Michael Sattler: Monk, Mennonite, Martyr

Did you know that yesterday, May 20, was Michael Sattler Day??

Michael Sattler was Benedictine monk, a prior in fact, and then an evangelical reformer in the movement later termed Mennonite/Amish. Sattler was martyred on May 20, 1527, by the Austrian state with the support of the Roman Catholic authorities.

The Michael Sattler House, on the edge of Saint John’s Abbey, was recently founded by Ivan and Lois Kaufman. They come from Sattler’s tradition but are now in communion with Rome –I think they would say as “Mennonite Catholics.” The House is a place of renewal especially for those in service to the world who need a time of rest and refreshment.

Why Michael Sattler Day? Ivan explains that the memory of Sattler’s and so many others’ brutal execution at the hands of the state and the state church still looms large in the Mennonite consciousness – too large. Emphasis is on the wrongs once committed by foes of their movement, especially Catholic ones. The hope is that more stress can be placed on the faithful witness of Sattler and the other martyrs, with gradual movement toward forgiveness. Michael Sattler Day is about that and, for Catholics, repentance.

We gathered for a program and a meal. Mennonite Pastor Weldon Nisly – the one who recently wrote at Pray Tell in support of Catholic sisters, and who likes to say that wherever he goes, he sees the Kingdom of God most clearly in the work of the Catholic sisters – led the opening prayer. Then we sang the text by Menno Simons (the priest who gave his name to the 16th century reform movement), “We are people of God’s peace,” to the tune AVE VIRGO VIRGINUM ( GAUDEAMUS PARITER) in the Mennonite hymnal. I suggested this hymn because the text is by a “Mennonite” and the tune from a 1584 Catholic hymnal, and also because it will appear next fall in the hymnal we use at the abbey. I couldn’t resist pointing out that the Latin tune name means “Hail, Virgin of Virgins.” Several speakers spoke, and then Abbot John Klassen, OSB, blessed us and the House.

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I recall reading a history of the Mennonites a year or two ago. When I got to the part where the Catholic bishop of St. Gall in the sixteenth century approved the execution of a pacifist Christian reformer, tears welled up. How could it ever come to this?? Tears also of gratitude for the steadfast witness of a Christian who would not recant before the authorities.

Some of those emotions welled up again yesterday as Ivan Kaufman told the story of Sattler. Here is how Ivan put it in the flyer:

Michael Sattler was the prior of the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter’s in South Germany in the early 1520s. He became the leader of a lay evangelical movement devoted to social justice and died as a martyr.

We know very little about Sattler’s life as a Benedictine, other than that he became prior in his early 30s, and had been expected to maintain the privileged position of his monastic community. We also know numerous reform movements were emerging in the European Benedictine communities at the time, dedicated to following the original Benedictine charism more strictly, and that St. Peter’s had affiliated with one of them.

We also know the older monasteries, including the one Sattler administered, were major landowners at the time, and that a very high degree of dissatisfaction had developed among those who farmed these vast holdings as sharecroppers. This deep sense of injustice produced a major popular uprising now known as the Peasants Revolt of 1525.

We also know that when troops came to St. Peter’s in the spring of 1525 Sattler engaged them in conversation, and that the monastery was not destroyed as many others were. Shortly after this he left his position in the monastery and joined the peasant movement, as leader of one of the lay evangelical movements that had emerged alongside it.

Members of these groups viewed themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, who were imitating the first-century Christians by following Christ in daily life without compromise, refusing to be governed in their religious beliefs and practices by civil authorities.

They called themselves simply “the brethren” and insisted on the right to form self-governing communities of lay Christians. This was a radical step at the time, and was violently resisted, both by government and church authorities, Catholic and Protestant alike, who viewed the new movements as heretical and guilty of political sedition.

Using his Benedictine formation Michael Sattler created a rule for a group of these new communities, a rule that has been followed for nearly 500 years, and which provides the foundations for the present day Amish and Swiss-origin Mennonite communities. The rule requires absolute nonviolence, a position that has been maintained by its adherents to the present.

Sattler was quickly arrested by the Austrian government, which then governed South Germany. He was condemned to death by a civil trial (not the Inquisition, although the process was virtually identical) and executed in a particularly vicious way on May 20, 1527. His wife Margaretha, a former Beguine, also chose to die rather than recant.

