Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > MN-RC > CONTENTS > Called Together To Be Peacemakes (chapter III)

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  PREFACE - select
      A. THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH - select
III. Toward a Healing of Memories
  CONCLUSION - select


190. Bitter memories have resulted from past conflicts and divisions between Christians and from the sufferings they have produced over ensuing centuries. Mutual hostility and negative images have persisted between separated Christians of the Catholic and Reformation traditions from the time of the divisions of the sixteenth century until today. It has therefore been the intention and hope from the beginning of this dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics that our conversations would contribute to a healing of memories.

191. The healing of memories involves several aspects. It requires a purification of memories so that both groups can share a picture of the past that is historically accurate. This calls for a spirit of repentance -- a penitential spirit -- on both sides for the harm that the conflicts have done to the body of Christ, to the proclamation of the Gospel, and to one another. Healing the memories of divided Christians also entails the recognition that, despite conflict, and though still separated, they continue to hold in common much of the Christian faith. In this sense they remain linked to one another. Moreover a healing of memories involves the openness to move beyond the isolation of the past, and to consider concrete steps toward new relations. Together, these factors can contribute to reconciliation between divided Christians.

A. The Purification of Memories

192. The healing of memories requires, first of all, a purification of memories. This involves facing those difficult events of the past that give rise to divergent interpretations of what happened and why. Past events and their circumstances need to be reconstructed as precisely as possible. We need to understand the mentalities, the conditions, and the living dynamics in which these events took place. A purification of memory includes an effort to purge "from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past on the basis of a new and rigorous historical-theological judgment, which becomes the foundation for a renewed moral way of acting".190 On this basis, both Catholics and Mennonites have the possibility of embarking on a sure and trustworthy way of thinking about and relating to each other that is in accordance with Christian love (cf. 1 Cor 13).

193. Our effort to re-read church history together as Catholics and Mennonites (Chapter I) helped us begin to reconcile our divergent memories of the past. We saw that "our relationship, or better the lack of it, began in a context of rupture and separation. Since then, from the sixteenth century to the present, theological polemics have persistently nourished negative images and narrow stereotypes of each other".191 Because of these dynamics, we have "sometimes restricted our views of the history of Christianity to those aspects that seemed to be most in agreement with the self-definition of our respective ecclesial communities".192

194. In our study of history we began to assess together, and in a fresh way, events or periods of history that Mennonites and Catholics have traditionally interpreted very differently from one another. For example, we have seen a more nuanced and complex picture of the Middle Ages, including the so-called "Constantinian era", than either side typically saw when explanations of those centuries were heavily influenced by post-Reformation polemics. In considering the era of the sixteenth century Reformation, we saw that although there were serious abuses and problems within the Catholic Church at that time, there were also efforts to reform the church from within. Recent studies have indicated that Christian piety was flourishing in many ways on the eve of the Reformation and that it is too simplistic to describe the Christianity of that day as in a state of crisis or decline. Recent historical studies illustrating these factors call us to continue our study of that period, and to look for fresh evaluations of the circumstances that led to the separation of Christians at the time.

195. On the question of Christian witness to peace and non-violence based on the Gospel, our study of history suggested points of reference that could open the door to mutual support and cooperative efforts between Catholics and Mennonites. For example, we observed that within the often-violent society of the Middle Ages there was, as part of the heritage of the Catholic Church, an uninterrupted tradition of ecclesiastical peace movements.193 We saw also that even though some Anabaptist-related groups allowed the use of the sword in the establishment of the kingdom of God, many were faithful to principles of pacifism and non-violence from the beginning, and soon these positions were accepted doctrinally and held consistently by Anabaptists and Mennonites.194 Purifying our memory on these points means that both Catholics and Mennonites need to continually struggle to maintain the Gospel's perspective on questions of peace and non-violence. And both can find resources in the earlier history of the church to assist us in shaping a Christian witness to peace in today's violent world.

196. Briefly, we believe not only that reconciliation and purification of historical memories must continue in our communities, but also that this process may lead Catholics and Mennonites to new cooperation in witnessing to the Gospel of peace.

197. On the Catholic side, statements of the Second Vatican Council reflect a purification of memory. Unlike in the past when others were blamed for ruptures that took place, the Council acknowledged the culpability of Catholics too. The Council made the admission with reference to past ruptures that "at times, men of both sides were to blame"195 for what happened. Furthermore, in an open spirit inviting dialogue, the Council further acknowledged -- and this reflects a Catholic attitude toward Mennonites today -- that "one cannot impute the sin of separation to those who at present are born into these communities and are instilled therein with Christ's faith. The Catholic Church accepts them respect and affection as brothers".196 In a similar open spirit supporting dialogue, a recent statement of the Executive Committee of Mennonite World Conference has said: "We see Christian unity not as an option we might choose or as an outcome we could create, but as an urgent imperative to be obeyed".197

B. A Spirit of Repentance, a Penitential Spirit

198. A healing of memories involves also a spirit of repentance, a penitential spirit. When Christians are divided and live with hostility towards one another, it is the proclamation of the Gospel that often suffers. The integrity and power of the Gospel is severely diminished in the mind of the hearer, when Christians witness to it in divergent and contradictory ways. Therefore, Christians separated from one another, including Catholics and Mennonites, have reason to ask God's forgiveness as well as forgiveness from each other. In doing so, they do not modify their convictions about the Christian faith. On the contrary, a penitential spirit can be another incentive to resolve, through dialogue, any theological divergences that prevent them from sharing together "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3).

