The following article, published in the July-August 2012 NewsNotes, is contributed by Marie Dennis, former director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC); since 2007, she has served as co-president of Pax Christi International.

Peacebuilding in its most comprehensive sense includes the transformation of cultural practices or political and socio-economic structures and systems that promote or perpetuate violence; conflict resolution, conflict transformation, the prevention of violent conflict, and the transition to a stable, just, peaceful society after war.  Peacebuilding in the Catholic tradition is fully engaged with all of these dimensions of the work for peace to which it brings the institutional, theological and spiritual resources of the Catholic Church.

Fr. Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S. and others describe well some of the specific characteristics of Catholic peacebuilding.  Examples of each from different corners of the world abound:

  • the practice of presence and accompaniment – During the civil war in El Salvador, lay pastoral workers, priests, sisters and Archbishop Romero himself walked with, and many died with, poor people suffering under horrific repression. In Sudan, Bishop Paride Taban and other Catholic leaders, including many missioners, regularly visited local communities struggling to survive during the long years of war between north and south.
  • a belief in the pervasiveness of grace and in the agency of local people … that seeds of peace are found in local communities even in the midst of conflict – In Uganda, Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama and other members of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Initiative have made repeated efforts to support negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and to promote reconciliation in local communities. Pax Christi played a quiet but very significant role in bringing LRA leader Joseph Kony to the negotiating table – an effort that was almost successful.  
  • a rich sacramental tradition, particularly Eucharist and reconciliation; deeply meaningful symbols and rituals – In Guatemala, the Catholic Church brought the richness of the Catholic tradition of Reconciliation and its belief in the importance of truth to the REMHI (Recovery of the Historic Memory) process. [See Guatemala: Never Again! Orbis, 1999]  In the U.S. at Fort Benning, Georgia each year a solemn litany of remembrance ties the suffering of people throughout the Americas at the hands of U.S-trained soldiers to the cross of Christ.
  • a belief in mediation; a recognition that peace characteristic of the reign of God is ultimately the work of the Spirit; and that prayer is an important part of the work for peace - In the months leading up to the January 2011 referendum on the future of the country that would become South Sudan, a coalition of Catholic missionary communities, Solidarity with South Sudan, initiated “100 Days of Prayer for Peace in Sudan” that ultimately involved thousands of people around the world in prayer. Pax Christi International is collecting reflections from members everywhere on the spirituality of their work for peace … how God is present or absent as they promote active nonviolence in a context of war or violent conflict.
  • ongoing theological reflection on the morality of war and the practice of nonviolence – The Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN) is a network of academics and practitioners who seek to enhance the study and practice of Catholic peacebuilding. CPN was established to address four needs, among them “developing a theology and ethics of peace.” In its recently published book (Orbis: 2011), Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, leading Catholic theologians, ethicists, and scholar-practitioners examine the role of Catholic peacebuilders in preventing and resolving conflicts, and reconciling divided societies from Colombia and the Philippines to Indonesia and South Africa.
  • a tradition of social (and, increasingly, ecological) analysis that identifies root causes of violent conflict  - Catholic social teaching and the work of Catholic organizations including Pax Christi and the MOGC point consistently to the importance of addressing the root causes of war and violent conflict.  Two good examples are the anti-racism work of Pax Christi USA and MOGC work on ecological economics, addressing the disastrous consequences for humans and the rest of the earth community of an unjust global economy.
  • well integrated structures that are both horizontal (parishes, dioceses) and vertical (global church; international Catholic religious communities and organizations) – Catholic religious communities, through collaboration of their justice, peace and integrity of creation promoters in Rome, have been able to educate and activate members around the world on the global debt crisis, human trafficking, the right to water, climate change and peace in Sudan. Catholic bishops conferences, aid agencies and organizations from different parts of the world regularly coordinate campaigns and advocacy efforts on major peace issues, including nuclear disarmament, reductions in military spending, peace in the Middle East, traffic in small arms and light weapons, and international action to protect civilians.

As its 50th anniversary approaches, it is worth the effort to read again Pope John XXIII’s great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, that makes so clear the Catholic peacebuilding vocation:  … may Christ inflame the desires of all men [sic] to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers [and sisters], and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them. (art. 171)