Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
On March 19, the newly elected Pope Francis celebrated his inaugural Mass at St. Peter’s Square with some 150,000 people in attendance. Among those gathered for the occasion were two Mennonites—Henk Stenvers of the Netherlands and Rainer Burkart of Germany—who were present on behalf of Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in response to an invitation from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The next day, Stenvers and Burkart attended a service at the Vatican in which Pope Francis formally welcomed international and ecumenical guests. In their brief conversation with the pope, Stenvers said they expressed gratitude for the inclusion of “small churches” in dialogues promoted by the Catholic Church and, he continued, “we assured him of our prayers.”
From one perspective, the brief encounter of Mennonites and the pope was a relatively small matter—a ceremonial formality overshadowed by the presence of more famous and powerful guests and by the fact that Catholics outnumber Mennonites in the world by approximately 1,000 to 1.
Still, the fact that Mennonites were present at the event—coupled with our participation in recent dialogues and evidence of growing Mennonite-Catholic interaction at the grassroots level—suggests that Mennonite relations with the Catholic Church have been undergoing a tectonic shift.
In the centuries following the tumultuous divisions of the 16th century, Mennonite attitudes toward the Catholic Church and its hierarchy were suspicious at best. As with most groups born out of conflict, the heirs of the Anabaptist tradition have tended to define themselves in negative terms over against the groups they left behind.
Mennonites, we have said, are “neither Catholic nor Protestant.” We do not baptize babies, worship saints, believe the bread and wine of Communion become the literal body and blood of Christ or are willing to use violence to defend our faith. At the root of this identity of opposition were the memories of Anabaptist martyrs whose suffering at the hands of Catholic authorities reinforced a sense of Catholic “otherness.”
In some parts of Latin America, especially Colombia and Argentina, this wariness toward the Catholic Church was bolstered in the 20th century by on-going stories of harassment and even persecution of Mennonites and other Protestant minorities. Indeed, it is still common in Spanish-speaking settings to refer casually to “Christians” and “Catholics,” suggesting the two do not overlap.
Yet there are also many signs that this identity of opposition is changing. Already in the 1980s, historians of Anabaptism began to note how much the radical reformers were shaped by the writings of Thomas à Kempis, currents of Catholic lay piety and the influence of certain Catholic mystics. Though Amish groups may find the comparison surprising, one can also trace significant lines of continuity between Catholic monastic orders and the disciplined, communal, nonconforming, pacifist, hierarchically structured way of life—sealed by a solemn vow of commitment to Christ—that characterizes the Amish today.
In 2003, Mennonites and Catholics concluded a sustained conversation on their shared commitment to peace with a joint statement, “Called Together to be Peacemakers.” And more recently, MWC has joined in a trilateral conversation with Catholics and Lutherans to discuss our differing understandings of baptism. Signs of an ecumenical thawing were dramatically symbolized closer to home by the recent creation of the “Michael Sattler” house adjacent to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., as a center of hospitality and a “permanent bridge” between the Mennonite and Catholic communities.
So what does all this mean for the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church? First, it is significant that Pope Francis—like César García, general secretary of MWC—comes from the Global South, home to 60 percent of the world’s Catholics and two-thirds of all Mennonites. Even more important, in his inaugural Mass, Francis made clear that he wants his pontificate to be characterized by humility and focused on the poor. The role of the pope, he said, is to speak especially on behalf of “the weakest, the least important, … the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison”—surely a message that Mennonites all around the world can embrace.
Differences between Mennonites and Catholics persist, but the time has come for Mennonites to move beyond an identity of opposition to celebrate our shared commitments and proclaim with our Catholic brothers and sisters the good news of Christ’s healing and hope. “Today amid so much darkness,” the pope concluded in his homily, “we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others.” Amen.
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