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Catholics and Mennonites: bridging baptismal traditions


October 12, 2007
- Elsie Rempel

ELKHART, Indiana — Despite the historical differences between Catholics and Mennonites, a growing number of believers from each group is benefiting from the customs of the other.  Together, these believers form Bridgefolk; persons who bridge the two traditions by celebrating commonalities and learning from distinctions – including those related to baptism.

The 2007 Bridgefolk Gathering at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, demonstrated this reciprocity.  The event, “Who do we think we are – Catholics and Mennonites growing together in Christ” included music, lectures, opportunities for service and shared personal stories of baptism.

Felicia Leon-Driscoll of South Bend Indiana recalled her baptism into the Roman Catholic Church through stories her mother told.  Leon-Driscoll had been baptized as an infant in her home soon after her birth with only family members present as witnesses.  A sense of urgency surrounded the event; it was understood that immediate baptism was necessary to ensure her salvation. 

This contrasts dramatically with the baptism of Leon-Driscoll’s own children in the Catholic Church.  As infants surrounded by the church community, they were received in a celebratory manner.  Church members committed themselves to assisting Leon-Driscoll and her husband as they raised their children in the faith.  This may seem remarkably similar to Mennonite child dedication celebrations, but Leon-Driscoll’s church takes it one step further.  Each year the congregation lights candles in celebration of baptismal anniversaries as a reminder to everyone of the sacred importance of the event. These celebrations help her children live into and claim their baptisms, even though they can’t remember the event.

But Roman Catholic baptisms are not restricted to infants.  Mike Dabler was baptized at 33 years of age on Easter morning after participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).   RCIA offers interested people an introduction to biblical values and the opportunity for emerging faith to take root, much in the same way membership classes with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, or with Michelle Hershberger’s book, God’s Story, Our Story, help prepare Mennonite baptismal candidates.  Dabler described his participation in RCIA as an intensive process of faith formation.

I shared about my Mennonite baptism in a small discussion group. I recollect concern about my worthiness for baptism prior to the event, as well as memories of assurance from my pastor that salvation is a journey (Philippians 3:12-14).  I recalled the warm embrace from the congregation after the baptismal testimony.  My father’s words were particularly moving: “Now you are not only my daughter, you are my sister in Christ.”

The sense of belonging experienced after baptism seemed to be a common memory among adults baptized in both Catholic and Mennonite traditions.

During a presentation on the theology and practice of baptism, Jay Landry, the Co-Director of RCIA, shared the Catholic perspective with supportive pictures and stories of people from his parish.  He cited scriptural evidence to show that God works with people wherever they are – regardless of age – thereby leaving room for continuing with infant baptism as well as baptism after confession of faith.

Connections between Mennonites and Catholics extend beyond baptism, which was the special focus of this year’s event. Peace-minded Catholics have come to appreciate Mennonites by working side by side in community peace and justice initiatives. Mennonites have been drawn to the structured liturgy of Catholic worship and have benefited from the ministry of Roman Catholic spiritual directors who offer personalized guidance for spiritual growth.

Other Bridgefolk presentations surveyed Roman Catholic and Mennonite settlement patterns in relation to ministry influences in neighboring areas of Northern Indiana and South-western Michigan; the Michiana region and Elkhart-LaGrange counties. John Howard Yoder of Indiana was recognized as one of the earliest Mennonites to enter into significant dialogue with his Catholic neighbors through his teaching at Notre Dame University.

Mennonite/Catholic Bridgefolk encounters take place yearly, alternating between Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, or other Mennonite centres, and St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The leader of this large Abbey and Spiritual retreat centre, Abbott John Klassen, participates as a Bridgefolk board member alongside of Marlene Kropf, Executive Leadership, Mennonite Church USA.

A Bridgefolk prayer

Through spiritual direction and other kinds of faith journeys some former Mennonites have become Roman Catholic. Others have married Catholics but have remained practicing Mennonites.  Bridgefolk offers a place to integrate these two kinds of Christian identity more broadly than possible through families or local congregations. This common Bridgefolk prayer reflects the resulting spirit of diversity and acceptance.

O Lord our God, eternally living and giving, a Trinity of persons,
may all your Christian people come to share in truth the table of your
Son Jesus Christ, unified and peaceable, joining in the communion of
saints, martyrs, apostles and bishops who have beaten their swords into

Empowered by that very grace of your Holy Spirit who unites the Trinity
in mutual love they have been a bridge to your coming Kingdom, already
present in our broken world.

By that same grace and love, empower us then we pray – empower us here
today – to be a bridge to that future of unity and peace which you ever
yearn to give to your Church, yet ever give in earnest through your
Church as you set a table before us making present the life and death,
body and blood, faith, hope and love of your Son, in whose name we pray,