Friar Cornelis: “I’ve come here to see whether I can . . . bring you back to the Catholic faith of our mother, the holy Roman church, from which you have apostatized to this damnable Anabaptism.”
Pastor de Roore: “I have apostatized from your Babylonian mother, the Roman church, to the . . . true Church of Christ-this I confess and thank God for it.
That’s exchange between a Franciscan Inquisitor and Anabaptist martyr-to-be way back in 1569, according to author Thieleman J. van Braght. 1 It comes from an article by Ivan J. Kauffman, “Mennonite-Catholic Conversations in North America: History, Convergences and Opportunities”. 2 Kaufmann notes that “this book has played a major role in forming the Mennonite community’s self-image from its publication to the present,” which to me is reminiscent of Fox’s Book of Martyrs (1583), (which I recall with some amusement was read to me as child by my now-papist father).
In light of this depiction of Catholic-Protestant relations, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief that Catholics and Mennonites are speaking again, howbeit on better terms and in a more civilized and respectful manner — such that in 1997, Cardinal Edward Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity conveyed his greetings to the World Mennonite Conference meeting in Calcutta, saying:
“We are convinced that it is the will of Christ that his disciples seek unity, for the scandal of division among Christians ‘provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.’ Please know that we are with you in prayer during your daily deliberations.”
Such a greeting from a Cardinal of the Catholic Church would certainly have raised the eyebrows of Friar Cornelis and Pastor de Roore.
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Anybody wanting to know more of the history of the Mennonites and Annabaptists and their relations with the Catholic Church will certainly benefit from reading Kaufmann’s article. Here are a few historical points I thought interesting:
- “Friar Cornelis was willing to cause Pastor de Roore’s death for the sake of preserving social and religious order. But Pastor de Roore would not have been willing to cause Friar Cornelis’ death, even in self-defense . . . The rejection of lethal violence under any circumstances continues to be a major issue dividing Mennonites and the other Anabaptist-origin groups from other Christian churches.” [Amusing biographical note: my father has traced our family tree back to a draft-dodger who eluded conscription during the Revolutionary War].
- Annabaptists were actually persecuted by Catholics and Protestants until the 18th century, “until they were successful in establishing relatively stable communities in the Netherlands, Alsace, Ukraine and Pennsylvania” (where they would evolve into the denominations we now call Mennonite and Amish).
- “Although several Anabaptist-origin communities survived in Europe, only the Dutch would survive in any number, and they at the cost of disavowing the pacifism of their founders. The future of the pacifist Anabaptist tradition would be in North America.”
- Upon migration to North America, Catholics and Swiss Anabaptists found themselves in the minority and discriminated against by the Protestant majority — “Catholics because they were not Protestants, Anabaptists because they were pacifists — but nevertheless allowed to exist.” Both adopted similar survival strategies by forming tightly-bound subcultures, with their own schools, cultural traditions and religious organizations. “The right to religious liberty and the separation of church and state which Mennonites and other Anabaptist-origin groups required came to be sought by American Catholics as well, since only under these political conditions could they hope to survive in a majority Protestant culture.”
- The earliest known Mennonite-Catholic interaction in North America occured informally, when German-speaking Catholics and Alsatian Amish both settled in Waterloo, Ontario. Bishop Peter Litwiller, the leader of the Amish community, and Fr. Eugene Funcken, the leader of the Catholic community, became personal friends and engaged in an informal dialogue.
