The Common Good
November-December 1997

Pax Christi Pilgrims

by Joe Nangle | November-December 1997

A unique faith community gathered recently in Washington, D.C., to celebrate its Silver Jubilee.

A unique faith community gathered recently in Washington, D.C., to celebrate its Silver Jubilee. Twenty-five years ago several notable peace activists, including the legendary Dorothy Day, came together in the nation's capital to launch an American version of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi. In August the inheritors of what those pioneers began chose the same city to mark the anniversary.

As a concept and a movement, Pax Christi goes back to the days immediately following World War II, when French and German Catholics, aware that too much blood had been shed between their countries in this century, decided to extend the hand of peace across their borders. The idea flourished, and today Pax Christi exists in 24 countries.

In symbol, word, and action, Pax Christi USA celebrated its short history, acknowledged present strengths and challenges, and set a course for the future. The theme of pilgrimage served as a unifying thread for the three-day assembly. Sandals, a walking stick, and a haversack served as symbolic reminders that the journey toward peace is both biblical and lengthy. A complete menu of workshops—based on the dictum, If you want peace, work for justice—pointed to the multifaceted issues that must be faced if peace is to come. And two concrete actions reminded assembly participants that work for peace has horizontal and vertical dimensions.

The action pointing to the horizontal aspect of peacemaking took the Pax Christi folks through the "two Washingtons." Some 500 people crowded onto 13 buses for a close look at the Washington of poverty, exclusion, and hopelessness. On each bus an activist from the city's inner-city neighborhoods explained what the pilgrims were looking at—a parable of underprivilege in the midst of a city that wields the most power in the world.

The pilgrimage continued to the "other Washington," the centers of influence and wealth, symbolized by the D.C. Control Board, the White House, and the World Bank. The first of these is where congressional efforts to impose a semblance of responsible home rule to the city have failed. At the White House the pilgrims remembered that it was 52 years to the day in that very building that an American president had decided to drop a second nuclear bomb on a Japanese city. And the imposing new office building of the World Bank exemplified economic privilege and oppression respectively for First and Third World peoples.

As the gathering of pilgrims faced the centers of power, people directly engaged in the struggle to "move these mountains" read from Mark's parable of the sower, scattered seed on the ground, and led prayers that God and humans might make all such places fertile soil for peace with justice. Unlike other Washington demonstrations, this march took place in silence; such was the power of the pilgrimage.

The other action, a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which pointed to the vertical dimension of peacemaking, took place on the final day of the assembly. Symbolism surrounded this action as well. An aforementioned founder of Pax Christi, Dorothy Day, long ago had prayed for divine guidance in the same church, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to the campus of Catholic University. Tradition has it that her prayer received an immediate answer when shortly afterward Dorothy met Peter Maurin and with him began the Catholic Worker movement, a forerunner and inspiration for Pax Christi USA.

This closing liturgy of the assembly proved worthy of the occasion. In dance, song, proclamation, and eucharistic consecration the gathering commemorated and celebrated with great verve their peacemaking vocation. The enthusiasm generated at this closing ritual inspired the bishop-presider, Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Virginia, to remark in his homily that "this shrine church would never be the same."

RECALLING THOSE moments of communal prayer leads to a final reflection on what I've called "a unique community." Pax Christi USA distinguishes itself, I believe, by its ordinariness. The 17,000 members in this country come out of the pews and parishes of America. They are you and I, who have caught a vision of God's peaceable reign and the tasks involved in bringing it about. They are a force for good within their church and our society. As a staff person at the U.S. Catholic Conference once said: "We need you [Pax Christi] to continue pulling us to more radical places."

Yet the rank and file of this movement would not immediately strike the observer as radical. They are unlikely, perhaps even unwilling, prophets. But prophets they are, and their 25-year journey along the road to peace has brought them, I believe, to individual and collective places where none of them ever expected to be.

The lesson in all of this seems clear. If from within the hierarchical, generally conservative, sometimes retrograde Catholic Church, a large (and officially sanctioned) community such as Pax Christi can emerge, then there is hope for us all. And not only hope, but a challenge to replicate in other traditions, among other Christian groups, the same enthusiastic gathering of people who believe and act as if peace is possible. Pax Christi USA stands as living evidence that today peace can best be achieved by such vigorous communities.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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