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Disciples Together

Archbishop Dolan visits the Bruderhof, stresses shared Christianity

Claudia McDonnell


This article first appeared in Catholic New York.

The solid bond of friendship between Catholics in the archdiocese and members of the Bruderhof, a Christian communal movement, seemed to grow stronger when Archbishop Dolan visited Woodcrest, the group's center in Rifton, Ulster County, on Aug. 17.

Christian discipleship was a key theme during the visit. The archbishop and the Bruderhof leader, Johann Christoph Arnold, spoke of the commitment that Catholics and the group's members share as Christians, and of the need for both groups to work together to bring the Gospel message to a world that desperately needs it.

"We are so close in so many ways, we are united in so many ways, but first and foremost because we are disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," the archbishop said in his address.

More than 300 members live at Woodcrest, and most were present to greet the archbishop as he entered a large, sunlit room whose windows looked out over the rolling Ulster hills toward the Catskill Mountains in the distance. The mood was joyous, and Arnold, in his greeting, told the archbishop, "We have been looking forward to this day for a long time!"

Cardinal John O'Connor visited Woodcrest in 1996, the first cardinal known to have visited a Bruderhof center, and Arnold referred to that event in his welcome to Archbishop Dolan.

The archbishop remarked that members of the group participated in events connected with his installation in 2009.

"I have felt your support since day one...and it means the world to me," he said.

The Bruderhof traces its roots—like Mennonites and Amish—to the Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe. It was founded in the 1920s in Germany by Eberhard Arnold, grandfather of Christoph Arnold. It now has more than 20 communities worldwide. Members hold all possessions in common and are strongly committed to social justice, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, Christian sexual morality, and the importance of traditional marriage and the family.

Anabaptists in the past were persecuted by Catholics and by other Protestants, but the Bruderhof for years has sought closer relations with the Catholic Church. Arnold said in his greeting, "Together with the Catholic Church, our communities for decades have stood firm on the issues of marriage between one man and one woman, and lifelong faithfulness and purity." He added that he wrote about that topic in his book Sex, God and Marriage, which contains a joint statement on purity signed by the New York Archdiocese and the Bruderhof Communities in 2003. The book was presented to Pope John Paul II, and contains a foreword by Mother Teresa.

Arnold has been outspoken in defending the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI against defamation following the clergy sex abuse scandal. In his remarks to Archbishop Dolan, he referred to the "intense attacks and persecution" directed at the pope and the Church.

"The relentless media barrage and public outcry has one aim: to silence the witness of the Church," Arnold said. "Today we want to express our solidarity with Pope Benedict and you."

He told the archbishop, "We thank God for your courageous stand on crucial social issues like defending marriage and the family. Our modern civilization is heading for disaster. Defending the family as God created it will save our civilization from total collapse."

Archbishop Dolan, in his address, focused on two words that he described as fundamental in the life and work of Pope John Paul II: discipleship and solidarity.

Catholics and Bruderhof members "are disciples together" and "share a best friend"—Jesus Christ, he said. He called on all to keep that shared commitment uppermost in mind.

He also spoke of Pope John Paul II's trip to Poland in 1979 as it is presented in a recently released documentary film, "Nine Days That Changed the World." The archbishop, citing scholars, said that the pope's visit led to the fall of atheistic communism in Eastern Europe, yet John Paul II never mentioned the word "communist" or criticized any leader or called for "political uprisings." What changed the world, said the archbishop, was that the Polish people, dehumanized and deprived of their culture by an atheistic government, began "to feel they were not alone."

"They felt an intense sense of cohesion and togetherness...They began to feel solidarity," he said.

"We are in this together," he said. "We are children of God, and brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, and force of darkness, can take that from us, because we have a solidarity that is sealed in the heart of Christ and glued by the Precious Blood of God's only-begotten Son."

He added, "My brothers and sisters, I praise God for the solidarity that I sense with you." He also said, "We need each other more than ever" because Christian discipleship brings suffering."When we suffer, when we are harassed, ridiculed, persecuted, it doesn't mean we're doing something wrong," he said. "It means we're doing something right...The promise of Jesus rings in our ears, that 'The world will hate you, but be not afraid, because I have overcome the world.' "

Presented to Archbishop Dolan during the gathering was a senior member of the Woodcrest community, Art Wiser, who is strongly promoting "Sex, God and Marriage" for use in Catholic and other high schools.

The Bruderhof has a strong musical tradition, and the Woodcrest group greeted Archbishop Dolan with a hymn, "This Is the Day the Lord Has Made." At the conclusion of the gathering they gave a powerful rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah." Several hundred voices rang out in magnificent harmony, accompanied by the community's string orchestra with brass and organ.

The community said farewell to the archbishop with the Irish song of blessing "May the Road Rise to Meet You."

Reprinted with permission of Catholic New York. 

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