Remembering my friend, Ivan J. Kauffman (1938-2015)

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Some men and women measure their hope by business plans, grant proposals, and bullet points.  Ivan J. Kauffman measured his hope by oceans.

ivanIvan died on July 15, 2015, as he neared the age of 77.  He was my mentor and colleague in the work of becoming “Mennonite Catholic” and inviting deeper dialogue and greater unity between the churches that formed us and that we continued to love.  In the original Latin-derived meaning of breathing together, he and I were co-conspirators. Together with Marlene Kropf and Weldon Nisly we founded what became the Mennonite-Catholic movement Bridgefolk in the late 1990s, and spun off various projects from there.  He died dreaming of more. He was my friend.

Ivan had to measure out his hope by oceans because he was off the Jungian Myers-Briggs chart as an “intuitive” who looks past details to see the big picture. A peace activist of sorts throughout his career, he didn’t simply trace the ebbs and flows of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, or other social movements. Instead he traced the arc of God’s work in history in a project that (no wonder) he never quite could finish, surveying the movement “from Moses to Gandhi.” When passing justice-and-peace movements disappointed him and church division grieved him, he posited the large-scale thesis that drove him to Catholicism and shaped the rest of his life.  That thesis: Even Christians who are most committed to peacemaking will be limited in what they can do to make peace in the world until churches share a common witness by making peace among themselves.

Without triumphalism or dishonesty about the failings of the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, Ivan could not help but dream of a day he could only glimpse from afar – a day when full communion would make the gifts of service and peacemaking in the Mennonite community fully available to the global Catholic community, and the gifts of sacramental grace and grounding in the longer Catholic tradition fully available to Mennonites. For a visionary like Ivan, it was simply obvious: nothing less was worth doing. Thus he died in a hope that must needs outlive him.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.” – RN

Yet Ivan died having seen more of his hopes fulfilled than even he initially could have dreamed. Those of us who have shared many conversations and conferences with Ivan will smile to remember typical but ever-enthusiastic exclamations such as these:  “Unprecedented.”  Or: “This is significant!” Or since God is evidently doing something bigger than us, “We just work here.” Or: “We have to call it a miracle.”

Ivan was not just a dreamer after all. Though he followed events that others neglected, he had a journalist’s keen eye for a telling breakthrough. And he had a solidly empirical definition for miracles. He offered that definition in a 2009 presentation surveying “The Miracle of Mennonite Catholic Conversation: 1959-2009.” “The Bible is filled with miracle stories,” he noted, “things which everybody agreed could not happen, but which happened anyway. If that is how we define the word ‘miracle’ then events of the past 50 years have been a steady succession of miracles, which have together brought Mennonites and Catholics into conversations which once seemed impossible.”

Against the background of growing up in a particularly evangelical stream of the Mennonite Church, which saw Catholics at best as not Christian at all, or at worst as historical persecutors who might just be led by a papal anti-Christ, the events Ivan witnessed in his lifetime, sometimes first-hand, had to seem miraculous:

  • The Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) called for greater participation of all of the faithful in the Eucharist, denounced every dichotomy between professed faith and day-to-day conduct, insisted on full equality between clergy and laity in the work of building up the body of Christ, launched a “completely fresh appraisal of war,” affirmed religious liberty, and affectionately recognized other Christians as brothers and sisters.
  • Mennonite World Conference was willing to send its president to Rome to report on Vatican II at least as an observer.
  • The first non-Italian pope in centuries was elected, John Paul II, whose passion for world peace and respect for the power of Gandhian nonviolence led him to take a special interest in ecumenical dialogue with Mennonites.
  • John Paul II convened a World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, 1986, inviting religious leaders of many faiths and Christian communities to participate, including the president of Mennonite World Conference.
  • Mennonite and Catholic representatives conducted an “unprecedented” international dialogue from 1998 to 2002, issuing a groundbreaking final report with the “significant” title, “Called Together to Be Peacemakers.”
  • Bridgefolk emerged and began hosting annual conferences during this same time period, with a grassroots dynamic that Mennonites had to take seriously, and an institutional home at Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota that Catholics had to take seriously.
  • John Paul II hosted another World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 2002, where now the president of Mennonite World Conference played a prominent role as the final speaker before the aging pope closed with his ringing appeal to the world, “Violence never again! War never again!”
  • In a 2007 follow-up to the international dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics, representatives of the two worldwide communions meeting in Rome practiced their call together to be peacemakers by issuing a single, theologically unified statement in preparation for a World Council of Churches conference concluding its Decade to Overcome Violence.

