Making peace at the Table of the Lord

Gordon Houser

Having looked in past meetings at violence, discipleship and friendship, this year’s meeting of Bridgefolk took on the delicate subject of “Table fellowship,” or how to address Mennonites’ and Catholics’ different understandings of Communion.

Mennonites and Catholics have been gathering annually since 2002 under the name Bridgefolk to “celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s church,” according to its mission statement. This year’s conference, held June 29-July 2 at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., brought together 44 participants (22 Mennonites and 22 Catholics, though some individuals claim to be both).

Abbot John Klassen acknowledged that “Table fellowship has been at the edge of our conversation all along,” but with the trust built up over four previous meetings, the Bridgefolk board now felt ready to address it directly, he said.

The conference theme, “Making Peace: At Table, in the World,” encompassed seven sessions and included what Marlene Kropf, who with Klassen serves as board co-chair, called “the many tables of our lives.” She asked, “How do we celebrate God’s presence at our tables?”

Three panel presentations, each including a Mennonite and a Catholic, looked at making peace at domestic, local and world tables. Mennonite Joetta Handrich Schlabach and Catholic Dolores Dufner talked about the importance of table manners, whether in a family or a monastic setting.

Catholic Joe McLellan narrated his experiences with Hutterites, while Mennonite Darrin Snyder Belousek described meetings of Mennonites and Catholics in northern Indiana, where they had dialogues about church history, eccesiology, baptism and Communion.

Mennonite Susan Classen related her experiences as a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Central America and now as a spiritual director in a Catholic community in Kentucky. She said we can extend our table (add new leaves) only so far; then we need a new framework. Catholics Fred and Jeanette Birondo-Goddard spoke about their work in the Philippines with children. Their children’s centers became “zones of peace” that reminded people that peace is an option.

Mennonite Randy Spaulding led an evening hymn sing on June 30, and Dufner introduced a hymn text she had written.

On July 1, Fr. William Skudlarek presented the Catholic Communion tradition, drawing on the second-century writings of Justin Martyr. He referred to an encyclical by Pope John Paul II that marked a change in Catholic requirements for open Communion. Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church who “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments” may participate, according to the encyclical.

Eleanor Kreider presented the Mennonite Communion tradition, acknowledging that no two Mennonite congregations celebrate Communion the same. She referred to an image used by Classen of different wells tapping into the same aquifer to “drink deeply of the grace of God.”

That afternoon, Klassen and Kropf led a time of meeting at tables in small groups around the question, What does peacemaking at the Lord’s Table mean for Bridgefolk? The participants, Mennonite and Catholic, expressed the pain they feel of the division in the broader church.

Later, Klassen offered to celebrate a Mass with only the Bridgefolk participants. In a closing session the following morning, many expressed awe at the unexpected grace of that Eucharist. What that experience means for Bridgefolk remains unclear. One small group called it “a profound experience of hope.” Another group said that “we proceed with gentleness and care and continue to live with the tension.” The concluding worship time included a footwashing service.

Next year’s conference will be held July 26-29 in Elkhart, Ind.