St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, St. Paul, MN
29 May 2004
Today, at this vigil, we begin to mark the fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when God launched the Church out of a dazed and fearful band of disciples — promising with the gift of diverse tongues to create a new kind of people who would love one another by loving former enemies across every national, ethnic and racial boundary. At Pentecost we look back to a time when diverse tongues at Babel instead marked our misdirected pride and divisions. At Pentecost we look forward to worshiping the Lamb whose death in suffering love has given Him the unexpected power to rule the nations without bloodshed, so that our hymn of praise is only singable “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). At Pentecost we look around to see the Holy Spirit at work creating a sign of this, God’s future, in the Church, which for all its earthy humanity becomes a miraculous and sacramental sign of God’s promise to bless all peoples.
One way to live longingly and actively for this truly “Pentecostal” vision is to bring together the best gifts of the Mennonite tradition in which I grew up, and the Roman Catholic tradition I have grown to love. This is what it means to be what a few of us now call ourselves — “Catholic Mennonites” and “Mennonite Catholics.”
Mennonites are a relatively small but historically influential family of churches that sprang from late medieval and radical Reformation ferment. They sought to restore serious, thorough-going lives of discipleship to all Christians, not just a spiritual elite of monks, nuns and clergy. From a Catholic perspective they can be seen as a prophetic movement insisting that when so many people call themselves Christians but neglect to live according to Jesus’ nonviolent way of peace — or when so many put tribe and nation above citizenship in that worldwide body we call the Church — then radical changes are needed. At least for such dire times, a Catholic might just agree with what a Mennonite believes always to be true — that Christianity requires such a serious and risky commitment, only those who can make their own mature decision to follow Christ should be baptized.
So that’s the “Mennonite” part of “Mennonite Catholic.” Of course we all know what the “Catholic” part means. Or do we?
To participate in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic” Church is (I would submit) more urgent in the 21st century and more relevant to our age of globalization than ever. “One” reminds us of the bonds of human solidarity that the Church as sacrament both makes real and points toward. “Holy” reminds us that our life together as Christians must be guided not by the ever-shifting cultural pressures around us, but by obedience to God. And just when we’re tempted to be counter-cultural in ways that are merely grumpy, “apostolic” reminds us to engage every time and every culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ that stands the test of centuries yet is ever new and creative.
To be Mennonite Catholic, then, is to say this: Yes, the Church has sometimes needed a prophetic message so urgently that some group of Christians has needed to embody that message so poignantly that they risk rejection and expulsion into exile as a separate church body. But to be a Mennonite Catholic is simultaneously to say: God always intends such witness to help transform the whole (catholic) body, not to cement an eternal split. We must always anticipate a day, therefore, when God begins calling out a few people to embody a fresh prophetic message — that our traditions need each other desperately and healing now is possible.
Imagine a Church — not a Church so perfect that sinners despaired of approaching it — but a Church that gave fresh hope to the world by responding a little more faithfully to the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:
- It would be a Church where every one could praise God and proclaim the gospel in the language and culture they knew best, yet found that their growing bonds of Christian solidarity across cultures made it harder and harder to kill anyone in the name of nation or tribe or economic interest, because Christ has died for all.
- It would be a Church where the gifts and charisms that the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost upon “all flesh” — upon persons of every gender and class — would not seem like threats to the apostolic leaders and authoritative teachers whose gifts the Church has also needed, since those earliest days in Jerusalem, to grow together into the fullness of Christ.
- It would be a Church that could not sing without feeding the poor, nor feed the poor without nourishment from the Eucharist, nor pass the peace without living peaceably in the world, nor be peacemakers without depending on prayer, nor pray without joining in robust song.
It is because I, as one nurtured in the Mennonite faith I continue to treasure, believe God is yet making such a Church possible, that I ask to be received into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is because I find extra encouragement to believe in the God who is calling forth such a Church when I look around me here, in this richly hued and multicultural place, that I asked to be received at St. Peter Claver.