1939-1945 World War II
People often ask “How did Pax Christi begin?” It’s an interesting story which begins in France during the Second World War. To understand the context you have to remember all the terrible things that were happening in Europe at that time...
Pax Christi really grew from two seeds of inspiration. The first was a bishop - Pierre-Marie Théas, Bishop of Montauban in the South of France. During the war he was one of the only bishops to protest about the deportation of Jews from France. In a pastoral letter to be read throughout his diocese he wrote:
“Love your enemies”
Bishop Théas protested many times against the deportation of Jews and of young French men who were being sent to forced labour camps. On 9 June 1944 he was arrested and spent several weeks in a prison camp at Compiègne. While he was there the other prisoners asked him to lead them in prayer and reflection. He chose to preach on “Love your enemies” and suggested that they should pray for their gaolers. This provoked a strong reaction. They found it so hard to accept. When Théas had the chance to say Mass in the camp he offered it for Germany.
Bishop Théas was released a few weeks later and went back to his diocese, but that prison episode affected him deeply and gave him an understanding of how difficult and demanding true reconciliation between enemies would be.
The second Pax Christi seed of inspiration was a teacher, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, who lived in the South of France also, with her husband and children. She was involved in her local parish and she was evidently a very prayerful person. During the winter of 1944, as Christmas approached, she found herself thinking about the suffering of the German people. She wrote in her Journal: "Jesus died for everyone. Nobody should be excluded from one's prayer." She prayed that Germany would be healed of the spiritual and moral effects of 12 years of Nazism.
Encouraged by her parish priest she formed a small group who prayed with her for the re-building of Germany and for peace. Among the first to join her were a war widow, the daughter of a deportee, and some Carmelites.
Madame Dortel-Claudot wanted to find a bishop to give the project official church support. In March 1945 she went to see Bishop Théas who agreed to help, provided Archbishop Saliège of Toulouse gave his approval - which he did the next day. When she returned to Montauban with this news Bishop Théas accepted the leadership of the new “Crusade of Prayer” for Germany. The project was given the name “Pax Christi”.
1945 Rebuilding after war
The vision of reconciliation, which these two people - Madame Dortel-Claudot and Bishop Théas - had experienced, was a strong inspiration in the early days of Pax Christi and it remains a key aspect of our spirituality today.
At the end of the war people in Europe were desperately longing for peace and they responded warmly to popular peace initiatives. One of the first was a peace pilgrimage in 1946 to Vézelay in France. It was a powerful symbol of the rebuilding of Europe.
Pax Christi grew quickly and before long bishops in both Germany and France gave their support. There were pilgrimages to Lourdes and actions to promote Franco-German reconciliation. Bishop Théas was now Bishop of Lourdes and he visited Germany several times to express a new relationship.
He gave German children their First Holy Communion and obtained freedom for their fathers who were still prisoners of war. A German section of Pax Christi was started. In another gesture of reconciliation a few years later the German section of Pax Christi gave a chalice to the parish of Oradour-sur-Glane as a symbol of reparation for the massacre committed by German SS soldiers in 1944 which had wiped out the village.
Those were the beginnings of Pax Christi. Quite quickly Pax Christi moved on from being a Crusade of Prayer for Germany to being a Crusade of Prayer for all nations. An important characteristic was that it was a movement of lay people in the Church. It is very interesting to see how Pax Christi’s own understanding of its role immediately began to expand and develop as it responded to the new challenges of each decade. And even now we are being led along new paths towards a more complete picture of what peace means.
1950s - "The International Catholic Peace Movement" Pax Christi grows...
After its early years as a personal initiative led by Mme Dortel-Claudot, Pax Christi needed to change if it was to move forward and flourish. In 1950 Cardinal Felin, the Archbishop of Paris, became the International President, and his secretary Fr Bernard Lalande was given the task of developing Pax Christi's international secretariat, working alongside a Spanish layman, Carlos Santamaria. Fr. Lalande had been a prisoner of war in Germany; he shared the same vision of reconciliation as Bishop Théas and Mme Dortel-Claudot, and believed that war was completely contrary to the Gospel.
