Plus a reflection on the 2023 World Day of Peace message

By Michelle Sherman,
Pax Christi USA National staff

Pope Francis writes in this year’s World Day of Peace address: “[W]e cannot ignore one fundamental fact, namely that the many moral, social, political and economic crises we are experiencing are all interconnected, and what we see as isolated problems are actually causes and effects of one another.” An experience just one month ago, in December 2022, powerfully illustrated the interconnectedness of crises that Pope Francis speaks about on a global scale. 

Last month, Pax Christi International’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative and the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Union of Superiors General-International Union of Superiors General (USG-UISG) hosted the Pope Francis, Nonviolence, and the Fullness of Pacem in Terris conference in Rome, Italy from December 5-7, 2022. This was the third Catholic Nonviolence Initiative international gathering (the first and second in 2016 and 2019).  

Use this link to read the formal conference report submitted to the Vatican for Pope Francis’s review.

The goals of this third conference included exploring a deeper understanding of Pope Francis’ teachings on active nonviolence (referencing Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti, addresses, statements, and more) in light of Pacem in Terris and listening to lived examples of active, “muscular,” nonviolence in action from around the world. Participants engaged with each other in discussing how Pope Francis has called the Church and the world – “perpetrators of violence, including systems that oppress, marginalize, and destroy, as well as those struggling for justice and peace” – to understand and adopt nonviolence as both the way of Jesus and a powerful practice for building social peace.

In preparation for the gathering, delegates were invited to write an essay answering the prompt: How an authoritative teaching on nonviolence from the Vatican could impact our work.  

Bishop Stowe, Michelle Sherman, Eliane Lakam

Among the approximately 70 participants were grassroots activists, theologians, church officials, and clergy. Representatives from Pax Christi in the United States included Eliane Lakam (Baltimore-Metro DC, Pax Christi Young Adult Caucus), Michelle Sherman (national staff, Pax Christi Young Adult Caucus), Mary Yelenick (Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and Pax Christi UN representative), Marie Dennis (Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and 2022 Teacher of Peace), Judy Coode (in-coming national staff), and Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. (Bishop President).

Themes within the agenda included Pope Francis and the Prophecy of Nonviolence; the nonviolent actions of Pope Francis; the global crisis of violence; Pope Francis’ teaching on nonviolence; just war and just peace; synodality as an expression of nonviolence; the role of the Catholic Church in fostering a global nonviolent paradigm shift; and the impact at the peripheries of the Catholic Church’s commitment to nonviolence. 

Immediately following each of these themes, panel presentations of four to five speakers shared their reflections and examples of nonviolence from around the world to deepen an understanding of global contexts.

Some of these examples included:

  • Sr. Maudilia López, of the Pastoral Defensoras de la Madre in Guatemala, who shared the experience of her case against the Canadian government for human rights violations and ecological violence of the mining company, Goldcorp. She also integrated indigenous wisdom and spirituality into the prayer and liturgies during the conference, while naming the cultural violence that the church imposes on indigenous communities in banning traditional dress and practices.
  • Sr. Wamuyu Wachira, IBVM, co-president of Pax Christi International from Kenya, who drew attention to the “prophecy of nonviolence” of Pope Francis, which affects the global economy, land access, housing, and an end to war and the production of weapons of war. She spoke to the process of “listening to ignite the heart,” with particular attention to the voices of young people and Indigenous communities.
  • Fr. Nandana Manatunga from the Human Rights Office in Kandy, Sri Lanka who shared a video addressing the nonviolent and interfaith campaign with Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians which deposed the three Rajapaksa brothers (who controlled the presidency, vice presidency, and the armed forces). He and his team have nonviolently protested and secured convictions against perpetrators of rape and torture, assisted in the release of political prisoners, and negotiated the establishment of welfare programs within prisons.
  • Rose Marie Berger from Sojourners magazine and the CNI steering committee who illustrated Pope Francis’ 10 Years of Nonviolent Action with photographs, stories, and quotations. She effectively framed nonviolence as sacrament: outward expressions of grace where the symbol becomes substance and that comes best to hearts prepared to receive it. 
  • Theologians and educators from around the world including Lisa Sowle Cahill, Loreta Castro, Leo Guardado, Sr. Lilian Ehidiamhen, Ken Butigan, Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, Eli McCarthy, Jasmin Nario Galace, Fr. Mathew Pagan Padiet, John Ashworth, Wolfgang Palaver, Pietro Ameglio, Ogarit Younan, Terrence Rynne, and more, who shared their experiences in classrooms and in the community promoting just peace and active nonviolence.
  • Sr. Sia Temu, MM and Harun Njoroge of the Maryknoll Peace Team in Kenya, who shared personal examples of the transformative power of “Conversations for Social Change.” Through this series of listening sessions, participants affect social change through personal transformation.  
  • Zoughbi Zoughbi, director of the Wi’am (Agape) Conflict Transformation Center in Bethlehem, Palestine, who presented his work as a trainer, city councilor, activist, and writer in promoting Sulha, a traditional Arab method for resolving conflict.
  • Xaviere Sr. Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, who asserted that the process of synodality is an expression of nonviolence, sharing that areas of conflict are areas where the Holy Spirit can move.
  • Emilce Cuda, secretary to the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission on Latin America, who shared insights on her most recent book, Reading Francis: Theology, Ethics, and Politics, and affirmed that to preach nonviolence, we must return to the root causes of violence and examine its structures.

