In Part One of Janel Kragt Bakker’s interview with Gerald Schlabach, Ivan Kauffman, and Weldon Nisly, all of whom are leaders in Bridgefolk (the North American Mennonite-Catholic dialogue), they discussed the origins of contemporary Mennonite-Catholic exchange as well as the gifts the two traditions offer to each other. Though sources of attraction between the Catholic and Mennonite traditions vary, Schlabach, Kauffman, and Nisly identified Mennonite strengths in service and lay participation, and Catholic strengths in sacramental life. Participants in Mennonite-Catholic dialogue are often united by their shared commitment to peace and justice as well as their desire to build understanding and a sense of common purpose across the two traditions. In Part Two of the interview, they discuss how those involved in Mennonite-Catholic dialogue navigate painful divisions and cultural trends hostile to community and tradition.
Our current time is sometimes considered “post-ecumenical.” Denominational loyalty has waned, and people routinely switch churches. Few people are knowledgeable about differences between Christian traditions, and even fewer care about these differences. In our work at the Collegeville Institute, we frequently encounter people who have little notion of what the word “ecumenical” even means. How has this ethos played out in Mennonite-Catholic dialogue?
Gerald Schlabach: I have sometimes said that there is a real paradox about Bridgefolk. The people who have participated in Bridgefolk have done so because they are an exception to the post-ecumenical rule. They still take tradition seriously. There is something about Bridgefolk that resists this postmodern milieu in which loyalty to community and tradition—and by extension to church tradition—tends to be dissolved. At the same time, we wouldn’t be talking to each other if the postmodern milieu had not made the boundaries more fluid. I am not sure exactly what to do about that paradox except be honest about it. We benefit from something that we also resist. I start one of my books with a reflection upon the parable of the dishonest manager. A guy is dismissed by his boss and has a week to clean up the finances. He cuts some deals so that he can survive going forward, taking advantage of the very situation that has become problematic in order to move on. That is in some ways our situation. The postmodern lack of rootedness in community is troubling in many ways, but we are going to capitalize on that rootlessness in order to move on.
Ivan Kauffman: There are two very different ideas of ecumenism. One form is what Catholics call “indifferentism.” Indifferentism is not Bridgefolk’s idea of ecumenism. The differences between Christian traditions matter. And because they matter, we need to talk about them. We have found that when we talk about our differences, they do not disappear but they lose their divisive power. We can live with differences and respect each other.
Weldon Nisly: My personal experience and pastoral practice reiterate what Gerald and Ivan are saying. In congregational life, we have to recognize that people are crossing boundaries between traditions. In my congregation, for example, more than half of the adults did not grow up Mennonite. We have to be grounded in a tradition to know our story. But we also need to recognize that people are bringing their own stories into the collective story of particular tradition. Five centuries after the Protestant Reformation, we all live in more than one spiritual tradition. But we can’t just pick and choose pieces of various traditions and seek to embody all of them. We have to be located in a particular tradition in order to engage with people in other traditions. When we don’t claim a tradition, we can’t know our own identity. Instead of minimizing our differences or apologizing for them, we should recognize that our difference matters while honoring our differences and seeking to learn from each other’s traditions.
The Second Vatican Council made it possible for all of us to engage with other traditions in a way that at once takes us deeper into our own traditions and opens us to the ecumenical gift exchange between traditions. For me personally, the Collegeville Institute played a central role in enabling me to enter into dialogue with people from other traditions.
I want to talk about one of those key differences: the Eucharist. Bridgefolk participants sometimes describe themselves as sacramentally minded Mennonites or justice and peace-orientated Catholics. You each describe yourself as either a Catholic Mennonite or a Mennonite Catholic. But how can one be a Catholic Mennonite and not be able to receive the Eucharist at Catholic masses? And how can one be a Mennonite Catholic and not be able to partake in communion in Mennonite worship services?
