Mennonites positive about historic dialogue with the Vatican

By staff writers
November 6, 2007

Mennonites have welcomed the opportunity recently presented to their 1.2 million strong world body to dialogue officially with the Roman Catholic Church on peace and theological concerns, as part of a historic visit to the Vatican.

Ferne Burkhardt, news editor for Mennonite World Conference (MWC) writes: When Mennonites from 10 countries spent five days with Catholic Church leaders in Vatican City, each group was interested in learning to know the other better. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity invited and hosted the Mennonite World Conference delegation from 18 – 23 October 2007.

“We were so warmly welcomed that it was almost overwhelming,” said Nancy Heisey, MWC president. “We learned much about how the Roman Catholic Church carries out its mission, and we were able in many of our encounters to share our own understandings, to describe our ministries and to raise our questions.”

The invitation for the visit grew out of the international dialogue between MWC and the Pontifical Council, which took place from 1998 to 2003 and resulted in a 48-page report, “Called Together to be Peacemakers.”

This visit provided the opportunity for Mennonite World Conference to take responses to the report as well as concerns about the Catholic Church from MWC member churches around the world to the Pontifical Council.

The MWC delegation also held conversations at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

“When Catholic Church leaders think of Mennonites, they see us as leading Christian bearers of the message of peacemaking and nonviolence, which is at the heart of the gospel,” noted Larry Miller, MWC general secretary. Beginning at the least with Pope John Paul II, key Catholic leaders, too, see active peacemaking and non-violence rooted in Jesus Christ as normative, not disconnected from the gospel, he said. “Pope Benedict XVI reiterated this position in his remarks to the MWC delegation.”

Memories of 16th century Anabaptist and Catholic encounters recalled that the Anabaptist practice of baptizing believers already baptized as infants was considered heretical and provoked persecution. The public acknowledgement of a voluntary, adult decision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ was not acceptable then. Now adult baptism among Catholics is seen as “normative,” according to Rev. Augustine DiNoia, Undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is increasing in frequency, particularly in the global North.

Monsignor John Radano, head of the Western Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, credits Anabaptists, together with Baptists, as “the primary proponents of adult baptism.” However, he asks, “Do Mennonites accept Catholic adult baptism?” Mennonites and Catholics agreed that questions of baptism require much more discussion.

Conversations around the church and baptism occurred at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, headed this powerful department for more than 20 years.

A disappointment for MWC delegation member Paulus Widjaja, MWC peace commission secretary from Indonesia, was hearing that the Catholic Church calls most other Christian churches outside the Catholic Church “ecclesial communities,” but not “churches.”

“At the end of our visit, the MWC delegation formulated a document that states what a church is in our belief. Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity had stated their openness to receive such a document and to study it,” he said.

The statement, sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity following the visit, identifies belief in the triune God, Jesus Christ as the foundation of the Church, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, the scriptures as the authority for the Church, baptism as a public sign of commitment to a life of discipleship in the Believers Church tradition, the Lord's Supper as remembrance and corporate sharing in the body and blood of Christ and of celebration and hope and encouragement for the Church to be one. (The statement will be posted on the MWC web site,

On Sunday morning, the Mennonites attended a service at the Basilica of St Mary Major where they were introduced to worshippers by the Basilica’s Archpriest. They also prayed together at the catacombs and fellowshipped with leaders of the Focolari, an important lay movement within the Catholic Church, where they heard testimonies of meeting Jesus and of changed lives.

“I have the impression that these Focolari are people who genuinely commit themselves to live out the gospel in their daily lives....How wonderful and peaceful our world would become if only all Christians had the commitment and tried hard to live the gospel and Christ’s love in our daily lives as do the Focolari,” reflected Widjaja.

On October 19, the delegation had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who said to them, “Since it is Christ Himself who calls us to seek Christian unity, it is entirely right and fitting that Mennonites and Catholics have entered into dialogue in order to understand the reasons for the conflict that arose between us in the 16th century. To understand is to take the first step towards healing.”

Pope Benedict also spoke of a common understanding of nonviolence and active peacemaking at the heart of the gospel and of a continuing search for unity. “Our witness will remain impaired as long as the world sees our divisions,” he concluded.

In her remarks to the Pope on behalf of MWC, Heisey spoke of the “great common heritage of faith...[and] the challenges of being God's people in this time” that Mennonites and Catholics share. She noted “the role of the church in matters of mission and evangelism, peace and justice, and a life of discipleship” and “the complexities of relationship between church and society” as other common struggles.

“As Mennonites, we have something to share and to learn at the same time,” said Mulugeta Zewdie, delegation member from Ethiopia and general secretary of the Meserete Kristos Church, at the end of the visit. “The dialogue and this visit can help [us] fellowship with Catholics at the local level. I encourage MWC to continue to work on this fellowship.”

The visit by the MWC delegation captured the attention of the media. The international Catholic press published stories and Vatican Radio and Television conducted an interview with Miller and Heisey.

At the end of the visit, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and MWC leaders discussed both the visit and the question of future contact. MWC leaders want to report to and get direction from the General Council, which meets next in 2009. Catholic Church leaders desire dialogue with Mennonites and will adapt to the MWC timetable, noted Miller.

MWC appointed delegates from the five continental regions included General Council members Nancy Heisey (North America), Mulugeta Zewdie (Africa), Thijn Thijink (Europe), Paulus Widjaja (Asia), and Victor Wall (Latin America).

Delegates from MWC member churches that accepted invitations to send representatives were Lene-Marie Funck-Späth, German Mennonite churches; Ron Penner, Evangelical Mennonite Conference, Canada; and Iris de Leon-Hartshorn, Mennonite Church USA.

Participating MWC staff members were general secretary Larry Miller (France) and Helmut Harder (Canada), co-chair, Catholic/MWC International Dialogue.

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