Listening committee

Spirituality and Discipleship:
Catholics and Mennonites Bridging the Divide

Third Annual Bridgefolk Gathering
July 29-August 1, 2004
Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota
Listening Committee Report

The listening committee consisted of Susan Harrison and Brad Gregory. This report has three sections: an introduction, a review of what was said in the six main sessions of the gathering, and a few remarks regarding what was not discussed openly in the sessions, but which the members of the listening committee considered important.

1. Introduction

“Listen” is the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict, and listening committees are integral to meetings and conferences among Mennonites. In keeping with the monastic theme of attentiveness, the listening committee tried to listen attentively both to what was said in our common sessions, particularly regarding the overarching theme of spirituality and discipleship, and to be aware of what seems important in our interactions but was not said (or was said only informally, over meals, during free time, etc.).

2. What Was Said: An Overview of the Six Main Sessions

On Thursday evening, during the session entitled “Meeting the Folk in Bridgefolk,” Eric Massanari spoke about the importance of the influence of church history, his own family history (which includes Italian Catholic ancestors), and the influence of both Buddhist and Catholic spirituality in leading to a reengagement with his Mennonite faith and the pastorate. Sister Merle Nolde mentioned that her first direct interaction with Mennonites was at last year’s Bridgefolk gathering, and noted the influence of Mennonite scholar Alan Kreider and his wife during and after their visit to her religious community in June. Finally, Alice Noe singled out Ivan Kaufmann as the person who led her to Bridgefolk, and mentioned two biblical images relevant to our striving for mutual understanding: the reluctance of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb to enter the promised land (Num. 13-14), and the Church as the disheveled, tattered bride of Christ who regains her beautiful appearance as she proceeds down the aisle with her spouse.

The Friday morning session on “Action and Contemplation” included reflections from Biff Weidman and Abbot Eoin de Bhaldraithe about their choices to live contemplative lives. Biff reflected on the challenge of finding spiritual “breathing space” that nourishes life while living in a culture that validates persons by their roles and actions, sharing his struggle to live with incompleteness in contemplative life as a way of traveling rather than a realized destination. He noted the lack of Mennonite structures that nurture silent prayer, validate contemplation, and combine discipleship with prayer.

Abbot Eoin noted the transformation of contemplative life from medieval claustration to contemporary contemplative life that calls one out into action, with hope as the guiding virtue by which “Contemplation calls one to action and action calls one to contemplation.” He also reflected on the role of hospitality to Christians and strangers as actions that lead towards unity, with particular attention to the need for Christians to move beyond sectarianism. Both contributors reflected on how contemplation is subversive in the way it challenges one to resist conformity to broader cultural influences, whether individual or collective.

In “Families Crossing the Divide,” on Friday afternoon, Ivan and Lois Kauffman shared their story of how they came to the Catholic Church, even though they were raised as traditional Mennonites. Initiated by Ivan’s spiritual restlessness they eventually came to find a home in the Catholic community. Both shared how participation in the Eucharistic celebration and the Roman liturgy came to have a deeper meaning over time. The Kauffmans’ story reflected not only the joy of spiritual homecoming for those who cross over the bridge, but also the costs of going to the other side. Their story included a sense of loss and lament for the isolation they felt during their time of restlessness, the inadequacy of their tradition of origin in attending to their unease, and the inadequacies of their new tradition in bringing them into Catholic parish culture and life. Crossing the bridge from Mennonite to Catholic was difficult for their children, religiously and socially, and placed strain on wider family relationships.

On Friday evening, we heard a report on the joint Mennonite-Catholic document, Called Together to Be Peacemakers, completed in 2003 after five years of intensive ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Mennonite scholars. Helmut Harder, a participant in the dialogue on the Mennonite side, described the process and procedures entailed in the six week-long meetings over five years that comprised the principal basis for the document. Drew Christiansen, a participant in the dialogue on the Catholic side, highlighted particular contributions to the document by different Mennonite and Catholic scholars who were involved. Tom Finger, as the Mennonite respondent to the document for our gathering, criticized the use of “ordinance” rather than “sacrament” language in the document, arguing that there exists greater latitude to use sacramental language among Mennonites. Finally, Margaret O’Gara began with four brief, positive remarks about the document and its significance, moved on to four areas of strong convergence between Catholics and Mennonites as articulated in the document, and noted that the understanding of the Church with respect to “tradition” might have been more fully developed than in fact it was.

The Saturday morning session, “Psalms and Hymns,” featured presentations by Ken Nafziger and Michael Joncas. Ken spoke about the function of hymns in Mennonite spirituality: they allow one to hear one’s own voice in the congregation, they tap into multiple layers of memories, they go into the center of who Mennonites are, so much so that many Mennonites would regard the loss of their hymnody as the loss of worship as such. Due to changes in how and when Mennonites gather and sing, there needs to be an intentional effort to teach newcomers and younger generations how to sing the four parts necessary for the traditional hymnody to continue. Michael Joncas articulated several different ways in which Psalms are sung in Catholic worship. Scripture in Catholic liturgy and worship is used very deliberately, including the use of the Psalms; when they are set to music, efforts are made to respect them as a genre. Catholicism uses singing as a vehicle of movement through the liturgy, rather than primarily to voice theological propositions or proclamations in and of themselves, the way that much Mennonite hymnody does. Michael also explained how the Psalms (“Ancient Jewish war cries”) can be understood as Christian prayers.

