Fifty years ago as the Vietnam War raged and the nuclear arms race remained in high gear, visions of a U.S. Catholic peace movement were taking shape, looking to help the Catholic Church become a peace church.
People such as historian Gordon Zahn, a conscientious objector during World War II, and sociologist Eileen Egan, who intimately chronicled the impact of Catholic Relief Services’ work around the world, were among those who saw the need for Catholics to lead a peace movement rooted in the nonviolent life of Jesus.
Inspired by St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”), the outcomes of the Second Vatican Council and the founding of Pax Christi International from the rubble of two devastating world wars, Egan and Zahn sought to bring together Catholics who were outspoken advocates for civil rights, economic justice and ending the Vietnam War.
Readily joining them were peace educators Gerard Vanderhaar and Joseph Fahey, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, Bishop Carroll T. Dozier of Memphis, Tennessee, Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and Paulist Father Edward Guinan.
Their effort led to the founding of Pax Christi USA in 1972, an organization they envisioned would appeal across the Catholic Church.
“We wanted not to make it such an official church thing, but something for the Catholic Church as a whole. We wanted to be a genuine people movement, not something ecclesiastical,” Gumbleton, now 92 and retired, recalled in an interview with Catholic News Service.
“It was something we hoped would have profound influence within the church and the church acting as a peace church having an influence on society,” Gumbleton said.
Doing that, the organizers realized, required starting an organization that was supported by bishops but would not be reined in by bishops. They stressed that Pax Christi USA’s would be based on Catholic social teaching and strive to raise awareness of that teaching among people in the pews.
“We wanted the peace movement, in a sense, to infiltrate the church,” Gumbleton said.
While such a churchwide peace movement never emerged, Pax Christi USA nevertheless has persisted for 50 years, evolving as the times required to focus on rising concerns such as racism and economic inequality while never putting aside calls to end war and eliminate nuclear arms.
Pax Christi USA is observing its 50th anniversary with special events throughout 2022, the biggest being a national conference scheduled for Aug. 4-7 in Arlington, Virginia — the first in several years.
Throughout its history, the organization has conducted grassroots work that finds Catholics and others continuing to bring the message of peace — whether in neighborhoods or among nations — to the world.
Charlene Howard, a parishioner at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Washington who chairs Pax Christ USA’s national council, said the organization’s work today is as important as it was in the early 1970s.
“What that (focus) included 50 years ago not only is still relevant, but there are so many more things now that are connected to what it means to live in peace, what it means to bring about the peaceable kingdom,” Howard said.
She points to the importance of building bridges among people of different backgrounds to address the broad array of injustices that challenge what it means to live in a “just and loving society.”
The organization’s attention to racial equity emerged in 1995 when members began examining how white supremacy and white privilege influenced its work for justice. Back then, the organization was largely white and leaders realized things had to change if their work for justice was to maintain any legitimacy.
In 1999, the organization established Brothers and Sisters All, a two-decade initiative to help it evolve into an anti-racist, multicultural Catholic peace and justice movement. The effort has since led to a more diverse national council. In tackling social concerns, its work has examined how economic justice, racial equality and military spending are interconnected, said Johnny Zokovitch, who has been executive director since September 2019.
The Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team provides workshops for students, parishes, organizations and religious communities to help build understanding of how systemic racism continues and to help participants begin to undertake social change beginning in their own lives, as difficult as it may be, Zokovitch told CNS.
“One of the gifts of Pax Christi USA since our founding is we’ve never been a one- issue organization. We’ve been doing our work on intersectionality before intersectionality was a buzzword,” he said.
“If you’re talking about climate injustice, you’re also talking about racial justice. If you’re talking about racial justice, you’re also talking about economic justice. And if you’re talking about economic justice, you’re also talking about war and peace,” he said.
Howard said the work is about “making connections.”
“It’s being able to do more educational things that will help folks see how all the issues intersect and how being aware of the threat of nuclear war connects to where our money is going and why we’re not having services in the community,” she said.
To help build on its five decades of action for peace, the organization is reengaging with its traditional base of members while reaching out to young adults and even high schoolers in an effort to broaden the organization’s presence.
The more people who are engaged in a particular project, the more success the organization will have in achieving justice, Zokovitch reasoned.
“It’s about new audiences, about bringing into the community folks who share our values, who share the passion for social justice within the Catholic tradition and letting them know this is a place they can call home.”
Janice Vanderhaar, whose husband, Gerard, was a Pax Christi USA co-founder and died in 2005, said one of the organization’s strengths is its long connection with Pax Christi International, which is based in Brussels, and the realization that a global Catholic peace movement is at work.
“Gerry said because it was an international movement you weren’t working by yourself. It gives a sense of purpose to your life,” she said.
“Through all this mess (in the world) it gives me hope because there are people all over the world who are working on peace and nonviolence.”