These are only a handful of the experiences, actions, and work of the participants at this gathering. More are available at the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative website and other articles about the event listed at the end of this article.

Throughout the conference, the spirituality team led prayer using poetry, art from around the world, and stillness practices. These moments of prayer drew participants into a space of connection between contemplation and action, answering the invitation of Pope Francis to “to let our hearts be changed by our experience of the crisis, to let God, at this time in history, transform our customary criteria for viewing the world around us” (World Day of Peace, 5). The conference ended in a multilingual Eucharistic liturgy, with participants’ symbols of peace placed around the altar. The celebration was presided by Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and concelebrated by conference participants Bishop Marc Stenger (co-president of Pax Christi International); Cardinal Robert McElroy (San Diego CA); Archbishop John Wester (Santa Fe NM); Archbishop Antonio Ledesma (Cagayan de Oro, Philippines); and Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. (president of Pax Christi USA.)

The gathering also provided space to amplify organizations and communities BE-ing peace and addressing conflict in nonviolent ways. Concordia Social Projects received the Pax Christi International 2022 Peace Award, recognizing their rapid assistance for children and families in Eastern Europe and Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. [Photo, left to right: Fr. Markus Inama, SJ (Concordia Social Projects); Sr. Wamuyu Wachira IBVM (Pax Christi International co-president); Veronica Mocan (Concordia Social Projects); Bishop Marc Stenger (Pax Christi International co-president)]

On the last day of the conference, participants were invited to consider the following question and discuss in their small groups: What do you need from the Church in your country to amplify/roll out Pope Francis’ message of nonviolence and transformation of our world? This sharing was lively and encouraging, where the sharings both echoed commonalities across borders, and named needs specific to local realities. Included within the responses from the small groups were:  

  • Apologies for systems of oppression and abuse perpetrated by the Church.
  • Listen to young people in their own spaces; listen to their narratives of violence and peace. (Ask: How do you understand violence and peace?)
  • Updating the compendium to include active nonviolence.
  • Honor indigenous spirituality and wisdom.
  • Authoritative teachings to inspire and empower Church leadership to commit to the practice of nonviolence (suggestions across groups included pastoral letters, encyclicals, updating the compendium, etc…) and integrating this in faith formation and seminary training.
  • Commissioning “Envoys for Peace” from the pope to hold space for peace.
  • Engage in Truth and Reconciliation through local parishes and share tools to equip parish leaders.
  • Refusing aid from companies or corporations that endanger the environment (example of the Philippine bishops refusing aid from mining companies).
  • Integrate nonviolence into liturgical celebrations.

Reflecting more on the effects of Covid-19, Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace Message continues: 

This experience has made us all the more aware of the need for everyone, including peoples and nations, to restore the word “together” to a central place. For it is together, in fraternity and solidarity, that we build peace, ensure justice and emerge from the greatest disasters. Indeed, the most effective responses to the pandemic came from social groups, public and private institutions, and international organizations that put aside their particular interests and joined forces to meet the challenges. Only the peace that comes from a fraternal and disinterested love can help us overcome personal, societal and global crises.

This conference is one of the many spaces where the prophecy of nonviolence, as “hope for the future” was realized in this place of “together” that Pope Francis imagines. 

As we neared the end of the last session, participants received a handout to reflect on the following questions:

  • I am excited by the possibility of an official Catholic Church commitment to nonviolence because…
  • We/my community are excited because…
  • God is excited about this because…

I invite readers of this article and the articles below to reflect on these three questions as well, so that we might continue to participate in the ongoing work of Pacem in Terris.

Photo courtesy of Pax Christi International

>> Click here to visit Pax Christi USA’s Flickr feed to see photos from the conference, taken by Michelle Sherman.

>> Additional resources from the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.

See also: 

Symbols of nonviolence brought by the participants for display

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