In the midst of a war, I found my home in the Catholic church.
I was a college student, majoring in history. Studying history meant, among other things, studying war and the destruction and injustices that wars had repeatedly caused. The more I studied this side of history, the more passionate I became about social movements and peaceful alternatives. The truth of history convinced me that war, militarism and violence were all immoral.
At the same time, I was exploring the varieties of Christianity that were available to me. I loved the energetic worship of some of my Evangelical friends. I appreciated the openness that I experienced in some of the mainline Protestant church communities I visited. I enjoyed my stints on the summer staff at a Lutheran Bible camp. I felt tentative about my own faith identity; I was raised with a Catholic faith, but felt that I didn't understand it or appreciate it like I should. As I continued to feel drawn to discerning religious life, an option that was best available to me within the Catholic church, I wondered if I'd really feel OK with fully identifying as Catholic.
Then one morning, at the start of my junior year, I was watching "The Today Show" while I got ready for class. Suddenly, the screen showed me images of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. A lump arose in my throat and tears streamed down my face, as I stared in shock at the news. I remember intense prayers pouring out of me. It was September 11, 2001.
Soon after, I watched with disturbance as many of the social patterns I had learned about in my history classes erupted throughout our nation. Before we finished mourning the dead and praying for peace, scapegoats were identified and blame was placed. Flags and decals to express patriotism flew out of stores and appeared in yards, on cars, doors and laptops. Some people cried out for war as politicians debated solutions. The tension was extreme. I was concerned about the future of humanity.
I didn't want to live in world that was quaking from the wounds of war. In communities near and far, lines were being drawn, and many people were eager to contribute to some sort of solution. Some of my classmates disappeared from classrooms as they volunteered for different branches of the military. Others, like myself, tried to participate by organizing prayer services and peace vigils. The world cried out for action, and the way forward seemed unclear.
Around the same time, the interdisciplinary curriculum at the Catholic college I attended during my junior and senior years was giving me some perspective on the Catholic tradition. I was exposed to the principles of Catholic social teaching, and I began to recognize the broadness and beauty of Catholicism. In and out of the classroom, I learned about the peace tradition of the Catholic church. I was introduced to the idea of Gospel nonviolence and came to see it as a central teaching of Jesus. I learned that throughout church history, a tradition of Catholic pacifism has remained vibrant. Service trips and campus ministry events introduced me to many radical and bold Catholic peace activists who deeply inspired me. All of these signs and pathways helped point me on my way; I came to discover why the Catholic church was my home.
As I entered into adulthood, and then eventually religious life, I remained firm in my understanding that Jesus has instructed us to respond to violence with mercy and compassion, to offer love to our enemies, and to refrain from war and violence. I have remained involved in Catholic peace activism circles, regularly participating in marches, protests and Catholic Worker faith and resistance retreats for the past 15 years.
I also became increasingly conscious of how militarism and war were complexly interwoven into church dynamics — even though I felt that violence was in conflict with Gospel values. I observed that the American flag placement was just as high as the holy altar during our worship. I noticed that Catholic schools teach patriotism and celebrate war heroes, while few famous and important anti-war peacemakers are studied and honored. And, in my experience, military recruitment is more common in Catholic schools than vocational promotion or encouragement to be a lay minister in the church. For sure, seeing church communities doing things that seemed to glorify war more than peace caused my mind and heart disturbance and discomfort.
At one point, I taught morality and ethics at a Catholic high school on the south side of Chicago. The school was in a bit of a battleground, with gunfire a common occurrence throughout the neighborhood. Since the effects of violence were felt all around them, it was easy for my students to accept the fifth commandment and agree that killing is wrong in every instance, no matter what. When we studied the principles of non-violence and viewed the documentary "A Force More Powerful," they could clearly articulate why non-violence was — and is — the most effective force for positive social change.
But when the textbook we were using directed us to learn about just war theory (CCC #2309), the teachings of the church no longer seemed to make sense. I would struggle through trying to defend the complicated doctrine, and my students struggled to make sense of it or accept it. Eventually, we decided that it felt outdated, and that it contradicted what my students and I were intuiting and experiencing. The just war theory was written long before there were bombs (atomic or otherwise), missiles, drones, and even before gunpowder was common, for that matter! It felt obvious to my students and to me: modern military technology has now made it impossible for any war to ever be just.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I learned that the Vatican was sponsoring an unusual conference on peacemaking and nonviolence a few weeks ago, April 11-13, 2016. About 80 practitioners of nonviolence from all over the world gathered in Rome to contribute their expertise, sought by Pope Francis, toward "revitalizing the tools of non-violence, and of active non-violence in particular." As stated by Pope Francis, "The basic premise is that the ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and of the human community is the abolition of war."
In the fruits of this recent conference, my heart has been enlivened with hopeful excitement. This is the stuff made for alleluias in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. We have before us, as example and inspiration, the greatest teacher of nonviolence in world history: Jesus Christ. We all are called to the joy and challenge of following in his footsteps.
I am eager to see if Pope Francis will promulgate just peace — as it is called in the final statement from the conference, "An appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence" — in a new encyclical as was requested:
We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence. A Just Peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict. This ethic includes a commitment to human dignity and thriving relationships, with specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions. We recognize that peace requires justice and justice requires peacemaking.
How could our church and world be transformed if the Gospel-centered paths of peacemaking and nonviolence were more commonly understood and embraced?
I feel hope in my heart as we are all called to action, so that this home that I have found within the Catholic church becomes a haven of peace for all peoples.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]