International Mennonite Catholic Dialogue
July 12, 2002
As Jeff has indicated there is a long history behind our being here today.
It begins with the missionary movement of the past two centuries that has transformed the Church from a set of western institutions into a set of global institutions.
That new Church was given new shape by two exceptional leaders¾by Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, and by his contemporary, Dean Harold Bender, the founder of the Mennonite World Conference.
Vatican II opened the door to a new era in Church history. By adopting the Declaration on Religious Liberty it ended the era of persecution. And by adopting the Decree on Ecumenism, it opened the era of dialogue.
The Mennonite World Conference walked through that door by allowing its executive, Dr. C. J. Dyck, to attend the Council as an observer. His reports in the Mennonite periodicals were the first positive depiction of Catholicism in the Mennonite community since the Reformation.
When Pope John Paul convened the World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi in 1986 Dr. Dyck’s successor, Dr. Paul Kraybill, was there. At the opening ceremony he was seated as far from the pope as possible – next to the Jewish rabbi, who was even further away – but at the Christian prayer service later that day Dr. Kraybill and the pope exchanged an embrace of peace.
A few years later when Dr. Larry Miller became executive of the Mennonite World Conference he and Msgr. John Radano, a U.S. priest who is a senior official at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, together planned a formal international dialogue between Catholics and Mennonites.
The new dialogue is one of 13 now taking place at the Vatican level, ranging from Orthodox to Pentecostals. The Mennonite World Conference, with its 1 million members, is the smallest group the Vatican has thus far engaged in formal dialogue. This dialogue opened at the MWC headquarters in Strasburg, France in October 1998 and has continued with yearly weeklong sessions for the past four years.
The Mennonite delegation is chaired by Dr. Helmut Harder, former head of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. The other members, in addition to Dr. Miller, are: Dr. Nzash Lumeya, a theologian from the Congo; Dr. Mario Higueros, dean of the Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala; Rev. Andrea Lange, a German Mennonite pastor; Dr. Neal Blough, a U.S. historian who teaches in France; and Dr. Howard Loewen, a Mennonite Brethren theologian, now dean of Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Alan Kreider, then at Oxford University-and who is with us for this conference¾presented a paper at the third session.
The Catholic delegation is chaired by Bishop Joseph Martino of Philadelphia, whom I serve as an adviser-and who sends his “prayerful greetings” to this assembly. Its other members, in addition to Msgr. Radano, are: Msgr. John Mutiso-Mbinda a Kenyan priest on the Vatican ecumenical staff; Dr. Peter Nissen, a Dutch Catholic historian; Dr. Joan Back, an English leader of the Focolare Movement, one of the “ecclesial movements” that have much in common with Mennonites; and Fr. James Puglisi, a U.S. Franciscan who serves at an ecumenical center in Rome. Dr. Drew Christiansen, a U.S. Jesuit expert on the morality of warfare, joined the delegation from the third session onward. He is with us and will be speaking this evening.
The topic for this first series of dialogues was “The Healing of Memories.”
At the first session the delegates learned to know each other personally and described their traditions at this point in time. The second session, held near Venice, explored the two traditions’ differing views on Church history, and their current views on ecclesiology. The third, held in Germany, focused on events in the fourth century and began discussing what it means to be a peace Church. The fourth, held in Assisi, continued discussing historical issues, and began discussing baptism and communion.
A fifth session is scheduled for this fall, at which a final report will be prepared. That will be a public document, distributed to Catholic bishops worldwide, and made available to Mennonites internationally. Whether further dialogue will take place has not yet been decided.
Three major issues have emerged in these dialogues.
The first is the persecution of the Anabaptists by Catholics in the sixteenth century-an event largely unknown to Catholics-as well as the Mennonite belief that this persecution was made possible by a serious departure from the apostolic tradition in the fourth century, what Mennonites call “the Constantinian shift”.
The healing of memories has turned out to be far more difficult than expected. Pope John Paul’s Good Friday apology in 2000, which many Catholics thought would resolve this issue, actually complicated it for some Mennonites who thought his apology should have included a direct reference to the Anabaptists.
The second issue is the morality of warfare, which we will be discussing here.
The third is ecclesiology-what does it mean to be the Church? In shorthand one can say the Catholic tradition holds that being a Christian is equivalent to belonging to the Church, whereas the Mennonite tradition has held that being a Christian creates the Church. This topic has been the least discussed thus far in the dialogue, and will require further attention.
What impact have these dialogues had?
That will not be known for many years, but it is clear they have already brought the Mennonite peace witness before the international Catholic leadership. That was evident at the Day of Prayer for World Peace at Assisi on January 24, 2002.
This event, which was planned by Pope John Paul himself, as his response to the September 11 attacks, brought together several hundred representatives from every world religion and every Christian tradition to pray for peace.
It ended with twelve religious leaders reading portions of a joint Pledge of Peace. The leaders included the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the World Council of Churches, the leader of Jerusalem’s Muslims, a Korean Confucian leader, and the chief rabbi of France. To read the Pledge’s concluding paragraph Pope John Paul selected the President of the Mennonite World Conference, who read:
“We, as persons of different religious traditions, will tirelessly proclaim that peace and justice are inseparable, and that peace in justice is the only path which humanity can take. In a world with ever more open borders…we are convinced that security, freedom and peace will never be guaranteed by force but by mutual trust.”
And then Pope John Paul concluded the day’s events with this statement: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! “In the name of God, may every religion bring upon earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life-love!”
The prominent Mennonite role in this event was no accident. I had been told Pope John Paul has requested the Vatican’s ecumenical staff to give special attention to the Mennonite Catholic dialogue, because this dialogue places the issue of peace on the Catholic agenda, but I had not comprehended how significant his commitment to the Mennonite Catholic relationship was until I witnessed this powerful symbolic event.
In the 15 years between the first Assisi day of prayer in 1986 and Assisi 2002, the pope had moved Mennonites from the foot of the line to the head of the line.
I returned from Assisi profoundly convinced we are standing in a River of Grace¾a river that both feeds us and sweeps us along, in currents we cannot comprehend. And I believe that if we will leave our slavery to the past behind, and learn to swim in this River, and to drink from it, nothing is impossible.
The international dialogue is part of a process we have joined by coming here to engage in a North American Mennonite Catholic dialogue. Surely the success of the international dialogue gives us great reason to approach our task with hope.