Pax Christi found in him a dynamic and inspiring leader who gave it new direction as a movement of prayer and action for peace in the whole world. With a democratic international structure and a fresh identity as the "international Catholic peace movement", Pax Christi spread to other European countries. The first International Council was held in Paris in 1951.
Pax Christi now understood that prayer, study and action were three inseparable ingredients for its work. The movement organised international centres and pen-friend schemes to promote contact and international understanding especially between young people.
In 1952 they took part in a Pax Christi "Route" from Assisi to Rome. This became a very popular annual walking pilgrimage-holiday for young people. In Rome Pope Pius XII gave official recognition to Pax Christi’s mission as the Catholic peace movement.
The main task was to demonstrate that peace is central to Christianity, and this was especially important at that time when Communist party inspired initiatives appeared to have a monopoly on concern for peace.
The spirituality of reconciliation would lead Pax Christi into social and political action. The themes chosen for Pax Christi meetings, congresses and Peace Days in the churches show that among its concerns Pax Christi now included the poverty and under-development of the countries struggling against colonisation, and East-West relations during the Cold War. Catholics were also beginning to be interested in Gandhi's ideas about nonviolence.
1960s "Peace on Earth"
In the 1960s the role of Catholics as peacemakers was given strong support from the Vatican. Pope John XXIII addressed many of the world's urgent problems in his famous encyclical letter called Pacem in Terris - Peace on Earth. It could have been a manifesto for Pax Christi.
In these years there was increased public concern about the possibility of a nuclear war. The Vietnam War began, and for the first time, many young American Catholics were among those refusing military service. At the Second Vatican Council the bishops of the world called for recognition of the right to conscientious objection and condemned nuclear weapons.
The next Pope, Paul VI, made a critical link between world poverty and the money and resources wasted on armaments. He repeated a Pax Christi phrase when he said "Development is the new name for Peace". He also created the World Day of Prayer for Peace which is still held on 1st January every year. Pax Christi members used every opportunity to spread the Church's peace teachings at the local level through peace education in schools and parishes. Work for European healing and reconciliation continued: Pax Christi Germany made its first pilgrimage to Auschwitz in 1964.
In 1965 Pax Christi began its "Dutch period" when the international office moved from France to the Netherlands under the Presidency of Cardinal Bernard Alfrink, Archbishop of Utrecht. The International Secretary at this time was a Dutchman called Carel ter Maat. It wasn’t until the 1970s that we got our first sections outside Europe - in the United States and Australia.
1970s – Recognition at the United Nations
It is impossible in a brief outline like this to mention all the issues and projects taken up by Pax Christi. You have to remember that each national section takes up the issues which are of particular concern in their situation. To give just one example, it was the British and Irish sections which were most active in projects related to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. For over twenty-five years they ran playschemes to bring children from the different communities together. Other sections were involved with Poland, Angola, East Timor, the Middle East - and many other areas of conflict.
In the 1970s the arms trade became the focus of new campaigns in several countries. Internationally Pax Christi was involved in some important initiatives. Dom Helder Camara of Brazil asked Pax Christi to sponsor several influential consultations on nonviolence.
Contacts were developing with Christians in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These led to an important series of seminars and exchanges with the Russian Orthodox Church, starting in 1974. In 1978 the International Office moved to Belgium with Etienne de Jonghe as Secretary General and Bishop Luigi Bettazzi of Italy elected as President. One of Etienne’s priorities was to spread Pax Christi to new countries so that it became truly international.
In 1979, Pax Christi was given special consultative status at the United Nations and started to make regular submissions - especially to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
1980s - truly international...
All the time through the 1980s our World Assembly meetings were getting bigger as the number of sections increased... Portugal, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Denmark were among the new sections to be formed. It was an extremely busy period for the peace movement. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador asked Pax Christi to show solidarity with the problems of Latin America. Several missions were sent to Central America, Haiti and Brazil, and Pax Christi published reports about the human rights situation in those places.
In 1983 Pax Christi received the UNESCO Peace Education Prize, and in 1987 the UN Peace Messenger Award. In 1985, Cardinal Franz König from Austria was elected as the new International President.
