VATICAN CITY, March 28 (RNS) -- The Vatican and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have agreed to broaden their ecumenical dialogue by asking the Reformed tradition denomination to join in the recent consensus on the key issue of justification, seeking a "mutual recognition" of baptism and attempting to put aside five centuries of mutual hostility.

A statement dated March 24 but issued by the Vatican on Wednesday said the agenda emerged from meetings in Rome last week between a Presbyterian delegation and German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the newly named president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Representatives of the Reformed Church in American and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also attended the meetings March 20-21 as ecumenical observers.

"We agreed that the contemporary ecumenical spirit is part of a new situation which enables us to address in new ways the issues which have separated us," the statement said.

The statement listed as first among "opportunities for further exploration" in dialogue at the international or national level "the possibility of Reformed participation on the ecumenical consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification, building on the recent Catholic-Lutheran agreement."

In what was considered a milestone in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, leaders of the two faiths signed a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" in Augsburg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1999.

Justification is the doctrine that describes how people are saved. Lutherans have stressed that salvation comes from God's grace alone while Catholics have seen an important role for the acts, or works, that people perform during their lives.

Surmounting differences that have lasted since the Protestant Reformation, the churches declared: "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."

The Presbyterian-Vatican statement cited as other areas for dialogue the possibility of "reaching a mutual recognition of the sacrament of baptism" and a joint study of the Reformation aimed at laying aside almost 500 years of hostility.

By studying "the events in the 16th and 17th centuries which led to our divisions," the statement said, "we hope that it may become possible to declare that the pejorative statements made against one another in the past are not in keeping with our views of each other today."

During the meetings in the offices of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity located just outside the Vatican walls, the group also held a second round of discussions on "The Successor to Peter," a paper by the Presbyterians on the papacy.

"Various aspects of the Petrine ministry were examined, including primacy and collegiality, which led us to broader questions of ecclesiology," the Vatican statement said.

Primacy is the Catholic belief that the pope is the supreme judge, legislator, ruler and teacher in the church on Earth, and collegiality refers to the manner in which bishops exercise their authority together with the pope. Ecclesiology is the study of the church's nature, mission and structures.

"From this discussion and other dialogues, we find that there are many aspects of faith and practice which we share in common, such as belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Redeemer and in the Trinity," the statement said.

"We have also faced, with candor, the differences which still remain, among others, in our understanding of the nature of the church and the locus of its authority, the often negative judgments made against one another in history and particularly the differences in our understanding and practice of episcope (being a bishop)," it said.

The initial discussion on the papacy was held last Dec. 7-8 when Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who was then in charge of overseeing Catholic relations with other faiths, visited the headquarters of the PCUSA in Louisville, Ky.

The statement said the Rome meetings "began with prayer and were characterized by a warm spirit of open sharing."

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