One thing is certain: there would be no Pax Christi USA without Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND. As its first national coordinator, she single-handedly shepherded it through its birth in the United States and selflessly devoted long, long hours to building a national Catholic peace organization.
She possessed many organizational skills and certainly knew her peace theology, but I always reverenced her commitment to nonviolence and her instinct for knowing when to move Pax Christi in a new direction.
It is Mary Evelyn who first brought Haiti into Pax Christi’s consciousness and forged a bond of friendship that strengthened and developed over the years. When asked by a group in Haiti to help them start a Pax Christi group, she got on a plane and was forever changed by the people she met and the overwhelming poverty she encountered. “Don’t leave Haiti,” she told me when I became National Coordinator. “Pax Christi belongs in Haiti.”
Her instinct for an action that would capture the imagination of the people was so evident during the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990. She initiated the idea for a special kind of prayer. “The religious peace movement needs to call people to prayer,” she said. “But we need a prayer that changes attitudes, not one that asks God to back the U.S. war effort to protect our countries interests. We must ask people to pray for their enemies.” So a “Prayer for Saddam Hussein and George Bush” was written and signed by five religious peace groups.
Pax Christi alone sold 300,000 prayer cards in six weeks. Yes, the U.S. invaded Iraq, but prior to that millions had taken to the streets around the globe and, for the first time in modern church history, significant numbers in the Catholic community—numbers way beyond Pax Christi’s membership– were doing as Jesus commanded and praying lovingly for so-called enemies by name. They were praying for their enemies in their hearts and aloud in church congregations. It was quite an experiment, one that demonstrated how Pax Christi could reach the Catholic in the pew and possibly change attitudes toward violence and war. Was it possible for those who regularly said this prayer to engage in Bush bashing or Hussein hating? Can you pray for someone and wish them harm at the same time? Try to imagine if this is how the church prayed all the time. Could we every justify war again?
It was a simple, but revolutionary idea. It was a creative act of nonviolence. It was Mary Evelyn Jegen at her best.