Mennonites and Catholics sit down to talk

 — Dec. 7, 19987 déc. 1998

by Phyllis P. Good, Canadian Mennonite

For five days in October, seven Mennonites sat face-to-face with six Roman Catholics to discuss reasons for the centuries-long separation between the two churches. The meeting here on October 14-18 was held to promote better understanding of each others’ faith and to overcome long-standing prejudices.

This international consultation was sponsored by the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Vatican City). Helmut Harder (Canada) and Joseph Martino (United States) chaired the meeting.

John Radano of the Pontifical Council proposed that the title be “Toward a healing of memories.” In the first presentations, each church described “who we are.” Howard J. Loewen of California characterized the Mennonite church as moving from migration to mission, from tradition to theology (confession), and from ethnicity to ecumenicity. James Puglisi (Rome/U.S.) defined the Catholic church as “universal in the fullest sense.”

Peter Nissen (Netherlands) outlined “The Catholic response to the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century,” and Neal Blough (France) spoke on “Anabaptist images of Roman Catholics.” Hearing the “nasty” statements against Catholics by Menno Simons reminded the Mennonites that bias against Catholics runs deep.

Significant points of agreement emerged: grace and works are inseparable; the church is essential to an understanding of salvation; spirituality and ethics go hand in hand. Differences include how we view the relationship between scripture and tradition, and our understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Other Mennonite participants were Mario Higueros (Guatemala), Nzash Lumeya (Congo), Andrea Lange (Germany) and Larry Miller, Mennonite World Conference executive secretary. Other Roman Catholics were John Mutiso-Mbinda (Rome/Kenya) and Joan Back (Rome/England). Members of both delegations attended Sunday worship at the Strasbourg Evangelical Mennonite Church.

This is the third inter-church dialogue on this level for Mennonites — previous discussions have been with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Baptist World Alliance.

— From MWC and Pontifical Council releases

What both sides learned from the dialogue

After the historic meeting between Mennonites and Catholics in October, Larry Miller reflected on the event. Miller is executive secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC). Helmut Harder, co-chair of the discussion, added his comments.

Why did these conversations happen?

Miller: I like to think that the conversation is happening because God wants it to!

When MWC invited Christian World Communions to send observers to our world assembly in Calcutta, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was one of the few which actually sent a,representative. The leaders of the Pontifical Council believe that it is the will of Christ that his disciples seek better relations, that division among Christians is a stumbling block to the world.

How were the Mennonite participants chosen?

Miller: The people composing the MWC delegation are significant leaders and teachers in MWC member churches. Each has demonstrated strong commitment both to historic Anabaptist-Mennonite convictions and to conversation with other Christians. In addition, each one brings a particular gift, perspective, or training to the table.

For example, one place where Mennonite and Catholic relations are often difficult — and sometimes promising — today is Latin America, so it seemed vital to appoint a Latin American Mennonite leader (Mario Higueros) to the team.

Who were the Catholic participants?

Miller: The auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, Joseph Martino, chaired the Catholic delegation. He is one of the few participants who lives near a substantial Mennonite community. Bishop Martino prepared himself for the Strasbourg conversation in part by visiting leaders of the Franconia Mennonite Conference.

John Radano is the lead staff person for Pontifical Council relations with “western” churches. John Mutiso-Mbinda represented the Council at India 1997. Peter Nissen is a lay Catholic historian at the University of Njmegen (Netherlands) and wrote a doctoral thesis on the Catholic-Anabaptist conflict in the 16th century.

The other two Catholic theologians represent orders or movements within the Catholic Church which seem to have some affinity with or at least openness to Anabaptist-Mennonite perspectives. James Puglisi comes from the Franciscans. Joan Back is active in the Focolare Movement.

What was the nature of the conversations?

Miller: The conversations were the sort you have when sitting around the table with friendly people of conviction who are learning to know one another. They were mutually respectful, simply spoken, honest, occasionally confrontational, sometimes moving.

Bishop Martino, head of the Catholic delegation, expressed his great sorrow as we listened to the historians tell us about the role of the Catholic Church in delivering Anabaptist Christians to the executioner, and as we read stories in the Martyrs Mirror.

I felt uneasy when we read Anabaptist texts full of violent language against the Catholic Church. I found myself thinking that our occasional verbal violence was understandable in the 16th century context — obviously not the same violence as executing someone — but still some distance from the model offered by Jesus Christ.

Harder: There was an effort to identify the distinctives as well as the convergences in our two “confessions.” There was also a readiness to “confess” our prejudices toward the other church and to seek reconciliation where this was needed.

What did you learn?

Miller: That a few days of conversation is barely the first sentence of what Catholics and Mennonites might want to say to each other in the years ahead.

I learned that some of the core theological divergences of the 16th century are still among the main points of divide. But Mennonites and Catholics find themselves in a whole new world today, not only because the world has changed, but also because both churches have changed, not least as a result of mission and the shifting centre of gravity in Christianity — to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Harder: I learned that our Catholic partners in conversation have a keen appreciation for Mennonite theology of peace. I learned that without reservation our Roman Catholic partners accept us as Christian brothers and sisters and regard the Mennonite communion as “church” as well.

What do you think they learned?

Miller: I think they learned, too, that the conversation has just begun. Their hope — shared by the Mennonite delegation — is that we can have four or five years of annual exchange which contributes something to the “healing of memories.”

All of this would lead to a joint Mennonite-Catholic report which would be distributed to all Catholic bishops worldwide for use in their churches, as well as to MWC member churches.

Harder: Some of them became aware of the Anabaptist story of martyrdom — the reasons for it and the unreasonableness of it. Some learned of the persistence of Anabaptist/Mennonite peace witness over the past 475 years. Some learned of our theological distinctives when compared with mainline Protestant and evangelical emphases; for example, the concept of grace, the nature of the church.

What changed as a result of the conversations?

Miller: Can a few days of conversation and worship between 13 people effect change between two world churches whose relationship is rooted in ancient conflict and marked by continuing hostility or ignorance?

What is new is the commitment of the Catholic Church to sustained conversation with Mennonite World Conference as a representative of Anabaptist/Mennonite churches.

I believe MWC is ready to make a similar commitment. But we will want to proceed in a way which honours the Anabaptist/Mennonite conviction that fraternal address, just like all church activities, involves as broad a participation of the membership as possible.

Posted: Dec. 7, 1998 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: Catholic, Christian unity, dialogue, ecumenism, Mennonite, Mennonite World Conference
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Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : Catholic, Christian unity, dialogue, ecumenism, Mennonite, Mennonite World Conference

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