In this, his 2009 survey of miracles, Ivan ended with a PowerPoint screen that simply read, “to be continued….” That after all, was before the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope, which even secular journalists sometimes refer to as “the Francis miracle.”  Ivan died in the faith, the well-grounded faith, that we could continue to expect the unexpected to keep coming.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” – RN

Loneliness was a real prospect when Ivan decided to become a Catholic in 1968. To do so at that time risked complete alienation from the warm embrace of Mennonite family and community. Having served as executive secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section amid the growing intensity of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, Ivan had to assume that he would now be cut off from Mennonite intellectual life. And Catholics were not always sure what to make of the move either; one liberal Catholic priest caught up in the new ecumenical generosity of the post-Vatican II era wondered aloud, “Why would you do such a thing?”

Fortunately, after insisting on a year to explore Catholicism on her own, Ivan’s wife Lois agreed to accompany Ivan on the journey. And she had the good sense that Ivan sometimes needed to insist that becoming Catholic wouldn’t mean she stopped being Mennonite. Always her own person, Lois thus anticipated a vision that even Ivan couldn’t see at first. All he wanted at the time, he told me once, was to learn how to be an ordinary Catholic.

Of course, in the Catholic tradition that is as deeply communal as the Mennonite one, this meant that the Kauffmans could not remain alone. They found a parish home at St. Peter’s in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC, where they lived. That neighborhood has now gentrified considerably, but over the decades has been a place of rich webs of interracial, cross-class, multicultural relationships. Lois’s vocation as an inner-city teacher brought even more.

And then came the US Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace.” Through a weekly column distributed to diocesan newspapers, Ivan began to reintegrate his Mennonite past with his Catholic present. In 1984 he also published an autobiographical magazine article in at least two Mennonite periodicals with the provocative title, “I am a Mennonite Catholic.” Unknown to one another, a number of us who now make up the Bridgefolk network, as well as many other Mennonites who thought we were alone in our Catholic longings and affinities, began to correspond with Ivan. Only a few of us have felt called to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. But so many roots of the Bridgefolk movement, and the possibility of breathing together as Catholic Mennonites and Mennonite Catholics who need not walk alone, trace back to Ivan’s willingness to tell his and Lois’s story.

That story is one of hospitality in more ways than I can know or thus recount. Anyone who has visited the Kauffmans, whether in Washington, DC, or the last few years near St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, or no doubt the last few months in Philadelphia, has also had to expect the unexpected – extended family that did not in fact remain estranged from their Catholic black sheep, DC friends of no faith or many faiths attracted to the authenticity of their lives, searchers of all kinds whom they met at the Collegeville Institute, or that later took retreats at the Michael Sattler House they opened up nearby.

In the early years of Bridgefolk, a leader of the Sant’Egidio ecclesial movement offered advice that immediately became our own slogan: “Proceed through friendship.” Indeed. Nothing could make clearer than the life that Ivan and Lois have lived together and with many, many friends: We are not alone; we are saved through love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.´ — RN 

In eulogies, we always recount the best of those we miss. And Ivan was a very good man. But anyone who has seen Lois roll her eyes as Ivan went on a rant about this or that enthusiasm knows there must have been a few things that required forgiveness over the years.  Amazingly creative as a freelance journalist, poet, then ecumenist, Ivan occasionally hinted that he had had to forgive himself for never quite finding a standard career track. Never triumphalistic as a Catholic apologist, he could still be brash and opinionated. Those of us who did have more conventional roles as scholars or church leaders occasionally experienced frustration when his gift for big pictures left him impatient with contrary evidence or sketchy about how to turn vision into reality.

But of course we forgave him then, and are glad to forgive – and even forget – now. Besides: As much as we miss and honor Ivan, any need we have to forgive his eccentricities, his mistakes, or perhaps even some sins can serve to remind us of the love that bears all of us up. Grateful for the life of this good man, our ultimate gratitude is to his Lord and Savior, who gave us the gift of his extraordinary life and vision, who allowed us to breathe together with him for a while, and now to proceed in friendship.

Go in peace, my friend; you have loved and served our Lord.

19 July 2015

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One Response to Remembering my friend, Ivan J. Kauffman (1938-2015)

  1. Jim Radde says:

    I was deeply touched by your tribute to Ivan Kauffmann. Thank you for
    sharing it with me.


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