new Mennonite Life logo    Fall 2007     vol. 62 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

"Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you?"
The evangelical imperative of ecumenical peacemaking and the Bridgefolk (Mennonite-Catholic) movement(1)

by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek

The author is a member of Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN, and a board member of Bridgefolk, a grassroots Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical organization.

I ask not only on behalf of these,
but also on behalf of those
who will believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one.
John 17:20-21a

The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread,
we who are many are one body,
for we all partake of the one bread.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all,
who is above all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:3-6

Evangelical mission calls us to ecumenical peacemaking

The central theme of this essay is simple, yet radical: ecumenism, far from being a recent movement (praised by some, scorned by others), is rooted in the identity and mission of the church, ordained by Christ our Lord. If we are to be authentic and effective in our calling as the church that witnesses to Jesus, the one Lord and Savior of the nations, then we must pay attention to who is the "we" of the church when we say, "We are the body of Christ." Evangelical mission, understood from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ, requires ecclesial unity; and, because of the current division of the church, this calls us to ecumenical peacemaking, peacemaking within the body of Christ in service of the gospel.

Jesus points us to the evangelical imperative of ecclesial unity in his prayer that completes his discourse to his disciples on the night he would be handed over to death--that is, his final instructions to his disciples (John 17:20-23):

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Notice, first, that Jesus prays not only for his disciples, but also for "those who will believe in me through their word"--that is, for all of us who have come to believe in Christ through the apostolic witness down the centuries, who are now divided off from each other in a myriad of ways. Jesus prays simply, "that they may all be one." Jesus' final prayer with his disciples is for our unity, for the unity of the church. Not just a "spiritualized unity," but a real unity that is concretely visible to the world. And this because the very purpose of ecclesial unity is evangelical mission: "that the world may believe that you have sent me…. that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

The visible unity of the church is to be an authentic witness before a watching world, a proclamation of the gospel that God has loved the world by sending the Son (John 3:16-17). Jesus thus prays: May the world come to know the love of God through the Son by witnessing the love of Christians for one another in the church. The popular song, "They will know we are Christians by our love," although promoting ecumenism, puts the emphasis in the wrong place: we are to be one in love for one another, not so the world will know that we are Christians, but so that the world will know that the gospel is true, that God so loved the world that he sent the Son that the world might be saved through him. The church, by its disunity, betrays its service of the gospel and hence frustrates the mission of God in Christ. We might put the point this way: ecclesial disunity is simply bad evangelism, sending a counter-message to the gospel of God's love for the world in Christ. Thus, "Evangelism divorced from ecumenism, rightly understood, vitiates the cause it putatively serves."(2)

The Apostle Paul, who inherited Simeon's mantle of proclaiming light and salvation to the nations (cf. Luke 2:29-32; Acts 28:16-18; Ephesians 3:1-12), also attested that the church's mission as a light that draws all peoples to God in Christ implicitly carries an imperative of unity in Christ; and this imperative of ecclesial unity turns on the identity of the church in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:27-28; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Ephesians 4:3-6). Thus, the church ought to see its mission of peace for the nations as hinging crucially upon unity in the body of Christ. For if the people of God from which the mission radiates is not reconciled with itself and with God, then it is compromised in its offer of God's gift of peace in Jesus to the nations. We can see this if we reflect upon the message of peace that Paul commissioned the church to preach to all nations.

By the grace of God, Christ has become our peace with God through the cross. This peace puts to death in Christ's crucified body the old enmity between human enemies and between humanity and God, drawing us near to God through faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord (Romans 5:1-2a, 10a):(3)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, though whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand… while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.

God's reconciliation then extends through those who have been reconciled to God in Christ--the church--to the world. The church--Christ's resurrected, living, and visible body on earth--has been given the task of carrying on Christ's ministry of reconciliation in the world by calling everyone to reconciliation with God in the name of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20):

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

God has made peace with humanity by creating his church on earth in the resurrected body of the crucified Christ. It is therefore the mission of the church in the world to make peace in Christ's name by calling the world to reconciliation with God through conversion to Christ's way of peace and incorporation into the body of Christ.

In order for the church to take up this mission of proclaiming the gospel of Christ's peace faithfully and effectively, however, the church itself must be reconciled to God through the cross of Christ. If the church is not at peace with God, then its witness to the nations by which it calls all peoples to conversion to Christ is potentially both inauthentic and ineffective. Faithfulness of the church to Christ's ministry of reconciliation in the world requires foremost that we be reconciled to one another in the body of Christ. This, though, is not only a matter of the church professing a single creed and preaching to the nations a coherent message of peace with God through Christ crucified (although that is surely necessary). Indeed, nothing less than the power of the cross in the church is at stake regarding Christian unity. Christian division thwarts the power of the cross in the church, thereby frustrating the atoning--the right-making, one-making--work of Christ and emptying the message of the cross of its power. If the cross lacks sufficient power to reconcile Christians within Christ's own body, how then can the church testify to the power of the cross to reconcile enemies in the world? If the body of Christ hangs still broken upon the cross, what good news do we have to offer a broken humanity inhabiting a broken world?

