Anne-Cathy Graber, a Mennonite pastor and a consecrated sister in a Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation, describes her pilgrimage toward a ministry of healing Christ's body, fragmented by denominational divisions. She is also a theologian and an author.
This story has been compiled by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen from two interviews: one conducted by Rev. Dr. Casely Essamuah, secretary of Global Christian Forum, and the other with Ivan Karageorgiev.
I grew up in a Mennonite family near Montbéliard, France. My ancestors include generations of pastors and missionaries, who left me a guiding vision as an inheritance: never divorce Christian faith from engagement with society. This taught me that working for the good of our city is as important as participation in our church.
When I was baptized, at 14, I was surprised by God's call to become a pastor. I secretly carried this call for 24 years, because my congregation didn't ordain females as pastors.
I encountered the Chemin Neuf (New Way) community in 1983, while I was studying musicology in Lyon. It was in this Catholic community, which promotes unity among the world's Christian churches, that I realized that I needed other denominations! For the first time, I saw that my own denomination wasn't God's only witness to the gospel. I was also astonished to experience the simplicity with which the Chemin Neuf community lived out reconciliation with diverse denominations and cultures — married and single people, men and women — all sharing in the tasks of ordinary life. We prayed together, served together, learned together, and engaged in mission together.
It is in our daily lives, in community, that we live out Christ's commandments in Matthew 22:37 and 39, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] your neighbor as yourself'" (NRSV). Hearing these words in an ecumenical context expanded their meaning for me: I must love other denominations, as I love my own! Here was an invitation to serve other denominations, as I serve my own.
A month-long Ignatian retreat, guided by the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, determined the direction of my life. While meditating on the stories of Christ's childhood in the gospels, I saw a new dimension of his identity and his mission. As a Mennonite, I was familiar with the cross, where Christ is Savior and Reconciler. But, in the prophetic words, recorded in Luke 2:34, when Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary in the temple, I heard as if for the first time, "He will be a 'sign of contradiction.'" [Editor's note: This is the literal translation from French, with the meaning of "he will confound many."]
Accepting this aspect of Christ's identity took me a long time. I came to understand that Christ comes into my life as the one who contradicts, or confounds, my logic, my way of seeing and doing. However, this is a healthy contradiction because it enlarges my spirit and crosses limiting boundaries.
After that retreat, I met with my Mennonite church leaders to share my call to join the Chemin Neuf community and to take a vow of celibacy. Celibacy for God's kingdom is not at all a Mennonite tradition! It also went against Chemin Neuf rules, which encourage each person to remain in good standing with the tenets of their own faith tradition, in as far as possible. In this way, Chemin Neuf attempts ecumenical engagement that goes beyond the personal and community levels, to include institutions. So, it is not possible to belong to the Chemin Neuf community without the blessing of one's own denomination. This creates confidence between denominations and opens new spaces for understanding.
In 1996, after years of dialogue and waiting, I — a Mennonite — became a full member of a Catholic community. Soon after this, I began to study theology at the University of Strasbourg. I learned that theology studied through an ecumenical lens helps us better appreciate our own denominational theology and practice. Ecumenical work is like learning other languages. It helps identify more precisely what the obstacles are to interfaith cooperation and, thus, allows us to better diagnose a cure!
During my years of study, the Mennonite church had called me to an itinerant pastoral ministry. This meant I wouldn't be assigned to one congregation but would be available to travel wherever my gifts are needed. I am accountable to the Paris Mennonite Center, Mennonite Mission Network, and the Chemin Neuf community. Requests that come to me are discerned by a counsel, composed of one or two representatives from each of these entities
I work for ecumenism in the hope that it will continue to invite us all to gratitude for the diverse gifts that are expressed in "other" denominations and that it will open our eyes to recognize our sin of becoming accustomed to, and even justifying, the division of Christ's body. We must recognize other denominations as truly being part of the church.
Join Graber in praying for "church unity through reconciled diversity:"
"May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division …"