Saturday afternoon’s session was devoted to reports from the leaders of and participants in the four affinity groups that met two times each during the gathering. The Action and Contemplation group mentioned the challenge of integrating spirituality and action as well as of identifying the many ways in which these domains are lived out. The Family Life group devoted its attention to particular stories of Catholic-Mennonite families. The Catholic Spirituality and Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism group noted common themes in excerpts from Johannes Tauler, the Theologia Deutsch, Peter Riedemann, and Pilgram Marpeck. And the group that concentrated on the Peacemakers document discussed ways to share it with church members at the local level of parishes and congregations. This led to a wider discussion regarding the same issue, before Ivan Kaufmann solicited feedback about the Bridgefolk newsletter, The Bridge, and Gerald Schlabach led a discussion about the organizational future of Bridgefolk. There was a general sense that because different people are drawn to the group for different reasons, its character should remain relatively informal.

The listening committee noted five themes pertaining to spirituality that emerged from our sessions:

  1. In a culture of noise, achievement, and often frenetic activity, choosing to lead a contemplative life is itself a counter-cultural, subversive act, a discipline that makes one marginal to the wider society.
  2. The interplay between contemplation and action is an incomplete, uncertain path on which to travel, not a destination as such. On the way, lectio divina is a contemplative discipline accessible to all believers.
  3. To cross over the Mennonite-Catholic bridge reveals the spiritual discipline of perseverance despite being misunderstood and rejected, a commitment to follow God’s call and a way of life rather than to receive a guaranteed outcome.
  4. How do different traditions accommodate those who are uneasy with status quo forms of spirituality, who are restless for change?
  5. In worship, singing is both contemplation and action, a communal participation that recalls memories and fosters community among those involved, as we experienced during our gathering in singing hymns as well as Psalms.

The listening committee noted three themes that emerged from our sessions with respect to the theme of discipleship:

  1. Drawing on the historic identity of Mennonite churches as peace churches, and the important emphasis on peace in Roman Catholic official documents and theology since Vatican II, there was considerable convergence of persons from both traditions who understand Peacemaking as part of discipleship.
  2. Throughout the gathering, personal stories were the primary means by which accounts of discipleship (including in relationship to spirituality) were articulated.
  3. Friendship between Catholics and Mennonites-both renewed and newly formed, both the experience and the enactment of it-is itself a form of discipleship, a concrete response to Jesus’ command (“Love one another . . .”). Despite the lack of unity that persists, we should rejoice in our friendships and recall how preferable they are to centuries of enmity, controversy, mutual suspicion, and indifference.

3. What Was Not Said (Or Was Not Said Openly)

The listening committee noted several topics or themes that seem critically important but were not discussed during the gathering.

  1. The Gospel reading for the Feast of St. Ignatius (July 31) from Luke 14 concerned the importance of calculating the costs before one lays the foundation for a building. In contrast to the official approval of Bridgefolk on the Catholic side, Susan wondered about the degree to which Mennonites have begun building before tallying all the costs, and urged Mennonites to do their homework so that their bridge foundation doesn’t get washed away in a torrent. In practical terms, this might mean that each Mennonite participant in Bridgefolk approach their home congregation or conference for a letter of sending or commendation. Such letters from parishes for Catholic participants would foster grassroots solidity of the dialogue on the Catholic side as well.
  2. Some Catholics as well as Mennonites expressed considerable unease with Mennonites receiving the Eucharist at Mass. While non-reception of the body and blood of Christ at Mass has been identified as a source of pain by some Mennonites, it is equally the case that its reception is a source of pain for other Catholics and Mennonites. The Eucharist is one of the three sacraments of initiation in the Roman Catholic Church, and it signifies full communion with the local bishop and the pope. For a Mennonite to receive the Eucharist is less like a Catholic receiving the Lord’s Supper in Mennonite worship than it would be like a Catholic being baptized as a Mennonite without in fact having made the commitment to live as one.
  3. We did not hear conversation about the lack of Mennonite Church’s [US] membership in broader ecumenical agencies, such as NCC and WCC. Nor was there discussion about the lack of ecumenical dialogue between Mennonites and other churches of the Anabaptist tradition, such as the Hutterites, Amish, and Brethren┬áchurches.[1]
  4. Both Mennonites and Catholics were wrestling with the metaphor of the bridge, and how best to conceive it and our relationship to it. Are we passing over it, lingering on it, or viewing it from one side or the other? Brad mentioned the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with its homes and shops built on the bridge, while Susan mentioned the bridges in Esfahan, Iran, where the top level is used for crossing while the lower level consists of numerous tea rooms where friends and strangers gather for tea and discussion before going on their way.
  5. Should we give greater attention to wide social and political concerns in our ecumenical dialogue? If, by some miracle, complete reconciliation and reunion of all Mennonites and Catholics occurred next month, what difference would it make to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, the neglect of American public schools, the lack of national health care in the U.S., Christian brothers and sisters who are hungry in other parts of the world, and so forth?

4. Concluding Remarks

There seems to have been a widespread sense that the overarching theme of Spirituality and Discipleship was productive and worthwhile. This year’s Bridgefolk gathering demonstrated its vitality both through the return of participants who had attended previous gatherings, as well as through the presence of Mennonites as well as Catholics who were here for the first time. Common music and meals, continuing and new friendships as well as the sharing of concrete, personal stories are a mutual gift to one another; they are a road by which to maintain our presence on the bridge, whatever particular form that presence assumes from person to person.

[1]In July 2004 Mennonite Church Canada voted to join the Canadian Council of Churches, and affiliate with the Evangelical Fellowship of Churches in Canada.