Pax Christi USA: Still Challenging Us After 50 Years

Word PEACE traced in sand on the ocean’s shore.
Pax Christi USA, which began 50 years ago, continues to advocate for non-violent conflict resolution in a war-torn world.

Conferences are curious events. We often attend them to deepen and confirm knowledge and beliefs we already hold. I like to attend conferences that are just as likely to upend my tightly held beliefs.

I never fail to come away challenged when I attend an event sponsored by Pax Christi USA, an organization that advocates for gospel non-violence and peaceful resolutions to conflict. Moral indignation over the Vietnam War propelled the organization into existence. Since then, it has never veered from its prophetic call to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction — a stance not a widely shared in 1972 when the organization began.

In the ensuing years, Pax Christi has held countless workshops and seminars on non-violent methods of conflict resolution, drawing in many young people in the process. It broadened its advocacy to include racial and economic justice, inclusivity for marginalized peoples, and environmental responsibility, recognizing that war is the enemy of all of those goals.

One just has to look at the current news — the devastating war in Ukraine and the past week’s deadly conflagration between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza — to recognize that Pax Christi’s mission is never-ending.

I became a member of Pax Christi because some people I greatly admire have been part of the organization, including spirituality author Jim Forest; poet, essayist and peace advocate Sister Mary Lou Kownacki of the Erie, PA Benedictines; and Eileen Egan, whose biography I am working on, who was the traveling companion of both St. Teresa of Calcutta and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day.

While I don’t agree with all that I hear at Pax Christi events, I appreciate that its members are willing to say out loud the things that challenge conventional wisdom. To wit: despite the billions of dollars worth of military weapons being sent to Ukraine, there is likely no military solution to the conflict. What’s needed is a ceasefire and negotiations.

One of the panelists at this year’s conference was Villanova University historian Shannen Dee Williams, author of a groundbreaking recent book, Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.

“The Catholic Church was among the first enslavers,” Williams declared.

Surely not words this lifelong Catholic wanted to hear, but certainly something every Catholic needs to confront. The institutional church stood by while Christian countries like Portugal, England, Spain and — yes, the United States — engaged in the slave trade. A 15th century papal decree condoned the practice of seizing and colonizing lands held by non-Christian indigenous people — an act that continues to have repercussions among First Nations peoples to this day.

Owning up to these sad truths, Williams says, “opens us up to be able to confront this history in a reparative way.”

Pax Christi members at a recent protest holding signs that say “Starving A Child Is Violence” and “Fight Poverty: Not the Poor.”
Pax Christi members participate in one of their many public protests. At center is longtime activist Marie Dennis, awarded Pax Christi’s highest honor of “Teacher of Peace” this weekend. (Photo courtesy of National Catholic Reporter).

Pax Christi “Ambassador for Peace” Megan McKenna, a theologian and storyteller, is someone who always prompts me to think in new ways. We have been taught that “original sin” resulted from our earliest ancestors’ disobedience, she reminded us. McKenna said she believes the true beginning of original sin came later, when Cain killed his brother Abel, ushering in the practice of “killing our own kin” as she put it.

When you think about it, what could be more disobedient of God’s fundamental commandment to love than taking the life of another?

McKenna has spent recent years working with First Nations and indigenous people from around the world. She observes that racism isn’t limited to people of color, but affects anyone who doesn’t make it in what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system” that marginalizes so many. People of faith must stand with “anyone who is dying slowly because of the filthy, rotten system,” McKenna declared. And they are meant to do more. They are called to repair harm that has been done.

In the half century since Pax Christi began, many of the most tireless workers in the Catholic peace movement have passed on. We lost another last week with the death of Tom Cornell, a co-founder of both Pax Christi and the Catholic Peace Fellowship and a former editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper.

In honoring Tom, Pax Christi shared a talk he gave in which he laid out, in his typically witty style, the follies of war:

Head shot of peace activist Tom Cornell of Pax Christi USA and the Catholic Peace Fellowship who passed away in August.
Lifelong peace activist and Pax Christ Ambassador of Peace died last week at age 88.

“The Gospel calls us to practice the works of mercy. Dorothy (Day) pointed out, over and over again, that the works of war are the exact opposite of the works of mercy, both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty? No! Poison their fields and their wells! Shelter the homeless? No! Bomb their cities! Visit the prisoner? No! Put non-conformists in jail. (J. Edgar Hoover asked Franklin Roosevelt to put Dorothy Day in prison three times! He didn’t!.”

“And how about the spiritual works of mercy? Again, the exact opposite of the works of war. Instruct the ignorant? No! Lie to them. The truth is always the first casualty of war. Counsel the doubtful? No! Threaten them with prison! Draft them! Console the mourning? No! Give them more to mourn about! Forgive injuries? No! Make them pay ten times over!”

This week, how can we engage in acts of mercy? How can we be “ambassadors of peace” like Tom Cornell in our own community, our own family?

In a videotaped message to the conference goers, actor Martin Sheen said he once lamented to his friend and fellow activist Father Daniel Berrigan that his efforts to promote peace and non-violence seemed to change nothing. To which Father Dan replied, “Yes, but did those efforts change you? That might be the only change you get.”

I offer my gratitude to Pax Christ for 50 years of striving to change not only individual hearts and minds, but our world. Here’s to your next 50!

Read here Dr. Martin Luther King’s Six Principles of Non-Violence:

Actor and activist Martin Sheen wears an On Strike for Justice sign during protests in support of workers.
Actor Martin Sheen has been a longtime supporter of Pax Christi and participated in numerous protest marches. He told members they might never see the fruits of their efforts to spread peace, but to keep working. (Photo courtesy of Toronto Star).



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Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.