Catholic Delegation Statement

199. While a penitential spirit with respect to Christian divisions was reflected in the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church took a further step during the Jubilee year 2000, on March 12, the "Day of Pardon". In the Catholic tradition the Holy Year is a time of purification. Thus, "in order to reawaken consciences, enabling Christians to enter the third millennium with greater openness to God and his plan of love",198 during the mass of the first Sunday of Lent, Pope John Paul led the Catholic Church in a universal prayer including a confession of sins committed by members of the Church during the past millennium, and a plea to God for forgiveness. He stated that, while "the Church is holy because Christ is her head and her spouse [and] the Spirit is her life-giving soulů, [nonetheless] the children of the Church know the experience of sinů. For this reason the Church does not cease to implore God's forgiveness for the sins of her members".199 Two of the seven categories of sins identified as having been committed during the previous millennium, and consequently confessed that day, were "sins which have harmed the unity of the Church" and "sins committed in the service of truth".200 At that Lenten mass, these categories of sins were presented in a generic way, without mentioning specific cases or situations.

200. During the ceremony, there was confession of "sins which have rent the unity of the body of Christ and wounded fraternal charity". On behalf of the Catholic Church, the Pope beseeched God the Father that while "on the night before his Passion, your son prayed for the unity of those who believe in himů, [nonetheless] believers have opposed one another, becoming divided, and have mutually condemned one another and fought against one another". Therefore, he concluded, we "urgently implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart, so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another, will be able, in one body and in one spirit, to experience anew the joy of full communion".201

201. In regard to the "confession of sins committed in the service of truth", the introductory prayer asked that each one of us recognize "that even men of the Church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth". The prayer then recited by the Pope recalled that "in certain periods of history Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in this way the face of the Church, your Spouse". He then prayed, "Have mercy on your sinful children and accept our resolve to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity, in the firm knowledge that truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself".202

202. Catholics today are encouraged to look at the conflicts and divisions among Christians in general and, in the present context, at the conflicts between Mennonites and Catholics, in light of this call for repentance expressed during the "Day of Pardon". For their part, in the spirit of the "Day of Pardon", Catholics acknowledge that even the consideration of mitigating factors, such as cultural conditioning in previous centuries, which frequently converged to create assumptions which justified intolerance, "does not exonerate the Church from the obligation to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters".203 Without compromising truth, Catholics in this dialogue can apply this spirit of repentance to the conflicts between Catholics and Mennonites in the sixteenth century, and can express a penitential spirit, asking forgiveness for any sins which were committed against Mennonites, asking God's mercy for that, and God's blessing for a new relationship with Mennonites today. We join our sentiments to those expressed by Walter Cardinal Kasper when he addressed the Mennonite World Conference representatives of the Catholic-Mennonite dialogue group on the occasion of their visit to Rome in November, 2001:

"Is it not the case that we, Catholics and Mennonites, have mutually condemned one another? Each saw the other as deviating from the apostolic faith. Let us forgive and ask forgiveness. The authorities in centuries past often resolved problems in society by severe means, punishing with imprisonment or death those who were seen as undermining society. Especially, in the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists were among those who suffered greatly in this regard. I surely regret those instances when this took place in Catholic societies".

Mennonite Delegation Statement

203. The statement of the Executive Committee of Mennonite World Conference, "God Calls Us to Christian Unity", invites a spirit of repentance on the part of the MWC community of churches in relations to other Christians, including Catholics. The statement says, in part:

"As Mennonites and Brethren in Christ, we give thanks to God for brothers and sisters of other traditions around the globe who accept the claims of Scripture and seek to live as followers of our Lord. We confess that we have not done all we could to follow God's call to relate in love and mutual counsel to other brothers and sisters who confess the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and seek to follow him. We have seen peacemaking and reconciliation as callings of all Christian disciples, but confess that we have not done all we could to overcome divisions within our circles and to work toward unity with other brothers and sisters".204

In regard to the sixteenth century rupture, we recognize that as the Anabaptists sought to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, they called into question the established churches and societies. We acknowledge that there were diverse and sometimes divergent currents within the Anabaptist movement. We believe that it was initially difficult for contemporaries to distinguish between the Anabaptists we claim as our spiritual forebears -- those committed to Biblical pacifism, ready to suffer martyrdom for the cause of Christ -- and those who took the sword, thinking that they were doing God's will in preparing the way for the return of Jesus. We regret Anabaptist words and deeds that contributed to fracturing the body of Christ.

204. We confess also that in spite of a commitment to follow Jesus Christ in daily life, we and others in our family of faith have frequently failed to demonstrate love towards Catholics. Too often, from the sixteenth century to the present, we have thoughtlessly perpetuated hostile images and false stereotypes of Catholics and of the Catholic Church. For this, we express our regret and ask forgiveness.