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Bridgefolk is a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices, and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s Church. Together they seek better ways to embody a commitment to both traditions. They seek to make Anabaptist-Mennonite practices of discipleship, peaceableness, and lay participation more accessible to Roman Catholics, and to bring the spiritual, liturgical, and sacramental practices of the Catholic tradition to Anabaptists.

Bridgefolk is meeting at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, MN, July 26-29. As always, there will be hymn singing and foot-washing and an agape meal in addition to the slate of presentations. Intercommunion is not possible, but there will be a joint Eucharist of sorts. The entire Catholic rite of Mass will be celebrated, interweaved with the Mennonite celebration, with a common Liturgy of the Word and preaching by the Catholic priest and the (female) Mennonite minister. Catholics and Mennonites will prayerfully observe their fellow Christians receiving Communion in their own tradition.

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Within the Roman Catholic discipline, only saints and martyrs in communion with Rome can be entered into the liturgical calendar for veneration. But I wonder – would it be possible to have another sort of annual commemoration of “Michael Sattler Day” at the abbey every May 20? Perhaps a Mennonite hymn at office, and a non-scriptural second reading from the Mennonite tradition? I will be taking up the question with the abbot and our liturgy committee.

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Several “Mennonite Catholics” were in attendance for Michael Sattler Day. Practicing Catholics, these people have brought with them their Mennonite formation and commitment to service and to peacemaking.

I wonder if I could become a “Catholic Mennonite”? I’m serious. I would renounce nothing of my Catholic beliefs or practices, but be an intentional member of the Mennonite fellowship. (I haven’t asked any of them – and I realize that for them being Christian means belonging to a particular community, not a corresponding member from afar.) I suppose receiving Communion from ‘separated brethren’ would not be possible – but I’m aware of the precedent of Pope Benedict XVI giving communion to Brother Roger, the founder of Taize, who considered himself both a Roman Catholic and a Calvinist pastor.

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Ivan and Lois Kaufman released an open letter for Michael Sattler day. It says in part:

But how can Mennonites and Catholics actually be peacemakers if we remain divided, and how can we be united if we do not come to peace with the martyr deaths of the 16th century, often at Catholic hands, on whose heroic witness the present-day Amish and Mennonite communities are based? The polemics of the Reformation era, both verbal and physical, are a blot on the Church’s history, one that must be recognized and dealt with.

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One Mennonite Catholic, Julia Smucker from our graduate school of theology, has blogged about her impressions of Michael Sattler Day: “Feasting Michael Sattler.” I make my own her closing line:

Convinced, therefore, of this martyr’s presence among the communion of saints, today we dare to say: Michael Sattler, Benedictine and Anabaptist, pray for us.


  1. Of course you had to quote my most controversial line! Seriously though, thanks for the nod.

    If you want to find belonging and fellowship among Mennonites – welcome! (If I can still say that.) I would still call you a Mennonite Catholic, in terms of who you’re in communion with. I was a Catholic Mennonite for several years before I crossed that bridge.

    On a technical point, Anabaptist is the more all-encompassing term for the movement. The Amish broke off from the Mennonites due to perceived worldliness – or, in the impression I’ve picked up from somewhere, due to Jakob Amman freaking out because we didn’t have anyone to persecute us anymore.

    1. Julia,
      Thanks, and of course you’re right about “Anabaptist” and I know that. I hope the internet isn’t making me lose all scruples around precision of thought… but I’ll admit it: I went for the catchy Mennonite to match Monk and Martyr. That’s why I put it in quotes at least one of the times.

      1. Oh, I quite approve of the alliterative title. I was referring to “the movement later termed Mennonite/Amish.” Maybe introducing a different term there would have been too confusing, but then so is introducing the Amish. But never mind. This is just me being picky – but no less grateful for such fine reporting.

  2. That was *last* year’s Bridgefolk meeting in St. Joe. This year, it’s at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, ON. I have the rather daunting privilege of addressing them this year.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve long wondered if all of our Christian traditions could someday put each other’s Reformation-era martyrs on our calendars. There’s some precedent already (Thomas More on Anglican calendars, for example), but if it could be broadened (especially if the RCs could someday do it), it would be a great ecumenical statement.

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