By ANDREW NELSON AND ERIKA ANDERSON | Published July 4, 2013
ATLANTA—Hundreds of activists attended the national conference of Pax Christi, recalling its high profile in the early 1980s demonstrating against the use of nuclear weapons and looking toward the future of the movement with discussions on immigration, human trafficking and the environment.
Pax Christi USA, the self-described “national Catholic peace movement,” is celebrating 40 years since its founding by lay Catholics. The weekend conference in Atlanta June 14-16 focused on its theme of “remembering the past with gratitude; living the present with enthusiasm; embracing the future with confidence and hope.”
Sister Patty Chappell, executive director, welcomed the crowd on Friday, June 14, telling them the organization has “to make serious connections” between issues of war on the international level and what ordinary folks are experiencing in daily life and in their neighborhoods. She is a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
The conference lets people “rekindle our commitment to be peace leaders,” she said in a statement, while “working for peace with justice.”
Today “while no less committed, we are an aging group” with fewer resources, she said. Looking to the future, the organization will draw more people if it is committed to eradicating racism within its ranks and the church and empowering young people, she said.
“As we celebrate these 40 years, let us keep our hands to the plow looking forward to what our good God has in store for us,” she said.
The keynote speakers included Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, one of the co-founders of the American chapter, along with Father Bryan Massingale, author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.” A pilgrimage was also made to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where a prayer service was held near the tomb of the civil rights leader and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Bishop Gumbleton recited the highlights of Pax Christi history, including how its members participated in national discussions on nuclear disarmament. Catholics, from lay people to bishops, worked together to shape the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” he said.
One of the key features of the letter was its discussion about the Catholic perspective on nonviolence, he said.
“It is so clear, if you look at the Gospels, Jesus rejected violence for any reason,” he said. But that message was lost, as the church and even a pope led a Crusade, he asserted, adding “it has become worse and worse and worse over the centuries.”
The current type of conflict is “total war” where “everyone is a target,” he said. In a recent trip to Vietnam, he said he has seen the second generation of victims of the U.S.-led war, especially children born without arms and legs, which he attributed to the defoliant known as Agent Orange.
There is no contemporary warfare that is morally defensible when civilians are caught up in the violence, he said.
Quoting from the Bible to Pope Francis, Bishop Gumbleton said the church in modern times has challenged the march to war. The Second Vatican Council “takes us somewhat back to where we belong,” he said.
“War is the suicide of humanity,” he said, quoting the pope.
On Saturday, June 15, the group, which was predominantly men and women with gray hair, heard from young adults Adrienne Alexander and Patrick Cashio, who encouraged their older counterparts to reach out to members of their generation.
Though they may not have causes like the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement of their predecessors, many of today’s Catholic young adults are just as committed to making the world a better place, they indicated.
Cashio, the director of Young Adult Ministry for Romero Center Ministries in Camden, N.J., said young adults today have grown up in a very different time from their parents. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, especially influenced young adults.
“Our generation experienced something that I don’t know if any other generation experienced. For us, Sept. 11 is still quite raw. It’s clouded our judgment,” he said. “After Sept. 11, we got stuck in unjust wars … and those wars continue to grow.”
Friends and family volunteered in the military in response to the terrorism, he said, making it different from the anti-draft protests where long-time members of Pax Christi may have marched.
Cashio said most people who are of his generation are uncomfortable with conflict.
“What we do well is solidarity,” he said, using examples of the Fair Trade movement and companies like Tom’s Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes to the poor for every new pair that is purchased.
Alexander, 27, who grew up in Atlanta, serves as a lobbyist and policy researcher for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Chicago. She stressed that bringing young adults into the Pax Christi movement is about relationship and invitation.
“If you think about young adults, we’re really transient. We have a lot of relationships in every place we’ve left, but at the same time, we’re always yearning for true relationships, because we don’t have the same connections if you’ve lived in a place most of your life,” she said.
Alexander didn’t know about Pax Christi until an older member encouraged her to join. “We’re trying to figure out things at this point in our life. Are we doing what God wants us to? So if you’re thinking about ways to attract young adults to Pax Christi, I think you should think about what you’re doing to form relationships with young adults.”
Alexander said Pax Christi is the place where she feels connected to people who share a common lived faith.
“I can feel comfortable knowing there are so many other Catholics who believe in social justice teachings and nonviolence and all these things that really drive me and my faith, my work. All these things come together,” she said.
“I think it’s important to emphasize, especially for young people, the service aspect, the doing—how you’re living out your faith. I’m always so inspired by you and hearing how you’ve lived out your faith,” Alexander said.
Dave Montrose, a 32-year-old from Cape Coral, Fla., was one of just a handful of young adults in attendance. He started a Pax Christi chapter in his parish. The town he lives in has a large retired military population, and he says he tries to be sensitive when speaking about the organization.
“We’ve been doing a lot of veteran outreach, because a lot of our homeless people are veterans, so they’re direct victims of war,” he said. “It’s been the way we’ve been easing our way in. We don’t want to offend anyone. It can be a little intimidating. Coming here and learning from people older than I am—it’s very inspiring to hear about the ways they lived out their own faith.”
Pax Christi USA National Council member Scott Wright is 63. He said his generation can learn from young adults and vice versa.
“The real challenge on all sides is how one generation can learn from the other,” he said. “I can empathize with the struggles of identity young people today have. And I admire their commitment. They’re involved, engaged and passionate,” he said. “They have so much hope. Young people are the future of any movement, so we have to continue to encourage people to do things with hope.”
In Atlanta, there continues to be outreach to Hispanics and African-Americans. Cathy Crosby, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church and served on the national board, said Pax Christi members have spoken at a number of historically African-American parishes, through adult education and through JustFaith programs. Her parish has been active with Pax Christi for five years.
“The key message I heard was that PCUSA is at a critical juncture in its 40-year history, needing both realism and optimism,” said Crosby in an email.
She said a goal in Atlanta is to get involved with Catholic high schools and to share with young people the mission of Pax Christi.