The motivation for these thoughts is Paul's understanding of the meaning of the cross for relations between Jews and Gentiles--and also, implicitly, for relations between slave- and free-persons, women and men--in the church (cf. Galatians 3:26-28; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The historical distinction and conflict between Jews and Gentiles--symbolized ritually and bodily by circumcision, realized socially through legal boundaries, and maintained physically by temple barriers--are jointly put to death in Christ's body, so that both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to one another and to God in Christ's body (Ephesians 2:14-16):(4)

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility in himself.

The "dividing wall" that Christ "has broken down" was the barrier erected by the Law (and its oral interpretation) between clean and unclean, pure and impure, that had separated Jews and Gentiles into two distinct social groups.

The Jew-Gentile distinction was symbolized in the body (for males) by circumcision. This mark of distinction, which had been instituted with Abraham as a sign of membership in God's covenant community (Genesis 17), had been used to erect a fence partitioning humanity into the "circumcised" and the "uncircumcised." What had been given by God as a means of separating the covenant community unto God had been perverted into a means of separating the nations from God--so that circumcision obstructed Gentile access to God's grace and alienated Gentiles from God and the blessings of the covenant (cf. Ephesians 2:11-12). Such alienation and obstruction was made concretely visible by means of an actual dividing wall in the temple at Jerusalem during Jesus' day. This wall separated the "Court of Gentiles" from the "Court of Israel," a literal barrier keeping the "uncircumcised nations" from participating in the worship of God around the altar; any Gentile daring to transgress that barrier risked a penalty of death. (There was also a wall separating the "Court of Women" from the "Court of Israel," keeping women from full membership and participation in the covenant community.) Not only could "Jew" and "Gentile" not worship God together, but they also could not be "one people" in fellowship--by, say, common meals or common prayer in the home--because of the prohibitions against Jews associating freely and intimately with Gentiles. The rabbis justified such (oral-law) prohibitions separating "clean" from "unclean" on the basis of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)--so that, again, what God had intended to separate the covenant community from the surrounding nations (Leviticus 20:24-26) had been interpreted to separate the nations from God. Until the Holy Spirit led Peter to transgress the boundary set up by the Law and so cross the forbidden threshold into the house of Cornelius (an "unclean" Roman centurion, no less!), Gentiles were thus categorically shut out of the early Jesus-community (Acts 10:1-11:18).

With Jews and Gentiles unable to worship God together, unable to even break bread together around the same table much less share in the one bread that is Christ, there could be no church, no unified body of Christ, no people of God redeemed by faith from all nations, unless this question were resolved. At stake was the very identity of the "we" that the church is called to be. This "hostility between [Jew and Gentile]," which presented a barrier to the church becoming one body unified in Christ crucified and risen, and hence a barrier to the mission of the church in fulfillment of the commission of Jesus to preach the gospel to all nations, was the very question addressed by the first ecumenical council at Jerusalem (Acts 15).

All this holds significance for what God has purposed to do through the peacemaking cross of Jesus Christ. For, according to Paul in Ephesians 2, we are reconciled to God, and thereby receive membership in God's household and share blessing in God's covenant of peace, not individually, but corporately. The cross makes peace between Jew and Gentile by making them one people in Christ's body and reconciling them both to God as one body. The cross of Christ was meant to break down the legal barrier between Jew and Gentile "that he [Jesus] might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross" (Ephesians 2:14-15). Concerning the "new humanity" created and reconciled within the crucified and risen body of Christ, "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is everything" (Galatians 6:15).

The first effect of the cross for salvation and peace, therefore, is a true spiritual and social unity of believers in Christ, rooted in faith and given life through the Holy Spirit under the sign of baptism: "There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." (Ephesians 4:4-6a). This is to be a unity that transcends racial-ethnic discord, geographic distance, social-economic-political division, cultural distinction, and gender difference: "As many of you as were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28). Paul thus charged the church to "make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). Reconciling divisions and restoring unity among fellow believers, therefore, flows directly from God's purpose of salvation through the cross of Christ and from the identity of the church as the "one new humanity" created in the body of Christ crucified and risen. The gospel message concerning the atoning (right-making, one-making) cross of Jesus Christ thus calls us to ecumenical peacemaking.

Paul encountered the problem of disunity in the church not only between Jews and Gentiles but also among Gentile believers themselves. The believers in the church at Corinth had splintered into factions caused by sectarian allegiances within the church that had come to supersede the allegiance of each believer and of the local church to Christ alone above all else. Common identity created by baptism "into Christ" had been supplanted by disparate and discordant partial identities, so that "Paulinians," "Apollonians," and "Cephians" came into conflict with "Christians." These factions were fighting, disrupting the communion of the church. Paul implored them to be at peace with one another by being united in the name of Christ and in the one mission of the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13):

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul implies that such divisions in the church, depending as they do upon human wisdom and power, effectively nullify the wisdom of God revealed through the cross of Christ, emptying the cross of its power (1 Corinthians 1:17ff). It is the cross of Christ, and baptism "into Christ," that creates the common identity of Christians and constitutes the basic unity of the church. Any partial identity supplanting that common identity, any sectarian allegiance superseding that essential unity, disrupts the peace within the church, thereby frustrating the power of the cross by which we are reconciled to one another and together in one body through Christ to God.