Weldon Nisly: Like the Catholic tradition, the Mennonite tradition is also a primarily closed Eucharistic communion tradition. Those of us in Bridgefolk mutually recognize the tension on this issue. Our Eucharistic division is not something we are going to resolve, and it is not going away, because it is at the very core of our traditions.
Despite the painful divisions we face over the Eucharist, however, Mennonites have much to gain from understanding Catholic approaches to the Eucharist and the sacramental life. As a Mennonite, internalizing a sense of the Eucharist as the heart of Christian life has been enormously life shaping for me. Mennonites are too quick to see communion as an optional part of Christian life. I deeply believe that we need a more sacramental understanding of who we are as God’s people in the church. We need to become Eucharistic communities of peace. The Eucharist is profoundly formative. It will do more to transform who we are as a church and our witness to the world than anything else. I am dedicated to helping Mennonites develop a deeper understanding of liturgy, living into the power of the Eucharist.
Ivan Kauffman: We have suffered over the Eucharistic divide in Bridgefolk, and the way that we have dealt with it is by making foot washing our common sacrament. Foot washing has become a very rich practice at Bridgefolk gatherings. Additionally, though Catholics are not encouraged to receive communion outside the Catholic Church, in certain instances other Christians are permitted to receive the Catholic Eucharist. The abbot of Saint John’s Abbey has published an official statement based on two of Pope John Paul’s encyclicals which explicitly state that Catholics can now permit other Christians to receive the Eucharist provided three conditions are met. The most salient of these conditions is that the person receiving the Eucharist shares Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist. That opens the door for Mennonites who want to participate in the Eucharist. But there is another group of Mennonites who say that permission is not enough; they want to be invited to the table. Our inability to share communion together is an unsolvable problem at this time. But again and again in church history, people who have suffered through these difficulties have helped solve them.
Gerald Schlabach: When Bridgefolk started, I think we were pretty naïve about how easy it would be to be Eucharistic together. In the early years, we suddenly hit a wall of different assumptions about the Eucharist—not only theologically but also in terms of rules and exceptions to rules. What does it mean for the Abbey to say to Mennonites, “We can’t invite you to the Eucharist, but we also can’t turn you away.”? In Catholicism there is a long traditions of abiding by norms but allowing exceptions. This confuses Mennonites, who tend to ask, “Well, which is it?” We have put a lot of work into thinking about issues of intercommunion or shared communion, but it is easy to get stuck.
In addition to foot washing, we are exploring a practice that Margaret O’Gara, of blessed memory, suggested to us based on her experience with Lutheran-Catholic dialogue: a kind of double or parallel Eucharist. The first part of the service is shared—shared readings, shared prayers, shared singing, shared homily. Then the service divides into two halves for communion. In our case, one half is Catholic and the other Mennonite. We tried that practice for the first time last year, and on balance people felt good about it. It is a compromise. Part of what Margaret O’Gara said to us was, “This practice ritualizes where we are, both together and still apart in some ways. It is honest but it is shared. We can experience it together.” So we continue to work on it, seeing the long arc of the story. Even when it has been painful, it is a sign of the power of Eucharist. The pain itself is not a failure; it is a testimony.
Weldon Nisly: Our first task is holding that very suffering, that pain. Eucharistic division will work itself out in God’s time. Our task is to live into it, and not to live beyond it.
Ivan Kauffman: We suffer for the sake of the church. As Paul says, we complete Christ’s suffering, because it is only through suffering that we make progress. There are no easy solutions for any of the problems that really matter.
Weldon Nisly: The Collegeville Institute has a special opportunity in this work—not resolving all the problems posed by divisions in the church, but helping people in real life situations live more deeply into all that we hold. Bridgefolk is an example of coming together across divides that is particular to Mennonites and Catholics, but there are many parallels across traditions. We need to come together to share our stories. We listen, we learn, we reflect, we suffer. And in the process new possibilities arise.
Image credit: Institution of the Eucharist by Fra Angelico, courtesy of Museum Syndicate.