Weekly Edgework #40 - Apr. 4, 2005

On the Road to Rome

The recent death of Pope John Paul the Great, as he is now being referred to, gives me occasion to reflect on my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. There has been an evolution of sorts in that relationship.

When I grew up in the 1950s, the line I learned at the Rose Farm Church was that the Roman Catholic Church was the instrument of the Devil. Out of it would rise the Anti-Christ who would rule the world with great deception and power during the tribulation. And the Pope himself symbolized all that was evil and demonic. And since I knew no Catholics personally, I had no reason to dispute this view. It did make me glad that I was born into a church that contained the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Around the time I was finishing High School in the early 1960s the Catholic Church convened a three year Vatican Council (1962-65) in which it tried to put some old controversies to rest and create a new trajectory that would take them into the future. At the time I was totally oblivious to this movement. However, while studying Spanish in Texas in the 1970s, I got to hear of new stirrings in that church. Apparently the Vatican Council had decided to print the Bible in the language of the people and encourage people to read it. Gordon Johnson, President of the Language School, returned from a trip to South America and reported of many sincere and intense Bible studies taking place within the Catholic Church. He suggested that if the Word of God is as powerful as we say it is, then there was great potential for renewal of authentic faith in the Catholic Church.

When we arrived in Bolivia in 1974, it was evident that most protestant missionaries and indeed most protestant churches still carried a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. The easiest thing to do was to join in the repeated denouncements of a church that failed to connect its people to the real God. And indeed, much that we saw within the Catholic Church was cause for concern. On the other hand we witnessed some positive things. In the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, a large group of charismatic Catholics were meeting in “La Mansión”, which was basically a large thatched roof. We attended a few times and found a remarkable freedom, joy and missionary spirit in a large group of renewed Catholics. If we had not been told it was a Catholic service, we might not have noticed that it was.

In later years I kept running into Catholic writers who inspired me profoundly. It seemed to me that some of the medieval mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross had some profound things to say about the Christian way. And I became quite enamored with some contemporary Catholic writers like Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier. Instead of enemies of Christ, I found brothers to engage in serious dialogue. Last year, when our local Catholic priest preached a sermon at a funeral in a Mennonite Church, I was told by many that it was the best sermon they had ever heard. And that witness came from staunch Mennonites.

In recent years, my connection to the Mennonite World Conference has put me in touch with the five-year dialogue that has taken place between Catholics and Mennonites, from 1998 to 2003. This past year I have been part of a discussion group that has studied the 48-page document that came out of these talks. From this report I learned that Vatican II has indeed created a vision for faith and life that lies much closer to Mennonite understandings than former Catholic understandings would have allowed.

It is clear that the Catholic Church of the 21st century is quite different from the church that persecuted our Anabaptist forefathers. Indeed, the document testifies to a repentant spirit for perpetrating such oppression in the past. And we are assured that we are considered to be brothers and sisters in Christ. The questions posed at the end of the study were whether we would be willing to engage Catholics in our own regions more directly, and indeed, if we would be interested in joining in with a visit to the Pontifical Council within the next year, should one take place. The consensus in our group was strongly in favor of such actions.

Now Pope John Paul II has died. And many voices within and beyond the Catholic Church bear witness to the tremendous effect he has had on the world. Most credit him with instigating the collapse of soviet communism. He has spoken out in favor of justice and freedom. He has championed the cause of the poor and powerless. He has critiqued openly corrupt political and economic systems that create starving masses around the world. And he has reached out to people beyond the Catholic Church in a gesture of reconciliation in the spirit of Christ.

Yes there remain some aspects of Roman Catholicism that I find troubling. But not as troubling as developments I see in some Protestant circles. If I were given limited options in a given context, I can see myself joining the Catholic Church instead of some of the sects within Protestantism. It is interesting to note that not a few Mennonites have turned Catholic in the last few decades.

On the day of John Paul’s death, an acquaintance referred to “that man” with a dismissive wave of his hand. So what’s the matter? I inquired. Do you think he didn’t make it? Well, put it this way, he said, I just don’t have the confidence that he did. Back to the Rose Farm of the 1950s! I found this judgmental spirit disturbing. Well, I said quietly, I will be content to end up wherever he went. A look of disbelief crossed the face of my acquaintance. I guess we have not been on the same road for the past fifty years.