To see the relevance of the problems facing Paul and the early church for us in the church today, one only need imagine how Paul might instruct us in our contemporary situation of a church splintered by "perpetual reformation" and struggling with the legacies of racism, sexism, and colonialism:

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Therefore, among you there should be equality between North and South, rich and poor, white, brown and black, male and female, for you are all one people in Christ Jesus.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our one Lord, Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that you may be perfectly joined together by the Spirit in a visible unity of mission in Christ. My brothers and sisters, I hear that there are quarrels and divisions among you: some of you say, "I'm a Roman Catholic," another, "I'm a Lutheran," another "I'm a Calvinist," another, "I'm a Wesleyan," still another, "I'm a Mennonite," and still others "I'm a Christian." Is Christ divided? Was the Pope crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Menno Simons?

If the church desires truly to be Christ's body on earth, crucified and resurrected with our Lord in faith through baptism, and thereby to receive the ministry of reconciliation by which the nations are brought into God's peace through conversion to Christ, then the church itself must first find peace with God in Christ. If the church's peace with God in Christ through faith and allegiance to our Lord above all under the sign of baptism is disrupted, if the church fractures along denominational, confessional, geographical, national, racial, gender, or class lines, then such division frustrates the atoning (right-making, one-making) power of the cross in the church and thus compromises an authentic and effective mission of proclaiming the gospel of peace in the world. The church's peacemaking mission in the world--the first task of which is to proclaim the good news of salvation and peace and call all peoples to repentance and reconciliation with God through the cross of Jesus Christ--cannot be authentic and effective without the atoning (right-making, one-making) power of the cross at work within the church. For only through the cross can those who believe the good news have peace with one another and peace with God, only through the cross can those at enmity be reconciled and saved from mutual destruction. The cross of Christ will be frustrated in its power for peace within the church, and thus within the world, if the church itself is not unified by the Spirit in the bond of peace, under one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The upshot is this: A church divided is, effectively, a people whose reconciliation to God in Christ is incomplete. A church that would witness to the world concerning the gospel of peace with God in Christ, therefore, must be both evangelical and ecumenical; indeed, we must be ecumenical in order to be evangelical. Through Christ and the power of the cross we make peace with one another within the church for the sake of the gospel of Christ crucified. Through Christ and the power of the cross we break down walls of division between Christians before a watching world so that the people of all nations--divided by nationality, race, gender, and class--may see a living sign of the gospel of reconciliation with God through the cross of Jesus Christ.

The story of a Eucharist shared between Mennonites and Catholics (5)

"The Body of Christ." "Amen."

"The Body of Christ." "Amen."

"The Body of Christ." "Amen."

"The Body of Christ," Abbot John Klassen intoned repeatedly as he held up the sacramental host before each person who approached, hands held out in supplication to receive the sacred sign of grace incarnate, each one affirming, "Amen." This was indeed a day of marvelous signs.

Standing in the front row, just two steps from the altar, I listened and watched in awe as, one after another, each of us stepped forward to receive communion, to partake of the one bread broken for us, to speak by our common ritual action that, yes, we are one body in Christ. The "we" gathered for this Eucharistic celebration was Bridgefolk, a grassroots North American ecumenical movement of sacramental-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Catholics, drawn together by the Spirit, each out of interest and respect for the tradition of the other.(6) Beginning in 2002, we have gathered once a year, most often at our "home" at St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. (This is only fitting, as Michael Sattler, who drafted in 1527 the first Anabaptist confession of faith, the Schleitheim Confession, had been the prior of a Benedictine monastery, so that Schleitheim reflects in many aspects the Rule of Benedict.(7)) Our meetings, always focused around a variation of the theme of spirituality and peacemaking, are occasions of mutual exchange of the gifts our respective traditions contribute to the body of the church catholic. We celebrate friendship in our one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and envision the future of a church unified and peaceable in the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3-6).

The events leading up to this shared Eucharist are too many to tell in detail. For five years we had struggled with the tragedy and sorrow of division, handed down from the past and poignantly present whenever we would gather for Eucharist with the monastic community in the Abbey church. How could we come together with integrity at the table of our Lord? We could not. Our Catholic hosts at St. John's had made clear to us the rules for hospitality at the Lord's table in a Catholic context: while the priest could not openly invite Mennonites to share in communion, the priest could also not discriminate among those presenting themselves for communion. Although stated with the best of intentions, this created an ambiguous situation for Mennonites: you're not invited to the table, but you won't be turned away if you come. It was effectively a "don't ask, don't tell" policy: We won't ask you if you're Catholic, if you don't tell us that you're not. So, should we Mennonites come to the table, or not? We could not honestly pretend to be Catholics and take communion before our brothers and sisters in Bridgefolk. Some Mennonite brothers and sisters, however, taking liberty with the ambiguity, did receive communion, causing offense to both Catholics and Mennonites within Bridgefolk. From a Catholic perspective, Mennonites receiving communion failed to show proper respect for the Catholic understanding that, by participating in the Eucharist, one signifies ecclesial communion with the Bishop of Rome, who is the sign and servant of the unity of the Church universal.(8) From a Mennonite perspective, our decisions concerning the Lord's table were taken privately, each individual making up his or her own mind; there was no giving and receiving counsel among brothers and sisters, so that each of us was unaccountable to the other. Whether from a Catholic or Mennonite perspective, we were not "discerning the body" at the Lord's table (1 Corinthians 11:29) and the pain of division only multiplied.