The decade was dominated by increasing tension between the superpowers. Pax Christi members were prominent in disarmament activities around the world. Pax Christi developed its structure of commissions to discuss policy on the interlocking issues of disarmament, human rights and East-West relations.
1990s – a changing world
In 1990, Cardinal Godfried Danneels was elected as the new International President. An increased focus on youth work in the movement led to International Routes and seminars in Jordan, the Balkans, and Russia.
The ending of the Cold War between East and West, for which Pax Christi had worked, was a moment of great hope of a disarmed and more just world order. However, it soon became clear that the human family was facing new versions of old problems... poverty... ethnic conflict... racism... refugees...
Members of Pax Christi responded on many levels to the violent conflict in former Yugoslavia – including practical help in refugee camps, facilitating inter-faith meetings between religious leaders, and exchanges between young people from Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
Pax Christi International played an active role in many international coalitions, such as those working to ban landmines and cluster munitions, and to stop the use of child soldiers. We are co-founders of the International Action Network against Small Arms and Light Weapons (IANSA).
In 1995 Pax Christi International marked its 50th anniversary with a celebration in Assisi, Italy, attended by about 700 members from 37 countries.
As it spread to more countries across the world Pax Christi International initiated a series of meetings to bring together its partners within different regions. These regional consultations started in Asia Pacific, in 1991 (Hong Kong), in 1996 (Philippines). The first World Assembly held outside Europe took place in Amman (Jordan) and Jerusalem in 1999. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, was elected as the movement’s first non-European President.
2000 to the present – strengthening of regional networking
The new millennium has sharpened our understanding that threats to human security – such as terrorism, climate change, rising tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere – are problems which ignore national borders.
Pax Christi International believes that long-term solutions must be found by addressing the root causes of conflict. This requires international co-operation and goodwill to give the United Nations the authority and resources it needs in a world where global corporations, humanitarian organisations, or terrorist groups can be as influential as nation states. Pax Christi promoted the establishment of the International Criminal Court. We have active representatives at the UN in New York, Geneva, Paris and Vienna, and make frequent submissions to the European Union and other international institutions.
Increasingly, Pax Christi International is being called upon by groups in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East who want to affiliate to our international peace movement. In many cases these groups have witnessed at first hand the devastation of violent conflict and poverty. They look to Pax Christi International to give them access to the international stage and to find greater strength through collaboration with others working for similar aims. With its twofold role our movement encourages local grassroots work for alternatives to violence and the creation of a culture of peace, while simultaneously connecting these crucial local initiatives to something bigger, bringing their message to the wider world community.
In the Middle East, Pax Christi brings together local peace and human rights organisations, and follow this up with trainings in nonviolent social change. Each Christmas prayers and solidarity messages are channelled to people in the Holy Land through Pax Christi International.
In 2000 Pax Christi’s first All Africa Consultation took place in Pretoria, South Africa, with a focus on children in armed conflict. A second one followed in 2006. Since then, regional consultations in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and West Africa have taken place. Regional networks with partners have been established, and local activities include Regional Peace Weeks, training programmes and publications on reconciliation and respect for human rights.
Regional development has also continued in Asia Pacific, while the first regional consultation in Latin America took place in 2007 (Lima, Peru). This resulted in the creation of the Pax Christi Latin America network with a local coordinator based in Colombia and a concrete plan of action till 2015.
Partners from Europe and North America meet regularly as well.
In November 2007, the membership agreed to install a co-presidency: a bishop and a lay woman. Msgr. Laurent Monsengwo, former Archbishop of Kinshasa and presently Cardinal, and Marie Dennis, former director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C., were elected as co-presidents. Claudette Werleigh from Haiti became the Secretary General.
In August 2012, José Henriquez from El Salvador was nominated as the new Secretary General.
The 70th anniversary of Pax Christi International was celebrated in May 2015; read more about the World Assembly, held in Bethlehem, here.
Pax Christi is looking forward to a new era, while the mission of reconciliation which motivated our founders continues to inspire and drive our commitment to work for a more just and peaceful world.