Bridgefolk.net

What Have We Learned? III

Margaret R. Pfeil
University of Notre Dame

The latest issue of The Bridge contains a moving account of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s encounter with leaders of the Bruderhof. After listening to the stories of two sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyrs, he remarked:

‘We are distressed of course by the fact that the church was so closely linked with the powers of this world that it could deliver other Christian[s] to the executioner because of their beliefs.

This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to repent again and again, and how much the church must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accept the truth as the only standard – to look to Christ, not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing, a way that will always lead to martyrdom in one form or other’.[1]

In reading Called Together to Be Peacemakers, I was moved by the humility of its tone. In a gentle way, it raises important questions about the legacy of martyrdom imposed by Catholics upon Mennonites. As a Catholic, though, I find that it doesn’t go far enough in calling me to deep mourning for the murderous persecution of Anabaptists committed by my church in the sixteenth century.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s words come nearer to eliciting the kind of deliberate examination of conscience required. Interestingly, he imputes this sin of persecution to the church itself, not to its sons and daughters, as would typically be the case in official texts. Thus, he seems to want to emphasize the need for institutionally-based repentance and transformation.

His approach goes a long way toward meeting Abbot Eoin’s concern, expressed in a letter in that same issue of The Bridge, that the treatment of martyrdom in Called Together seems to reflect a defensiveness on the part of Catholics rather than real repentance and honest acknowledgment that “our newfound tolerance is indeed a tender plant,” given that the Catholic Church only fully affirmed the right and duty of religious freedom forty years ago at Vatican II.[2]

The humble contrition and conversion at both the personal and institutional levels required by real purification and healing of memories will flourish as the fruit of God’s Spirit in our lives and in our ecclesial communities. Here, I think that greater attention to Mennonite and Catholic understandings of pneumatology would help to forge a common spirituality of peacemaking. How do Mennonites and Catholics understand discernment of the Spirit and the dynamism of charisms enlivening a particular community? And in practical terms, how might these spiritual disciplines be applied in the face of an impending or seemingly never-ending war? As a Catholic, I remain bewildered and feeling not a little betrayed by the fact that no local ordinary in the U.S., except Romanian Bishop Botean of Ohio, publicly declared the current war in Iraq to be unjust when it began, in spite of the fact that the U.S. bishops and the Vatican had expressed grave concern that the ad bellum criteria had not been met. Why is this?

As a church, we seem unable and unwilling to respond to Ratzinger’s call to witness to the truth prophetically, even unto martyrdom and I believe it is because we have not, in our own local ecclesial communities, cultivated the necessary spiritual weapons. Like Dante’s moneylenders, many of us have been enthralled and seduced by material comforts, so much so that we fail to object when others are sent into war to die in order to protect these moneybags strung around our necks. But at what great price! Dante got it right: By making idols of material goods and certain conceptions of personal and national security, we become consumed by them and lose our sensibility to the creative and risky love of God’s Spirit renewing and energizing our lives. Spiritually disconnected, we become vulnerable to the fear that breeds structures of material and spiritual violence, and we find it ever more difficult to love other human beings and the rest of creation as God loves them, with a passionate and total surrender, a complete willingness to give even our lives in service of the God of life.

The witness of the martyrs invites Catholics and Mennonites to ask what might be worthy of our blood as a sign of our baptismal commitment today. Christianity is a flesh and blood religion, incarnated in Christ’s own Spirit-filled body, the church. Perhaps following the lead of Pilgram Marpeck’s writings,[3] Catholics and Mennonites might fruitfully explore incarnational theology as a way of thinking about areas of convergence and divergence regarding our respective approaches to ordinances and sacraments.

A kind of liturgical asceticism may be useful to consider here. As my colleague, David Fagerberg, has described this term, it connotes a contemplative awareness of the practices of the worshipping community as leitourgia, the work of the people of God at the service of the world. “If liturgy means sharing the life of Christ (being washed in his resurrection, eating his body), and if askesis means discipline (in the sense of forming), then liturgical asceticism is the discipline required to become an icon of Christ and make his image visible in our faces.”[4] Liturgical asceticism springs from the waters of baptism, giving expression to the Christian commitment to follow Jesus by renouncing all that would keep us from letting the Spirit’s love fill us.

This approach would provide a liturgically-based way to further explore Mennonite and Catholic approaches to sin and salvation, as suggested by Called Together To Be Peacemakers. For instance, how do our worshipping practices shape our Christian response to the principalities and powers destroying life in our own times, the social dimension of sin? To answer this question, we would need to articulate a more explicit account of power than this document has provided. Two examples come to mind. First, ecclesiologically, how does power function in the lived practice of our worshipping communities? The Catholic Church is still reeling from the scandal of systemic clergy sexual abuse and struggling to find adequate procedures of accountability. Viewed from this painful desert experience of purification, the Mennonite emphasis on being in right relationship with one another as a precondition of worshipping together offers great hope. As a practice of liturgical asceticism, it grounds mutual accountability in the baptismal commitment of discipleship.

Secondly, how do power dynamics shape our worshipping community’s engagement with the world? The document mentions the option for the poor as an important component of the Catholic perspective on peace, but it seems that both the Mennonite and Catholic communities could act in greater solidarity with the socio-economically poor. This would also require us to examine the intersection of race and class more carefully and to name the systemic advantages that Mennonite and Catholic peacemakers, most of whom are white members of the middle and upper-middle classes, enjoy at the expense of others in U.S. society and in the world who suffer under the weight of structures of racial and economic domination.

Naming and dismantling unjust structures of power, including and perhaps especially those from which we benefit, is essential to peacemaking. By taking greater risks of discipleship together, I think that Catholics and Mennonites will be freed by the Spirit’s love to discover in the doing the meaning of John 17, Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one.


[1] “Benedict and the Bruderhof,” The Bridge (Summer 2005), 8.
[2] Abbot Eoin de Bhaldraithe, “Bridgefolk Mail” The Bridge (Summer 2005), 15.
[3] cf. John Rempel, “Ritual as My Third Language: An Autobiographical Account.”
[4] David Fagerberg, “A Century on Liturgical Asceticism,” Diakonia 31:1 (1998), 41.

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