But now, we were discovering recent developments regarding the rules of hospitality for fellowship at the Lord's table within the Catholic Church. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, concerning the Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism, John Paul II had rearticulated the criteria for non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist in terms that were more inclusive than the traditional requirement that non-Catholic Christians could be served communion only under conditions of "grave necessity." Concerning specifically the situations that arise precisely in the context of ecumenical dialogue and worship, John Paul II stated that non-Catholic Christians could now receive the sacrament of Eucharist in special circumstances--provided that they greatly desire to participate in the Eucharist, freely request to do so, and manifest the faith that the Catholic Church professes in the sacrament.(9) In a move interpreted by some as a public ratification of John Paul II's articulation of the criteria for Catholic ministers to serve Eucharist to non-Catholic Christians in ecumenical contexts, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger), before a watching world and to the astonishment of many, openly served communion first at John Paul II's funeral mass to (the late) Brother Roger of the Taizé community, a Protestant!

We in Bridgefolk were just learning about this development at our summer 2006 gathering. Might this be a breakthrough for us, the breach in the wall of division for which we had so longingly looked? We took an entire day of our conference to discuss Eucharist, concerning the historic beliefs and practices of our respective traditions and concerning our experience of broken communion at Bridgefolk. We discerned prayerfully together what we might do in our future gatherings. Among the suggestions, might we: Focus on other "sacramental" rituals (e.g., agape meal and footwashing) instead of Eucharist? Develop an "ancient-future" ecumenical Eucharistic liturgy based on the 2nd-century writings of Justin Martyr? Develop a unique "Bridgefolk" ritual that would express our desire for full unity in Christ and yet respect our mutual traditions and their divergences? Begin gathering at the Lord's table for shared Eucharist under John Paul II's articulation of the criteria for ecumenical contexts?

If the latter, under what circumstances could we do so? Did the Bridgefolk context fit the intention of John Paul II's articulation of the criteria? Abbot John believed so.(10) And what all is entailed by that third criterion, that the person requesting to receive communion "manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes" in the Eucharist?(11) Does that mean professing the medieval (Thomistic) doctrine of "transubstantiation," which the Catechism of the Catholic Church states is "the Catholic faith" and "has always been the conviction of the Church of God"?(12) Does it mean professing the medieval (Anselmian) "satisfaction" or "substitution" theory of atonement, upon which the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of Jesus' sacrificial death is based?(13) Or does it mean professing only Christ really and mysteriously present in the Eucharist, the transformation of common bread and wine into "holy things" (per Justin Martyr), and that Jesus died "for our salvation" (per the Nicene Creed)? And, even if only this latter, would that mean also accepting the traditional Catholic understanding of 'sacrament'--the bread and wine are not only a visible, concrete sign of God's grace made known to us in Jesus Christ, but also the instrument by means of which the Holy Spirit confers that grace to the Church(14)--and, hence, that receiving Eucharist is both effective toward and necessary for salvation?(15) Our discernment left us with more questions than when we had begun, but by the fact that we were actually discerning this question together it was clear that we had reached a breakthrough point, that a new Spirit was moving in our midst, though we did not know where it might lead us.

Our immediate concern at the end of the afternoon was far more mundane and practical: Could we, as our schedule prescribed, attend mass at the local parish and still make it back to the Abbey in time for supper in the cafeteria? It looked unfeasible. In a fortuitous moment, a moment in which the Spirit moved unseen, Abbot John Klassen and Father William Skudlarek decided that, instead of attending mass at the local parish as planned, they would celebrate Eucharist in a campus chapel for our Bridgefolk group. It seemed a reasonable solution to our practical dilemma--which meal, Eucharist or supper?

It is essential to realize that what followed had been entirely unplanned on our part, motivated entirely by practical concerns, without forethought for what might happen or what that might mean, for us or for the church. But, as we would soon realize, this decision brought about by circumstance would provide the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do a mighty and wondrous thing in our midst, something we could not do for ourselves. Thus it was that we were about to receive an unexpected gift of God, an unforced moment of grace, of which we were all unworthy.

We quickly found ourselves gathering in the nearest available space, St. Francis Chapel, nestled between other buildings in a hollow of ground, secluded from casual view by a hedgerow. The interior was intimate and plain, reminding some of traditional Mennonite meeting houses, reminding others that Francis is as much a spiritual ancestor of our movement as Benedict. We were too many for the number of chairs, so several of us took seats on the floor, on window sills, and on heating registers--a scene which might have been familiar in the home fellowships of the early church. I sat on the floor before the altar, just two steps away. The chapel lacking a vestry, we were amused at the sight of Abbot John, our presider, vesting in front of us--a rare sight for Catholics, even rarer for Mennonites! Amusing, yet appropriate--it felt as if we were all assisting him in putting on the vestments, in keeping with both the Mennonite and the Catholic (Vatican II) ecclesiology that the church comprises all the people of God (not just the clergy) and that all those "baptized into Christ" participate in a "priesthood of all believers."