- For all the criticism of Vatican II and denunciations of “ecumenism” by some factions with Catholicism, it is interesting to note that the Council itself was instrumental in prompting Anabaptist-origin denominations like the Mennonites to “re-examine their attitudes and ask if they could regard Catholics as Christians.” According to Kauffman, concurrently with Vatican II, Mennonites began to read Catholic authors, attend Catholic retreats, place themselves under Catholic spiritual directors, and adopt pre-Reformation liturgical practices such as the lectionary and frequent communion. 3
Kaufmann goes on to describe in great detail how five factors — (1) internationalization of the Church; (2) shift from a dogmatic to an historical intellectual perspective; (3) democratization of society; (4) liturgical and spiritual change; (5) changes in the morality of warfare — shaped Catholics and Mennonites and their ineraction with each other, and chronicles the major (and predominantly informal) meetings between Catholics and Mennonites in the 20th Century. Of these, there is one encounter that really caught my attention: the Catholic Church’s meeting with The Bruderhof, a contemporary Anabaptist community founded by Eberhard Arnold in the 1920’s, and associated with the 16th century Hutterites. The Bruderhof has the distinction of being the first Anabaptist-origin community to enter into formal dialogue with the Catholic Church at the institutional level. According to Kaufmann, “Although this dialogue does not involve Mennonites directly, it has an important impact on Mennonites because of the theological positions they share with the Bruderhof.”
The Bruderhof-Catholic conversation was initiated by Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the third Christian millennium, Tertio Millenio Adveniente, which included a statement indicating the Catholic Church was prepared to apologize for having in the past used “violence in the service of the truth.” When the Bruderhof leadership read this statement they contacted their friend Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who in turn arranged an appointment with Cardinal O’Connor. The Cardinal received them in March 1995, accepting copies of their writings and noting the potential for greater Catholic understanding of Anabaptism. 4
A few months later the Bruderhof leadership met in Rome with Cardinal Ratzinger, . . . The Cardinal listened as his visitors read accounts of two of the Anabaptists martyred in the sixteenth century. He then made this statement:
What is truly moving in these stories is the depth of faith of these men, their being deeply anchored in our Lord Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than death.
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 Christians 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 another.
I believe it is important for us not to adopt worldly standards, but rather to be ready to face the world’s opposition and to learn that Christ’s truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness, which are truth’s most trustworthy signs. I believe that this is the point at which we all have to begin learning anew, the only point through which Christ can truly lead us together. 5
Following this meeting in Rome the senior leader of the Bruderhof, Elder Johann Christoph Arnold, was invited to an ecumenical reception for Pope John Paul II in New York. Elder Arnold spoke briefly with the pope at this reception. Later Cardinal O’Connor visited the Bruderhof. This entire set of encounters appears to be a major event in Anabaptist-Catholic relations. Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement appears especially significant from an Anabaptist perspective. 6 What remains is to explore the possibility, inherent in Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks, that the Anabaptist martyrs could in some way be honored by the Catholic Church for their witness to religious liberty and the Church’s peace position.
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Kauffman’s article is of personal interest to me as well, as my background on my father’s side is predominantly Swiss Mennonite. However, with the conversion of my father and 3/4 of the Blosser siblings to Romanism, the religious disposition of future Blossers will most likely be no longer Mennonite, making my grandfather “last of his kind.”
To be honest, this is something I regard with mixed feelings — gratitude for myself, at having discovered the Church and the Catholic faith; but at the same time mixed with sadness for my grandparents, because especially as I get older I find much to appreciate about the Mennonites and my background, and I wonder how much, if anything, of their religious heritage will be carried on by their offspring.
How does it feel to be in their shoes, I wonder, now separated by the gulf of troubled history and religious tradition, a rift not likely to be healed in this life?
- The Bloody Theater, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (1660), trans. Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1950), 774-75.
- Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1999.
- See also “Renewing the Conversation: Mennonite Responses to the Second Vatican Council,” by Earl Zimmerman, in the same issue, which describes the mixed reactions among some Mennonites to the Council.
- “An Historic Meeting,” The Plough (May/June 1995), 18-19.
- “Steps Toward Reconciliation,” The Plough (Summer 1995), 22-27.
- “Meeting Brother John Paul II,” The Plough (Nov./Dec. 1995), 28-29; “Cardinal O’Connor Visits Woodcrest,” The Plough (Nov./Dec. 1996), 2-3. Yet another meeting occurred in 2001 with several hundred representatives representing Catholic orders (including John Michael Talbot), as reported by Emmy Barth and Archbishop Harry J. Flynn.