Mennonite-Catholic Relations in 2001

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

For relations with the Mennonites the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is in contact with the Mennonite World Conference which has its headquarters in Strasbourg, France. Mennonites are part of the anabaptist family stemming from the Reformation. They adopted views that were more radical than the magisterial reformers such as Zwingli and Luther at the time of the sixteenth century. For example, they called for complete separation of Church and State, they were against infant Baptism. Those Christians who followed their way would be re-baptized (thus the designation "anabaptist"). They were therefore in conflict not only with the Catholic Church, but with the reformers as well, who explicitely condemned some of their views.

Today the communities in various countries who adhere to the Mennonite World Conference comprise about one million baptized members. Some of their larger communities are found in the USA, in India, in Indonesia, and in various countries of Africa.

A common position on our attitudes towards peace

An international dialogue between the Mennonite World Conference and the Catholic Church began in 1998. Its fourth meeting recently took place in Assisi, 27 November - 3 December 2001. The setting was important because Mennonites see some of their roots in the spiritual movements of the Middle Ages. One morning the dialogue group of fourteen persons visited sites in Assisi that are closely associated with the life of St Francis, such as the carcere, the churches of San Damiano, and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and this was an important aspect of the meeting.

From its beginning the dialogue has followed two tracks. One is a contemporary track, in which the two have explored together their respective views of the church, seeking to find areas of agreement, or at least convergence, as well as understanding clearly those issues on which they disagree. A variety of questions have been explored. The Assisi meeting dealt with the notion of sacraments (Mennonites prefer to use the term ordinances), particularly Baptism, which was a major issue at the time of the Reformation, and the Eucharist. The previous year papers were given on the question: "What is a Peace Church?". The importance of this latter point stems from the fact that Mennonites are among those known as the "historic peace churches" and have been characteristically pacifist in their approach to peace. This question of the contribution that the church can make to peace may be one in which this dialogue can make a particular contribution. Given the strong witness today of the Catholic Church to peace, as reflected especially in the Second Vatican Council's Gaudiumet spes,and in statements and Encyclicals since then, especially those of Pope John Paul II, it will be interesting to see how close Mennonite and Catholic views might come, towards a common position on their attitude towards peace, enabling them to give some common witness in this regard.

A clarification on history opens door to reconciliation

There has also been, secondly, an historical track. This aspect, also together with the contemporary track, underscores the hope that the dialogue can contribute to a healing of memories between Mennonites and Catholics. The historical questions addressed in the various sessions of the dialogue up to now have been far reaching. They have covered, for example, the implications for Christian life and witness of the "Constantinian shift" starting in the fourth and fifth centuries when Christianity moved from being a persecuted church, to a church with a prominent place in the empire. They include also the tragic conflicts of the sixteenth century and the bitter memories which have persisted since then. At the Assisi meeting, the historical papers focused on the relations between Church and State in the Middle Ages. Each side brings to this discussion its own history, experience and memory of these and other events and, because they have been set deeply in place by centuries of separation, frequently in sharp contrast to the views of the other. The dialogue, once again, can make a contribution towards reconciliation if it enables the two sides to offer together in their report some clarification on these and other episodes of history from today's ecumenical perspective, free of the polemics of the sixteenth century.

Before the Assisi meeting, Mennonite members of the dialogue visited Rome over a three-day period. They had discussions at the Pontifical Councils for Promoting Christian Unity, for Interreligious Dialogue, and for Justice and Peace. They toured St Peter's Basilica and the Scavi beneath it, visited the Sistine Chapel and the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, as well as the Centro ProUnione, andthe Centro Uno. These personal contacts, too, are valuable and make their own contribution, above and beyond the dialogue, to fostering a deeper understanding of one another.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 April 2002, page 10

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