We began the liturgy in the usual way--in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, under the sign of the cross--but we all could sense the unusual Spirit moving in our midst. What would happen? None of us knew at the beginning, of course. Many of us, including both Catholics and Mennonites, didn't even know as the liturgy began what choice we would make at the time for communion: receive, or not receive? Our discernment had not reached anything near a consensus on the question. For this reason, I had decided in my own mind and heart that I would not receive. While my heart held much hope for future possibilities, I was content to let the question remain open before us, to be resolved at a later time. I felt I could not, should not, choose to receive communion, not even in this context, without explicit consensus, "without discerning the body" (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Following the introductory rites, we heard the Scriptures read. The Gospel reading from Mark was the story of the woman with a flow of blood, who was healed through her faith when she touched the hem of Jesus' garment (Mark 5:21-43). Father William focused his homily on the Gospel text, pointing out to us how Mark's Greek, which piles up several participles in a row, heightens the scandal and shock of this woman's bold action: this having-bled-for-twelve-years, having-suffered-under-many-doctors, having-lost-all-her-money, having-not-gotten-any-better, having-heard-about-Jesus, having-approached-him-from-behind woman, this woman, touched him! How dare she do that! She was anything but "worthy" to touch him. And yet, by her touching him through her bold faith-in-action, she received healing through the power of Jesus' presence. From this story, Father William directed our attention to the Eucharistic celebration to come: in the Eucharist, he said, Jesus reaches out to touch us with his healing presence and invites us, worthy or not, to reach out and touch him and be healed. His words left us in suspense, yearning for Jesus' presence.

In the prayers of the people that followed, among other petitions, we prayed for the unity of all Christ's followers and the peace of Christ's church. Thus was the air in the chapel filled with anticipation as Abbot John began the Eucharistic rite, "The Lord be with you." "And also with you," we replied from our hearts in unison. Yes, the Lord was truly present with us. After we had sung the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."), Abbot John continued the Eucharistic prayer. I watched in awe of the mystery of Christ's presence as Abbot John prayed over the bread and wine, recalling the story of the Last Supper and Jesus' gestures and words ("Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body…. Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood…. Do this in memory of me."). After we had recited the Memorial Acclamation ("Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."), we all concluded the Eucharistic prayer with one great "Amen!" Proceeding to the Communion Rite, we then prayed for the coming of God's kingdom with the Lord's Prayer and celebrated Christ's gift of peace to us through the sign of peace, which turned into a minor love feast all its own as we circulated among ourselves and exchanged manifold expressions of unity and peace in Christ. After we had sung the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us."), Abbot John gave the invitation to communion with great emphasis in voice and gesture, reciting the ritual words, holding high the consecrated bread and wine: "This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper." And we all responded, reflectively: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

In the midst of the holy moment, practical matters once again provided an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to break in and work wonders. As Abbot John stepped around and in front of the altar to serve communion, he suggested that in our small space it would work best to begin with the back row. Had I been one of the first in line to receive, I would have declined, and who knows how that might have altered the Spirit in the body. As it was, I would be nearly the last to receive, and I had a front row view of what would take place. What would the first persons in line do? Would Catholics decline? (Some had done this the previous summer, to express solidarity with Mennonite brothers and sisters.) Would Mennonites receive? No one really knew what would happen.

The first two persons in line to receive, perhaps appropriately, were a cradle-Mennonite who had become Catholic and a cradle-Catholic who had become Mennonite--both received communion. And through that the Spirit began to move in a marvelous way. One after another, both Catholics and Mennonites, everyone proceeded up to the altar and received communion. As I watched in awe and beheld the mystery of Christ present in our midst, I felt the Spirit move in me and change my disposition, circumventing my all-too-human thinking, which still wanted a rational resolution to the question. At some point, as I looked on in fear and trembling, the Spirit made clear to me that, indeed, we were "discerning the body" of Christ--or, rather, the Spirit was "discerning the body" of Christ in us (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). And the Spirit's discerning led us all to the Lord's table to share in the body and blood of Christ--so that we who had been made many by a history of division became, by the power of the Holy Spirit though the partaking of the one bread, one body in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

As Abbot John concluded our Eucharistic celebration, "Let us bless the Lord," the air was filled with the Spirit as we responded heartily and joyfully, "Thanks be to God!"

In the days following, reflecting on this wondrous event, two biblical stories came to mind to help me interpret what happened. First is the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35). Like the two disciples returning from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that Sunday afternoon following the crucifixion of Jesus, puzzling over the meaning of the events of the week, especially the strange news from the women concerning the empty tomb, we also had spent the morning and afternoon of that Saturday puzzling over how to make sense of our situation, discerning what we should do next, wondering what John Paul II's articulation of the criteria for shared communion in ecumenical contexts meant for us and the church. And, like those disciples, on our own we were unable to satisfactorily figure out the matter before us. Then we began the liturgy--"The Lord be with you." "And also with you."--and miraculously, "Jesus himself came near and went with [us], but [our] eyes were kept from recognizing him" (Luke 24:15). Yet, slowly, the real presence of Jesus was revealed in our midst--through the powerful proclamation and preaching of the Gospel, through the hearty singing of the people, through the Eucharistic prayer over the bread and wine, our eyes began to be opened. Suddenly, in the breaking of the bread on the altar, we saw Jesus, just as did the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:30-31). After communion, as we joyfully conversed among ourselves, we could truly say to one another concerning the entire day, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us" (Luke 24:32). And as each of us has "returned to Jerusalem" and gathered with our brothers and sisters in many places to tell about what happened that day, we could truly testify "how [Jesus] had been made known to [us] in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:35).

