On a recent Thursday morning the bells that hang high above the Abbey Church of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota awakened me. Normally I pay no heed to the bells, which ring at regular intervals marking the hours of the day. But on this day, at that time, they rang and kept on ringing. 70 times, to be exact.
The campus of Saint John’s University, where I am a graduate student, was quiet. Summer classes having concluded, most students and faculty have departed for a few weeks before the crisp autumnal air welcomes a new academic year.
As I began to wake, it didn’t take long for me to think of Ivan Kauffman. A year ago, Ivan and his wife Lois would likely have been at Morning Prayer in the Abbey Church on that August day. And Ivan would have been pleased to know that the Abbey was setting aside time intentionally to pray for peace.
Kauffman, an acclaimed journalist, author, peace activist and organizer died on July 15. He considered himself a Mennonite Catholic, one of the founders of Bridgefolk, an international movement of Catholics and Mennonites, which encouraged and brought about dialogue between the two churches.
When I came to Collegeville in the fall of 2013, Ivan was one of the first people I met, introduced by a friend and classmate of mine. Ivan and Lois lived nearby in a house of hospitality, the Michael Sattler House, established to welcome Mennonites and people of all Christian denominations and other faiths to campus and the area.
I was drawn to Ivan and his perspective on justice issues immediately. It was clear that he had been on the frontlines and wasn’t someone who just talked about the common good, but was bringing it about by bringing people together.
In the days following the release of the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” in 1983, Ivan was deeply moved. Raised in the Mennonite tradition, absolute nonviolence was at his core. Now a Catholic, he found a voice to his own experience as he began to write a weekly syndicated column for diocesan newspapers titled “Making Peace.”
Two years later he found himself among a large delegation organized by the National Council of Churches visiting the Soviet Union. He went along as a journalist and wrote openly of the realities that he found in a region seized by violence and despair.
In late 2012 Ivan would recollect in an essay published by America magazine that “the consensus position in the liberal community had been that the Soviet Empire was here to stay, and the most we could hope for was to get along with it.”
As we all now know, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, after dividing Germany for 28 years.
Justice, and the peace that it affords, does come, even when we don’t expect it.
In recent years, Ivan turned his focus more and more toward finding peace in the church and its many forms. He remained a devout Catholic with Mennonite roots. Because of such a unique perspective he was an irreplaceable force in the ecumenical dialogue that at once, like the fall of communism in Europe, seemed impossible.
Ivan and Lois left Collegeville this past spring, after being an integral and treasured part of the wider community for a number of years. In the days prior to their move to Philadelphia they graciously invited me to join them for a casual lunch.
We chatted about many things that afternoon. However, the bulk of our conversation centered on the many lessons to be learned from the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue of which Ivan and Lois engaged.
We agreed that there was little hope for any sense of renewal or reconciliation in Washington, as polarized and dysfunctional as it has become.
But Ivan had great hope for the possibility of renewed dialogue within Catholicism and other Christian denominations themselves. Here he often spoke of the need for our churches to model the dialogue that we seek in the world, and the peace that would follow it.
Again, writing in America, Ivan noted, “There are three options open to us, not just two—left, right and Catholic. The options offered by both the left and the right are based on ideology. The Catholic option is based on realism—the careful and patient discovery of facts and the search for policies based on both facts and on the Catholic imperative to preserve and enhance the common good. Catholic and centrist are not the same; we do not achieve the common good by splitting the difference between competing ideologies. We achieve the common good by finding and advocating solutions to the real problems of real people living in the real world.”
There is no doubt, Ivan Kaufmann’s life was full, rich and grace-filled. Much more can be said about that amazing journey and the many lives he touched. As for me, I am grateful for the inspiration and the hope found in his witness, as I continue to seek to be a part of a Christian community that works for peace inside and out.
Rest in peace among the peacemakers, good and faithful servant.