Origins of Pax Christi Memphis
We must lock away the Just War Theory in the same drawer as the Flat Earth Theory.
Pax Christi National Assembly
Rochester, MN 1982
In 1973, as Pax Christi was beginning in the United States, Memphis's Bishop Carroll Dozier was asked to join with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit as Episcopal Moderators of the organization. When he had been a theology student in Rome in the 1930s, Bishop Dozier had seen the rise of fascism under Mussolini and Hitler. He became aware of the need for an active Catholic peace movement. None had existed in the Church since perhaps the Middle Ages. Now, as a bishop, he was able to help bring about such a movement in the United States. Bishop Dozier remained active in Pax Christi until his death.
Although he was unable to attend Pax Christi's founding assembly in Washington in 1973, he sent two professors at Christian Brothers College in his place --Dave Thomasma and Gerry Vanderhaar.
Because of Bishop Dozier's national involvement in Pax Christi, that organization became the vehicle for the peace movement in Memphis. Early members in Memphis included people of all faiths, not just Catholics. Their efforts for peace came from a sound spiritual basis.
To call attention to the need for nuclear disarmament, Memphis Pax Christi members began a yearly Hiroshima Day vigil. We have sponsored Memorial Day services to commemorate those who have died in war and to pray that such deaths will not happen again. Each year we try to have a Peace Retreat, a special day of prayer and reflection led by someone of national reputation.
Pax Christi USA early history
The first members in the United States were several dozen Catholics on the East Coast, inspired by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, led by Eileen Egan, who worked for Catholic Relief Services, and Gordon Zahn, who taught at the University of Massachusetts. The urgency, in the early 1970s, was ending the war in Vietnam. But their intention was broader -- to appeal to a wide range of Catholics, not just pacifists, in carrying out the peace teachings of Vatican II and of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.
Pax Christi USA adopted five priorities for its peace work: Disarmament, Alternatives to Violence, Peace Education, Primacy of Conscience, and a Just World Order.
In view of the persisting nuclear threat, disarmament was felt to be the most pressing priority. But the memory of Martin Luther King and the pacifist inspiration of Dorothy Day led Pax Christi to explore alternatives to violence as its special contribution to the church in the United States.
Pax Christi USA is a national Catholic peace and justice organization, reaching more than half a million Catholics in the United States. Our membership includes more than 130 U.S. bishops, 800 parishes, 650 religious communities and 300 local groups. Pax Christi USA is a section of Pax Christi International, an international Catholic peace movement with consultative status at the United Nations.
History of Pax Christi International
Pax Christi, the International Catholic Peace Movement, was begun by two people who obeyed the gospel challenge to love their enemies, even in the most bitter context of the Second World War: Pierre-Marie Theas and Marthe Dortel-Claudot.
The first was a bishop, Pierre-Marie Theas, of Montauban in the south of France. Massive deportations of Jews had begun in the summer of 1942 with French police rounding up the Jews and delivering them to the Germans. Bishop Theas issued a pastoral letter saying, “I give voice to the outraged protest of Christian conscience and I proclaim…that all men, whatever their race or religion, have the right to be respected by individuals and by states.”
One evening in 1944, the bishop spoke in his cathedral against the persecution of Jews and deportation of French men as forced labourers. The following night, the Gestapo arrested him. He was sent to a detention camp at Compiegne from where most prisoners were transported to concentration camps in Germany. Bishop Theas was imprisoned for ten formative weeks in very mixed company, with Protestants, Jews, non-believers, trade unionists, young resistance workers, and officers. When some prisoners asked for a day retreat, he preached about forgiveness and suggested they should pray for their captors. This provoked outrage. Theas replied, “My friends, I cannot proclaim anything except what the Lord said: Love your enemies. No more, no less”. The next morning he offered Mass for Germany and found this “a source of unspeakable joy”. Bishop Theas was eventually released and returned to his diocese.
The co-founder of Pax Christi, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, was a literature teacher at the school in Agen. A patriot whose father and grandfather had been generals in the French army, she was passionately opposed to the collaboration of the Vichy regime.
Her moment of inspiration came while she was praying in her parish church on 23 December 1944. With sudden anguish, she reflected on what Christmas would be like for the suffering German people. In the following months, she felt drawn more and more to pray that Germany would be healed of the spiritual and moral effects of twelve years of Nazi rule. Encourage by her parish priest, she invited others to share this prayer of reconciliation. The first to join her were a war widow, the daughter of a deportee, and the local Carmelite community.
Hoping to find a bishop who would endorse her project, Marthe Dortel-Claudot went to see Bishop Theas on 11 March 1945. He was sympathetic and agreed, provided his Archbishop approved. The next day she visited the Archbishop of Toulouse and won his support. On hearing this news, Bishop Theas accepted leadership of the new “crusade of prayer” for Germany. It was immediately named “Pax Christi” and soon extended to the peace of all nations.
Since the beginning of time, people have retold stories of the great deeds accomplished by their ancestors and heroes. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Pax Christi, it is worth re-telling our story, hoping that another generation will be inspired by the mission of reconciliation that motivated our predecessors and now engages us.
Valerie Flessati, former General Secretary of Pax Christi U.K. has been active in the peace movement in Great Britain for over thirty years. She and her husband, Bruce Kent, continue to advocate for nuclear disarmament, nonviolence, and elimination of poverty.