The other story is Peter in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). Like Peter, we had been praying and were hungry (Acts 10:9-10)--praying for the guidance of the Spirit, hungry for full communion with one another in Christ (hungry for supper, too!). And we, too, had received visions that we could not fully understand. Some were seeing all of us, Catholic and Mennonite, being invited to eat together at one table--like Peter seeing all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, together on the sheet lowered from heaven (Acts 10:11-12). And upon hearing God call us to come and eat, some of us (including myself!) balked like Peter, not wanting to do what had been "forbidden" (Acts 10:13-14). And others of us heard heaven's reply, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:15). So, while we pondered and puzzled over these visions, we sensed the leading of the Spirit that we should be prepared to respond to the invitation from God's messenger. The first messenger was Father William, who in his homily pointed us to the communion table where we could come and touch Jesus and be touched by Jesus in the mystery of the Eucharist. The second messenger was Abbot John, who invited us to the Lord's table, "Happy are those who are called to His supper." And so we found ourselves heading into "forbidden" territory, crossing the threshold into "the house of Cornelius," just as Peter found himself in the home of Gentiles. Many of us were saying in our hearts along with Peter: You know that we are not permitted to be here like this, but God has shown us otherwise, that God makes no distinction between us (cf. Acts 10:28, 34-35). Yet many of us were still hesitating in our hearts to receive communion--we needed to be freed by the Spirit. Just as the Spirit broke into Peter's sermon and fell upon all those who heard the Gospel (Acts 10:44-46), so the Spirit fell on us who had heard the word--"Jesus comes near in the Eucharist to touch and heal us, worthy or not"--and set us all free to come near and touch Jesus and be healed. It was an amazing fulfillment of the simple song we had sung together just the day before:

If you believe and I believe and we together pray,
the Holy Spirit must come down and set God's people free…

As I reflected later on what happened, I recalled the moment when, moved by the Spirit to the Lord's table to receive communion, recognizing the Spirit "discerning the body" in and among and for us, I let go of my need for a rationally-discerned consensus to guide our action as a body. And I thought of how Peter explained to the church in Jerusalem why he had baptized Gentiles in the name of Jesus (Acts 11:17): "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ [i.e., the gift of the Spirit], who was I that I could hinder God?" Indeed, that is how I felt at that moment: If this be what the Spirit is doing in and through and for us this day, who am I to hinder God? And so, with those in Jerusalem who praised the Lord at Peter's report (Acts 11:18), I say again, "Thanks be to God!"

We are the body of Christ--reconciled to God through the cross of Christ and therefore called to the ministry of reconciliation in the name of Christ. Amen!

We are the body of Christ--called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Amen!

We are the body of Christ--called to be one-with-another as a sign to the world that the Father has loved the world by sending the Son. Amen!

We are the body of Christ--united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Amen!

We are the body of Christ!

Ecumenical peacemaking and eucharistic communion: already, but not yet…

Looking to the future of the Bridgefolk movement, and Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical relations more generally, the question arises: What next? Should Bridgefolk make shared Eucharist a regular, planned part of our annual conferences? What about other Mennonite-Catholic gatherings? While what happened at St. John's in 2006 was surely a precedent for Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical relations--it had never happened before!--it should not therefore become a rule, whether for Bridgefolk or for any other Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical gathering.

Yes, the Bridgefolk Eucharist was a miraculous event, a wondrous sign of grace and gift of peace from God--a mystery! Yes, this event testifies to the truth of the gospel, that God has loved the world through the Son, that Christ has created "one new humanity" in his crucified body. Yes, through this Eucharist we fulfilled Paul's charge to the church that we should "make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). To attempt to create a rule for shared Eucharist from this particular event, however, would be inappropriate.

John Paul II's articulation of the criteria for non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist emphasizes the exceptional character of the ecumenical contexts in which this is possible. In paragraph 46 of his final (2003) encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II repeated verbatim the criteria for non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist (or, more precisely, for Catholic ministers to serve Eucharist to non-Catholic Christians) that he had articulated earlier in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995): non-Catholic Christians could receive (or, be served) the sacrament of Eucharist in special circumstances provided that they greatly desire to participate in the Eucharist, freely request to do so, and manifest the faith that the Catholic Church professes in the sacrament. As Ecclesia de Eucharistia makes clear in paragraphs 44-46, however, these criteria must not be interpreted in isolation from the remainder of Catholic teaching. At paragraph 44, in particular, John Paul II cites the "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism" of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, the ecumenical office of the Vatican. That Directory, which John Paul II had approved in 1993, emphasizes that, because Eucharist (as with all sacraments) is a sign of ecclesial unity, reception of Eucharist by (or, serving Eucharist to) non-Catholic Christians in ecumenical contexts is always an exception to the rule and is possible only in special circumstances:

A sacrament is an act of Christ and of the Church through the Spirit. Its celebration in a concrete community is the sign of the reality of its unity in faith, worship and community life… Thus Eucharist is inseparably linked to full ecclesial communion and its visible expression.

At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that by baptism members of other Churches and ecclesial Communities are brought into real, even if imperfect communion, with the Catholic Church.

