Mennonite Delegation to Vatican Includes EMU Professor

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 (MWC) delegation, Oct. 18 – 23, 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.”

Dr. Heisey is chair of the Bible and religion department at EMU.

EMU prof visits Vatican
Nancy Heisey, MWC president, presents a framed image of Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems of Asperen, the Netherlands, to Pope Benedict XVI. She told the story of Willems, who was captured, tried and convicted, but escaped from prison in 1569. Willems fled across the thin ice of a pond, but when the guard who pursued him broke through the ice, Willems turned back and rescued him. Willems was recaptured and soon burned at the stake. (Credit: Servizio Fotograpfico de L’.O.R., Citta del Vaticano)

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.

Messages of Peacemaking and Non-violence

“When Catholic Church leaders think of Mennonites, they see us as leading Christian bearers of the message of peacemaking and non-violence, 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 acknowlegement 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.

Questions Surround Baptism

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.

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 Christ 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,” Widjaja commented. “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,” he added.

Meeting with the Pope

On Oct. 19, the delegation had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who told the group, “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 dialog 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 stated.

In her remarks to the Pope on behalf of MWC, Dr. 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.

“This meeting sought to move beyond the dialog stage to develop a deeper level of understanding between the two Christian communities,” Heisey said.

“My long-term aspiration from this significant gathering is that both religious bodies examine further what it means to emphasize peace as central to the gospel message and that both the Catholic Church and Mennonites will become even stronger voices for peace and justice in the world,” Heisey stated.

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

What for the Future?

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 dialog 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-Sp