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Four centuries of division: steps towards unity

International dialogues between the Catholic Church and other Christian World Communions involve a great deal of concentrated study and writing on the part of scholars of both communions over a period of years, in order to produce a report related to issues over which the two communions have been divided for centuries.

Once the report has been produced, a next step is the challenge of reception of its insights. This is important because the purpose of ecumenical dialogues and the reports they produce is to foster common understanding and unity among Christians whose communities have long been divided.

Hopefully, the reports will be received in a way that helps replace negative attitudes which have often been held by successive generations for centuries, with new attitudes, enabling the two communities to begin to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to take steps toward unity.

The first phase of international Mennonite-Catholic dialogue met from 1998-2003. Its report, entitled Called Together to be Peacemakers, was published in 2003. The purpose of this article is to indicate some ways in which reception of the report has been taking place during 2004-2005.

Mennonites are persons in the Anabaptist tradition of the Reformation, who took a more radical stance on certain issues in the 16th century than did followers of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

For example, Anabaptists called for complete separation of Church and State, and took what we would describe today as a pacifist stance on matters of peace. Believing that baptism must be administered only to those capable of a personal decision, they practiced rebaptism (thus the name Ana-baptist) of those baptised as infants.

For such positions they were perceived as threats to civil society and to the Church, and thus were subjected to persecution both in Catholic and Protestant territories.

Called Together to be Peacemakers explores, in chapter one, episodes of Church history where there were conflicts between the two (16th century) or over the interpretation of which they differ (the time of Constantine and the later Middle Ages).

A second chapter explores the contemporary theological understanding of Catholics and Mennonites regarding the Church, Baptism, Eucharist/Lord's Supper, and on questions of peace.
A third chapter explores the steps necessary for a healing of memory between the two.

In the two years, 2004-2005, since the publication of that report (cf. the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Information Service, 113 [2003]: 111-148) there have been a number of ways in which the report has been received for use and study by Catholics and Mennonites in different settings.

First, steps have been taken to make it widely available. Translations of the report, with cooperation between Catholics and Mennonites, have been made, so that it is found now in English, French, German and Spanish.

It has been printed fully or referred to in some Catholic and Mennonite journals. Among Catholic journals, One in Christ (July 2004) reprinted it and Istina (April-June 2004) published most of its chapter on Church history. It was reviewed favourably in journals in Germany (Herder Korrespondez, September 2004), and the U.S.A. (Benedictine Bridge, 2005).

On the Mennonite side, the Mennonite World Conference publication, Courier, had stories on the report in two issues in 2004 (vol. 19, nn. 2, 4). In the second of these, Catholic and Mennonite participants in the dialogue which produced the report were interviewed about it. The Courier continued to carry stories of the report's reception in 2005.

The report has been used locally for discussion in The Netherlands, Germany, Colombia and the United States of America, sometimes with the participation of members of the international dialogues.

Though all chapters of that report are interrelated, different aspects of the report have appealed to different persons and groups, whether it be the treatment of historical matters (cf. Istina above), the theme of peace or the concept of a healing of memory.

In The Netherlands, in January 2005, Mennonites invited Catholic dialogue member Dr Peter Nissen to speak about the dialogue at the Mennonite Conference Centre, Mennorode. On 17 March 2005, Pax Christi and the Algeme Doopsgezinde Society organized a meeting on the theme of dialogue, "Called Together to be Peacemakers", at which Nissen and a Mennonite minister gave papers. On 2 April 2005, Nissen addressed a meeting of Mennonites of two provinces of The Netherlands.

In Germany, on 7 July 2005, a programme commemorating the 1,200th anniversary of the Diocese of Münster included a meeting on "The Catholic Church as a Peace Church". Dr Nissen presented a paper on this theme with particular reference to "The Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue as a Challenge for the Future of the Churches".

Focusing on the dialogue in that context was appropriate because it was in Münster, in 1534-1535, that a disastrous clash took place, when a group of Anabaptists (called Melchiorites) established a radical experiment of the "Kingdom of Münster" under a violent and dictatorial regime in order to bring about the "Day of the Lord". They were an exception since Anabaptist groups were generally faithful to their principles of non-violence and pacifism. But these events confirmed Catholic and Protestant authorities in their opposition to the Anabaptist movement.

In North America there are several organizations fostering Mennonite-Catholic relations.

The Mennonite-Catholic Theological Colloquium was formed in 2000 to support the International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue which had begun in 1998. It first held three rounds of discussion by E-mail.

Then, on 20-21 July 2005 it held its first actual meeting at Eastern Mennonite University to discuss the Mennonite-Catholic report. Some 30 theologians, historians and ecumenists attended, including the President of the Mennonite World Conference, Dr Nancy Heisey, who is a professor at that University.

Another organization, Bridgefolk, which promotes dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics, has held an annual conference for about five years. A recent meeting took up the report Called Together to be Peacemakers. People in the Bridgefolk organization recently produced an abridged version of this Mennonite-Catholic international report in consultation with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Mennonite World Conference. It was published in 2005 and is being encouraged for use in Congregations, parishes and classrooms.

The Bridgefolk movement has also published stories about these and other meetings in several issues of its publication called the Bridge, and has put the report on its Web sight.

The North America Academy of Ecumenists has used the report as one resource in a programme to foster ecumenical formation. The Academy, one of the leading ecumenical organizations in North America, chose as the theme for its September 2005 conference: "Forgiveness and the Healing of Memories: the Ecumenics of Reconciliation". In relationship to that, the Academy organized an essay contest on that theme, inviting students in seminaries, theological schools and graduate schools of religion to write scholarly essays on that theme.

In Bogotá, Colombia, a Mennonite-Catholic dialogue initiated by three Mennonite Churches and co-sponsored by the Episcopal Commission of Doctrine of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, took place on 20 May 2005, centring on Called Together to be Peacemakers. The meeting has been described as "a significant ecumenical breakthrough" because Latin American Mennonites have been the most opposed to dialogue with Catholics of any regional group.

The various efforts just described have helped to bring the insights of the international Mennonite-Catholic dialogue to the attention of Mennonites and Catholics in local and academic settings in different parts of the world. One would hope that the report will be published in more journals and taken up in discussion in more places.

But the efforts reported here represent some steps toward the reception of the report, which is meant, after four centuries of mutual isolation and division, to begin to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation between Mennonites and Catholics, and steps towards unity.