It is in light of these two basic principles, which must always be taken into account together, that in general the Catholic Church permits access to its Eucharistic communion… only to those who share its oneness in faith, worship and ecclesial life. For the same reasons, it also recognizes that in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial Communities.(16)

This official Catholic position has been reaffirmed recently by Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), concerning "the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church's life and mission." He writes:

The subject of participation in the Eucharist inevitably raises the question of Christians belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this regard, it must be said that the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the Church's unity inspires us to long for the day when we will be able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together with all believers in Christ, and in this way to express visibly the fullness of unity that Christ willed for his disciples (cf. Jn 17:21). On the other hand, the respect we owe to the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood prevents us from making it a mere "means" to be used indiscriminately in order to attain that unity. The Eucharist in fact not only manifests our personal communion with Jesus Christ, but also implies full communio with the Church. This is the reason why, sadly albeit not without hope, we ask Christians who are not Catholic to understand and respect our conviction, which is grounded in the Bible and Tradition. We hold that eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are so linked as to make it generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter.(17)

Benedict emphasizes the essential link between Eucharist (and the other sacraments) and the body of believers that celebrates Eucharist: one receives Eucharist not only as an individual believer in Jesus, but as a full member of the body of Christ.(18) Here there is an important convergence between Catholic and Mennonite ecclesiology: unity in Christ is a corporate ("horizontal") reality, more than merely each one having a personal ("vertical") relationship with Jesus. The document authored jointly by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and Mennonite World Conference, Called Together to be Peacemakers (2003), notes this convergence and the essential ecclesial dimension of both Baptism and Eucharist: "Through baptism we become members of the Church, the body of Christ…. The Eucharist and the Lord's Supper respectively draw believers together in the Church by nurturing their communion with the triune God and with one another."(19) The proper celebration of Eucharist thus presupposes full communion with the Catholic Church among all those receiving Eucharist--and, therefore, Eucharist cannot be used as a means to achieve ecclesial unity. Regular shared eucharistic communion between Catholics and Mennonites thus cannot be the means of ecumenical peacemaking, for such would do violence to both Catholic and Mennonite understandings of the nature of the church.

Yet, even while exhorting both Catholic and non-Catholic Christians to "understand and respect" this official teaching (and, hence, non-Catholic Christians to refrain from receiving Eucharist), Benedict does evidently leave open the possibility of occasional, exceptional shared communion between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. Note that the last sentence quoted from Benedict's Apostolic Exhortation includes an important qualification: "We hold that eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion are so linked as to make it generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter" (emphasis added). Benedict goes on to mention the traditional exception allowing for non-Catholic Christians to receive the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick in situations of "grave necessity." Although ecumenical gatherings are not mentioned explicitly, we may assume that Benedict intends this Apostolic Exhortation to be consistent with John Paul II's Encyclicals Ut Unum Sint (1995) and Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003). By this qualification, therefore, Benedict evidently continues John Paul II's provision that non-Catholic Christians might receive (or, be served) Eucharist "in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions"(20)--that is, in ecumenical contexts under the criteria specified in those Encyclicals.

Although Catholics and Mennonites are already united "in Christ" through baptism and are united in a special way through friendship within the Bridgefolk movement, we do not yet fully share and manifest a "unity in faith, worship and community life"(21)--hence, we do not fulfill the proper conditions for regular shared celebration of Eucharist. Ironically, the validity of the Eucharist shared between Catholics and Mennonites at the 2006 Bridgefolk gathering was inseparable from its exceptionality: shared Eucharist in ecumenical gatherings is always an "exception to the rule." Were we in Bridgefolk, or any other Mennonite-Catholic gathering, to make shared Eucharist a regularity (i.e., a "rule"), it would violate both the spirit and the letter of John Paul II's criteria for non-Catholic Christians to receive (or, be served) Eucharist in ecumenical contexts, which made this event possible in the first place.(22)

The Bridgefolk Eucharist event thus points to the eschatological tension of ecumenical peacemaking in the reality of ecclesial disunity: already, but not yet… united already in one Lord through one baptism, but not yet united fully in one faith through one ecclesial body. As we wait for the coming day when we will be wholly reconciled in Christ, this wondrous event sustains our hope of seeing the church reunited in Christ, gathered as "one new humanity" around the table of our Lord, fed by God's grace, blessed by God's peace. And so we pray, with the ancient hymn,

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all humankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.


1. My thanks to Tom Yoder Neufeld for helpful conversations on the connection of Ephesians 2 to ecumenism, and to Lois Kauffman, Jay Landry, Margie Pfeil, and William Skudlarek for their graceful words of constructive critique of earlier drafts of this reflection. This reflection is located within the division of the Western church. There is, we should not forget, that other and older division in the Body of Christ, the "Great Schism" between East and West, which is no less a scandal to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but which has not (yet) been a significant part of my own experience.

2. Thomas Albert Howard, "L'affaire Hochschild and Evangelical Colleges," Books & Culture, May/June 2006, p. 33.

3. Reta Haltemann Finger makes the case that the peace Paul mentions in Romans 5:1 is not only the peace of the individual reconciled with God, but also the peace of Christians reconciled with one another in Christ. See "`Reconciled to God through the death of his Son': A mission of peacemaking in Romans 5:1-11," in Mary H. Schertz and Ivan Friesen, eds., How Beautiful upon the Mountains: Biblical Essays on Mission, Peace, and the Reign of God (Elkhart, IN: Institute for Mennonite Studies, 2003), 183-196.

