Mennonites and Catholics Share Friendship Through ‘Bridgefolk’
By Chris Edwards
HARRISONBURG, Va. – Andrea Bartoli, U.S. leader of the Catholic Santa Egidio lay fellowship, shared the story of Dirk Willems, the Dutch Mennonite known for saving a drowning pursuer who then killed him. Through his compassionate act, Bartoli said, that martyr gave “a gift of the Spirit that I can experience 500 years later.”
Glen Miller, in turn, shared warm memories of a friend from his years directing the Mennonite Central Committee in India – Mother Teresa. In lovingly serving people of all world faiths, Miller said, “She was a holy person.”
These testimonials were part of the 2005 Bridgefolk Conference, an annual dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics held this year for the first time at Eastern Mennonite University. Bridgefolk began in 1999 at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Mt. Pleasant, Pa. and continued at Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., in 2002-2004. About 65 people from both traditions, the majority lay members, attended this year’s events on the Harrisonburg, Va., campus. With their children, they worshiped at local Catholic and Mennonite churches together.
“We have more in common than we suspected,” said moderator Ivan Kauffman of Washington, D.C. Abbot John Klassen of Saint John’s, Catholic co-chair of Bridgefolk, spoke admiringly of the Mennonites’ nonviolent tradition. Citing John 15:12-17 – a text employed as a lectio divina for small group reflection – Klassen recalled, “Jesus told the disciples, I call you my friends.”
“The bridge is not a path to either tradition, but going where no one else has,” said Marlene Kropf, Bridgefolk’s Mennonite co-chair. Many Mennonites, she said, are drawn to the Catholic Eucharist tradition. She noted that Bridgefolk does not aim at institutional change; only at building friendship. Marlene’s Mennonite Church employers, who in 1999 prohibited her attending Bridgefolk in her denominational capacity, have since made it part of her job.
The informal, grass-roots Bridgefolk parallels a series of high-level ecumenical discussions. As part of a dialogue process between many Christian faiths, representatives of the Vatican and Mennonite World Conference conferred between 1998 and 2003. An abridged edition of their conclusions, entitled “Called Together to be Peacemakers,” was published this month (July 2005), with discussion questions, by Pandora Press, and is available through www.bridgefolk.net and www.pandorapress.com.
The dialogues sought “a healing of memories,” according to that report, which addresses the two traditions’ histories, theologies and practices. John A. Lapp, former executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee, spoke on the report in a colloquium at EMU preceding Bridgefolk.
Kauffman said Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both supported the dialogues, though they have yet to become well-known among either church’s laity. Kropf and Mennonite World Conference President Nancy Heisey hope that will change through distribution of the abridged report, which Mennonites and Catholics may study together through local church groups.
Bridgefolk attracts Catholic/Mennonite couples and believers who have moved between denominations, such as Kauffman, a Mennonite convert to Catholicism. Many, however, such as Dorothy Harnish of Lancaster, Pa. are simply attracted to both.
Harnish, a lifelong Mennonite, sees no conflict between participation in her church and as a Benedictine oblate (lay member) at the Immanuel Monastery in Baltimore. She finds a spiritual richness in Catholic devotionals that she misses in more “intellectual” Mennonite services.
In turn, Catholics such as Pete Mahoney, a brother in the Xavierian order, which works among marginalized people, are drawn to Mennonite peace and justice work. “What the Mennonites have given to me is the connectedness with the world,” said Mahoney, a 20-year Shenandoah Valley resident.
Raised nominally Christian, Pat Shaver tried, but outgrew, fundamentalism; then became drawn to both Catholic and Mennonite worship. Having attended all five Bridgefolk conferences, she was one of five Seattle (Wash.) Mennonite Church members visiting EMU.
Though Santa Egidio has played a key peacebuilding role in Mozambique, Rwanda, Kosovo and the Sudan, Bartoli noted that mission was not the community’s goal. “It happened to us,” said Bartoli, explaining that Santa Egidio’s s mission near Rome extends hospitality to pilgrims from all over the world and learns about needs from them. “Friendship comes first,” he stated.
Ron Kraybill, co-director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, feels the traditions contribute different, complementary peacebuilding skills. Mennonites, a relatively small denomination, work “from the margins,” representing the marginalized; the Catholic Church, being “huge and complex,” works more “from the center,” representing both the Pope and radical priests’ established power and reform.
This year, Bridgefolk culminated in a footwashing service. Though church rules prevent interdenominational communion, Kauffman said, “What we can do is we can wash each other’s feet.”
Tom Crotty, a Catholic whose wife, Pat, is Mennonite, wrote and shared the following haiku:
Wide water to cross,
Yet we walk a dry path through
Word walls on both sides.
Photos available by contacting Jim Bishop at guest.20225@MennoLink.org.
Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg, Va.
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Eastern Mennonite University
Harrisonburg VA 22802