Common Statement

205. Together we, Catholic and Mennonite delegations, recognize and regret that sixteenth century Christians, including Catholics and Anabaptists, were unable to resolve the problems of the church of that time in such way as to prevent divisions in the body of Christ that have lasted to the present day.

206. Together we acknowledge and regret that indifference, tension, and hostility between Catholics and Mennonites exist in some places today, and this for a variety of historical or contemporary reasons. Together we reject the use of any physical coercion or verbal abuse in situations of disagreement and we call on all Christians to do likewise. We commit ourselves to self-examination, dialogue, and interaction that manifest Jesus Christ's reconciling love, and we encourage our brothers and sisters everywhere to join us in this commitment.

C. Ascertaining a Shared Christian Faith

207. Theological dialogue can contribute to healing of memories by assisting the dialogue partners to ascertain the degree to which they have continued to share the Christian faith despite centuries of separation. Mennonites and Catholics in this dialogue explained their own traditions to one another. This contributed to a deeper mutual understanding and to the discovery that we hold in common many basic aspects of the Christian faith and heritage. These shared elements, along with unresolved questions and disagreements, are outlined in Chapter II.

208. Catholics and Mennonites are convinced that the first responsibility of a Christian is the praise of God and that all aspects of Christian life must be rooted in prayer. Therefore in the course of the five years of this dialogue, we started and ended each day with prayer together. Together we read and reflected on the Scriptures and sang hymns. Each year we worshipped in each other's churches on Sunday in order to deepen mutual understanding of our traditions.

209. Among the important aspects of the Christian life that Catholics and Mennonites hold in common, are faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (fully divine and fully human), the Trinitarian faith as expressed in the Apostles Creed, and numerous perspectives on the church. There is also much that we can agree on concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper as fundamental grace-filled celebrations of God's saving acts in Christ. We share a great deal in regard to the role of the church on matters of mission and evangelism, peace and justice, and life of discipleship. Moreover, Mennonites and Catholics both face the challenge of how to communicate the faith in an increasingly secular world, and both struggle with the complexities of the relationship between church and society.

210. While recognizing that we hold basic convictions of faith in common, we have also identified significant differences that continue to divide us and thus require further dialogue. Nonetheless, and although we are not in full unity with one another, the substantial amount of the Apostolic faith which we realize today that we share, allows us as members of the Catholic and Mennonite delegations to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We hope that others may have similar experiences, and that these may contribute to a healing of memories.

D. Improving our relationships

211. We believe that another fundamental part of the healing of memories is the call to foster new relationships. The significant elements of our common understanding of basic Christian faith ascertained in this dialogue may provide a sufficient theological foundation on which to build. Our experience of re-reading history conjointly suggests that looking together at those periods in which our conflicts initially took place may shed new light on the past and foster a climate for better relationships in the future. For centuries our communities lived with the memories generated from the conflicts of the sixteenth century and in isolation from one another. Can we not increase our efforts to create new relationships today so that future generations may look back to the twenty-first century with positive memories of a time in which Mennonites and Catholics began increasingly to serve Christ together?

212. Indeed, as the Introduction to this report already suggested, the building of improved relationships is beginning as Mennonites and Catholics talk to one another. On the international level, this dialogue is an important sign that the Catholic Church and the Mennonite World Conference are willing, for the sake of Christ, to strive for mutual understanding and better relationships. We believe that one should not underestimate the importance of what it means for our two families of Christians, separated for centuries, to enter into conversation.

213. Locally as well, in several parts of the world, some Catholics and Mennonites already engaged with each other in theological dialogue and in practical cooperation. In various places collaboration between the Mennonite Central Committee and Caritas or Catholic Relief Services is taking place in humanitarian causes. We hear of Mennonites working with Catholics in the USA, in the Middle East, and in India, to name but a few examples. And even though numerous local Catholic-Mennonite initiatives are unofficial and personal, they serve the wider church by helping to overcome false caricatures about and mutual prejudices of each other.

214. In light of this situation, the dialogue members encourage Mennonites and Catholics to engage each other in joint study and cooperative service. Areas of interaction could include a review of history text books on each side, participation in the week of prayer for Christian unity, mutual engagement in missiological reflection, peace and justice initiatives, some programs of faith formation among our respective members, and 'get acquainted' visits between Catholic and Mennonite communities, locally and more widely.


  1. Memory and Reconciliation, 5.1.

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  2. Para. 24 above.

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  3. Para. 25 above.

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  4. Cf. para. 64 above.

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  5. Cf. para. 39 above.

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  6. Unitatis redintegratio, 3

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  7. Ibid.

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  8. "God Calls Us to Christian Unity", a statement adopted by the executive of Mennonite World Conference, Goshen, Indiana, July, 1998.

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  9. Pope John Paul II, Angelus, March 12, 2000.

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  10. Ibid.

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  11. "Universal Prayer for Forgiveness", March 12, 2000 in Information Service 103 (2000/I-II), p. 56.

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  12. Ibid.

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  13. Ibid.

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  14. Tertio millennio adveniente, 1994, 35.

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  15. See footnote 197 above.

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