4. For a wonderful analysis of this text and its missional/peacemaking implications, see Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, "'For he is our peace' Ephesians 2:11-12", in How Beautiful upon the Mountains, 215-233. Ulrich Mauser examines this text in relation to Jew-Gentile hostility within the imperial situation, in The Gospel of Peace: A Scriptural Message for Today's World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 151-164.

5. What follows is based primarily upon my own recollection of and reflection upon the events related, but does also include some insights shared by others who participated in these events.

6. You can find Bridgefolk on the web. This grassroots movement parallels the official international dialogue between Mennonite World Conference and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. That 5-year dialogue (1998-2003) produced the document Called Together to be Peacemakers.

7. Concerning the Benedictine background of Sattler and Schleitheim, see C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984).

8. Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1369): "The whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ. Since he has the ministry of Peter in the Church, the Pope is associated with every celebration of the Eucharist, wherein he is named as the sign and servant of the unity of the universal Church." The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as all the Vatican documents to be referenced below, can be found on the Vatican website.

9. John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint (par. 46, emphasis added): "In this context, it is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments." John Paul II repeated these criteria verbatim in his final 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharista (par. 46). It is to be understood that, apart from the appropriate ecumenical context, the traditional rule still applies as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1401): "When, in the Ordinary's judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions."

10. See Abbot John Klassen's article, "Reflections on Open and Closed Communion," in the Spring 2006 Bridgefolk newsletter, The Bridge, p. 7.

11. Abbot John Klassen comments regarding this third criterion ("Reflections on Open and Closed Communion"): "Of these three conditions, the third is surely the one that is critical for receiving Holy Communion at a Eucharistic celebration. Can one say "Amen" to what the Catholic Church believes takes place in the celebration of the Eucharist? As Cardinal Walter Kasper has noted, "One must be able to say this 'Amen' with an honest heart and in union with all the assembled community, both at the end of the Eucharistic prayer and when one receives communion; and one must bear witness with one's life to this 'Amen'" (as cited in Kevin Seasoltz "One House, Many Dwellings," Worship, Vol. 79, 415-416, September 2005). This is a steep demand but it truly reflects the place of Eucharist in Catholic faith and life. In the same breath, though, it must be said that this is the central requirement for all who receive Eucharist, Catholic and non-Catholic alike."

12. Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1376), citing the Council of Trent (1551): "The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: 'Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.'"

13. In the Catholic understanding, the Eucharistic offering of bread and wine re-presents, or makes present here-and-now on the altar, Jesus' once-for-all sacrificial death on the cross (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1362-1368). And, traditionally, the Catholic Church understands Jesus' sacrificial death in Anselmian terms of "substitution" and "satisfaction." The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 615) states, making reference to the Council of Trent: "By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant…. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father." Thus, the official Catholic faith professed in the Eucharist is intertwined with the medieval "satisfaction" or "substitution" theory of Jesus' death. There is, however, no orthodox doctrine of atonement, strictly speaking; for no Ecumenical Council ever pronounced on the meaning of the phrases "for us… for our salvation" in the Nicene Creed. Thus, one could question or reject Anselmian atonement theory without becoming heretic. And, while the Anselmian atonement theory remains the teaching of the Catholic Church through the Catechism, many Catholic theologians today would question the adequacy of this theory and would look to other models of atonement. Cf., e.g., Michael Winter, The Atonement (Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press, 1995).

14. Sacramentum was one of the two traditional Latin translations of the Greek word mysterion. Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 774): "In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterion. In this sense, Christ himself the mystery of salvation…. The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church's sacraments…. The seven sacraments [that is, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance (or Reconciliation), Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony] are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body."

15. Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1127-1129, citing the Council of Trent): "Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify…. The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation" (original emphasis).

16. Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism," par. 129. The Catholic Church considers the Mennonite denomination an "ecclesial Community," not a "Church," because, although constituted of baptized Christians, it does not participate in the apostolic succession of bishops.

17. Sacramentum Caritatis, par. 56. At this paragraph, Benedict references by footnote John Paul II's Encyclical Ut Unum Sint in support of maintaining this position.

18. This is the import of Cardinal Kasper's practical explanation of John Paul II's third criterion for non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist in an appropriate ecumenical context: "One must be able to say this 'Amen' with an honest heart and in union with all the assembled community, both at the end of the Eucharistic prayer and when one receives communion."

19. Called Together to be Peacemakers, par. 95.

20. "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism," par. 129.

21. "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism," par. 129.

22. Nor is it at all possible or permissible to seek Mennonite-Catholic inter-communion by having Catholics receive communion within a Mennonite worship service. This is strictly prohibited for Catholics by the Code of Canon Law because a Eucharistic celebration is valid only if presided over by a properly ordained minister, which requires ordination within the apostolic succession of bishops. That is, from the Catholic perspective, a Mennonite celebration of the Lord's Supper is not a valid Eucharist precisely because the Mennonite denomination is not a "Church" but only an "ecclesial Community."