Dec. 11–17, to join other Catholic and Baptist delegates in the cycle’s concluding meeting with Pope Francis, which was followed by a meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

Pope Francis encouraged the delegates to continue in prayer, with the aim of promoting works of charity through their theological dialogue. He underscored how Christian identity is always based on the memory, however dim, of being baptized with water in Christ. He also mentioned the brutality of the war in the Ukraine and urged the delegates to pray for those of all faiths in that country. Cardinal Koch encouraged the delegates to think about the church as communion and work patiently toward a common goal of achieving greater communion.

“Pope Francis was intellectually and spiritually very vibrant, even with a cane and a slow gait,” said Casarella. “He spoke freely and encouraged everyone at this meeting of just 18 persons to do the same. I was struck by how closely his extemporaneous remarks echoed key themes of his pontificate. For example, citing Augustine’s sermon On Pastors, he urged today’s pastors to stay in touch with the people in their flock by guiding them while in front, learning from them while remaining in their midst, and being a support while standing behind them. Pope Francis lambasted clericalism while still upholding the model of priests who are good shepherds. Cardinal Koch likewise gave our group lots of encouragement to continue the path we have started. He listened eagerly and told us to consider in the future various forms of dialogue besides the search for doctrinal agreement, like spiritual ecumenism and the ecumenism of martyrs.”

The dialogue is part of a long tradition of ecumenical dialogue at Duke Divinity School. Dean Edgardo Colón-Emeric recently served as the Methodist co-chair of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission and met earlier this year with Pope Francis at the Vatican, along with the Rev. Dr. Jung Choi, senior director of Wesleyan Formation initiatives. Dean Robert Earl Cushman (1958–1971) was the official Methodist observer at the Second Vatican Council; and the late Geoffrey Wainwright, Robert Earl Cushman Professor Emeritus of Christian Theology, met with Pope Benedict XVI on multiple occasions in his capacity as Methodist co-chair of the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue from 1986 to 2011. Also in 2022, Duke Divinity School co-sponsored an ecumenical conference on Christian unity in Bogotá, Colombia, which Casarella attended. In addition, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies, served as chair of the Baptist delegation for an international dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the World Methodist Council from 2014 to 2018.

Members of the commission meet with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
Members of the commission, including Casarella standing at far right, met with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.