In 1945, a small group of people in France met regularly to pray for peace. Their concern was not a vague one. What bothered them, what kept them coming together was their experience of an agonizing and dreadful fact: French Catholics and German Catholics, who professed the same faith and celebrated the same Eucharist, had killed one another by the millions in the 20th century. That situation could hardly be the will of God, as they understood it. So they prayed for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for the peace of Christ.
A French woman, Marthe Dortel Claudot, is known as the leader and founder of the movement. She invited a French bishop, Pierre Marie Theas, to be the first Bishop President. While in a German war prison camp in Compiegne, Bishop Theas had already begun to pray and work for reconciliation.
Soon after the war, Pax Christi centers were established in France and Germany; by the early 1950’s the movement had spread to Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. The 1970’s included the founding of the U.S. section and continued growth. Currently, Pax Christi International has more than 120 member organizations in over 60 countries on 5 continents, with the fastest growing regions being Africa and Latin America. The international office and staff are located in Brussels, Belgium. Pax Christi has consultative status as a non-governmental organization at the United Nations.
Wherever they live throughout the world — from Peru to New Zealand, the DR Congo to France, the United States to the Philippines, members of Pax Christi are united by their purpose, which is expressed in the international statutes: “To work for peace for all humankind, always witnessing to the peace of Christ.” And we do this through prayer, study and action.
“Movements like yours are precious. They help draw people’s attention to the violence which shatters the harmony between human beings which is at the heart of creation. They help to develop conscience, so that justice and the search for the common good can prevail in the relations between individuals and peoples.” ~Pope John Paul II at Assisi, on the 50th Anniversary of Pax Christi International
Pax Christi began in the United States in 1972, thanks to the initiative of a handful of U.S. Catholics, mostly lay. It was almost fifty years ago that a small group of mainly lay Catholics gathered together: Eileen Egan, long-time CRS staff member and sociologist and historian Gordon Zahn, who had uncovered the story of Austrian resister to the Nazis, Franz Jaeggerstaetter, would join with Gerry Vanderhaar, Ed Guinan, Sr. Mary Evelyn Jegen, Bishop Tom Gumbleton, Joe Fahey and others – veterans of the anti-war movement, the farmworkers movement and the Civil Rights movement. This small group would give birth to Pax Christi USA with Eileen’s good friend, Dorothy Day and other key Catholic peace activists contributing to the first “Pax Christi Affiliated Discussion”; Dorothy would be the first keynote speaker at Pax Christi USA’s first conference in 1973.
There was no national office or full time staff person until 1979, and then the entire office was set up in two spare rooms of a Chicago convent. The national office moved to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1985. In 2002, the Washington, D.C. office was opened, and the national office was permanently moved to D.C in 2011.
Pax Christi USA has had the flexibility to change and adapt as the world has changed, embracing a variety of issues and shaping our identity to faithfully bring the message of the gospel to bear on what was happening in the world by reading the signs of the times. Our beginnings had us addressing the nuclear arms race (and we still are) and the Viet Nam War. Pax Christi USA in the eighties was at the forefront of the Sanctuary Movement and we were building relationships with communities struggling under the oppression of colonization and U.S. foreign policy and the dictatorships the U.S. protected, especially in Latin America – places like El Salvador and Guatemala, but also halfway around the world in the Philippines. Death penalty work was a major focus of our work around the nation. The nineties saw Pax Christi USA deeply involved in solidarity with Haiti, embracing the new cosmology movement that examined our relationship to the earth, and examining who we were in a world that no longer was defined by East-West relationships, the Cold War and the war-peace paradigm, but the new realities posed by the Global South to the Global North and the lens of oppression-liberation and issues of economic justice at home and abroad.
It was in 1995 that Pax Christi USA first began to explore how white supremacy and white privilege impacted our own work for peace and justice and how we might begin to engage ourselves and our work through an anti-racist lens. Brothers and Sisters All, a 20-year initiative to transform Pax Christi USA into an anti-racist, multicultural Catholic peace and justice movement started in 1999, with the organizations seeking to embrace this new identity and do all our work from an anti-racist perspective, in the conviction that personal and systemic racism continues to perpetrate deep spiritual and social brokenness and endangers creation. Like every organization in our country, Pax Christi USA was not exempt or immune to being shaped to serve the white supremacy that has been rightly called our nation’s original sin. We might have made the commitment to doing this work to become anti-racist 22 years ago, but this is truly generational work and ongoing.
The 2000s were in many ways defined by 9-11 and the subsequent war on terror, including Afghanistan and then Iraq, as well as our continuing internal work around our commitment to anti-racism, racial justice and racial equity. The 2010s witnessed Pax Christi USA leadership promoting and leading anti-racism workshops throughout Catholic communities, and later responding to the almost daily onslaught against human dignity that came with the policies of the Trump administration.
In 2022, Pax Christi USA will celebrate our 50th anniversary — a time to both honor our legacy and to chart new directions.