Upon This Rock We Shall Rebuild Our Church

Rebuilding the church on nonviolence

Vatican’s second conference on nonviolence renews hope for encyclical, Apr 23, 2019, by Joshua J. McElwee in NCRonline.orgJusticeVaticanThis article appears in the Making Peace feature series. View the full series.

Participants gather in Vatican City April 4 for a meeting on the power of nonviolence to bring about social change. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

Participants gather in Vatican City April 4 for a meeting, co-hosted by Pax Christi International and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, on the power of nonviolence to bring about social change. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

VATICAN CITY — Theologians, activists and bishops who took part in a Vatican conference earlier this month on the power of nonviolence to bring about social change are expressing hope that a future papal encyclical or teaching document will reexamine the Catholic Church’s teachings on war.

Participants in the April 4-5 meeting, co-hosted by Pax Christi International and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the reflections shared by the about 80 attendees provided ample material for Pope Francis to consider for a possible encyclical.

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“Nonviolent strategies should be the centerpiece to the church’s approach to issues of war and peace and violence,” San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, one of the event’s participants, told NCR.

Although McElroy said he was unsure whether Francis would want to devote an encyclical to the issue, he said it “would be helpful if the magisterium and the pope move toward a much fuller mainstreaming of the concept of nonviolence as an active force in the world as the central Christian response to elements of armed conflict and military engagement.”

Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi, said that a papal encyclical on nonviolence would bring the concept “from the periphery of Catholic thought on war and peace to the center, mainstreaming nonviolence as a spirituality, lifestyle, a program of societal action and a universal ethic.”

“It would contribute in important ways to a culture of nonviolence and integral peace for the church and the world,” she said.

The April event was the second of its kind, following a 2016 meeting at the Vatican that reevaluated the church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, a tradition that uses a series of criteria to evaluate whether use of violence can be considered morally justifiable.

A number of theologians have criticized continued use of the theory in modern times, saying that both the powerful capabilities of modern weapons and evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns make it outdated.

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Judy Coode, left, coordinator of Pax Christi International's Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, and Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi, at the April 4-5 Vatican conference on nonviolence (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

Judy Coode, left, coordinator of Pax Christi International’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, and Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi, at the April 4-5 Vatican conference on nonviolence (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

The participants of the earlier event had called on Francis to consider writing an encyclical on the issue. They declared in a final statement: “There is no ‘just war.’ ”

Judy Coode, who helped organize the April 2019 meeting as coordinator of Pax Christi’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, said the event was intended to “deepen a conversation on the church’s role in teaching and promoting nonviolence.”

Coode said her organization had been preparing the conference for about a year, tasking five working groups around the world to write papers on specific aspects of nonviolence that would be discussed at the gathering.

Among those taking part in the meeting were officials with the Vatican dicastery, including Cardinal Peter Turkson, representatives of various bishops’ conferences, Catholic organizations such as Caritas Internationalis, nonviolence activists from various conflict zones, and military chaplains.

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The conference on the theme "Path of Nonviolence: Towards a Culture of Peace" was held in Vatican City April 4-5. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

The conference on the theme “Path of Nonviolence: Towards a Culture of Peace” was held in Vatican City April 4-5. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

Also present for the discussions were Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda; and Archbishop José Luis Azuaje of Maracaibo, Venezuela, president of his country’s national conference. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich could not attend, but sent a letter to the participants.

McElroy described the presentations at the two-day event as “a very poignant series of engagements with tremendously haunting and tragic and yet hopeful situations around the world, where violence has been effectively combated and deterred by nonviolent action.”

“Many people were discussing how, on the ground, adopting a stance of nonviolence toward what would usually be thought of as situations where violence was the answer had in fact resulted in better, more humane, longer-lasting, [and] more just outcomes,” he said.

Dennis noted that many of the participants had come from communities experiencing violence and spoke about nonviolence “as a spirituality, a distinct virtue, a way of life rooted in the Gospel, and a potentially powerful tool for transforming violent situations.”

“It was very encouraging to see such a diverse group of people with very different roles in the church and from different contexts and cultures fully engaged in articulating a way … to promote a paradigm shift in a violent world toward cultures of nonviolence and just peace,” she said.

Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, a native Ugandan who is a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and also took part in the meeting, suggested that Francis was already “ahead” of the event’s participants with his focus on nonviolence.

Katongole pointed to how the pope frequently speaks of the church as being like a field hospital in the midst of battle, and to Francis’ decision to focus his message for 2017’s World Day of Peace on nonviolence as “a style of politics for peace.”

“You can see that he is already moving in that direction; he is already in a way ahead of us,” said Katongole, whose work has focused on violence and reconciliation across Africa.

“We are not really proposing something new,” he said. “Pope Francis is already ahead of us in this call to nonviolence.”

Terrence Rynne, another conference participant, said he was impressed by the way the event brought in experts from various continents and by the involvement of the bishops present.

“That was the most striking part of it for me, that it was the global church present,” said Rynne, a theologian who is also an NCR board member. He likewise praised the role of Pax Christi’s Dennis, who helped Coode arrange all the details of the event with the Vatican dicastery.

Dennis, whose term co-leading the international organization is ending this summer after 12 years, was also praised by Fr. John Dear, another participant in the meeting.

“Over the years of this process, Marie Dennis has emerged as one of the most important and influential leaders right now in the global church,” said Dear, who is known for his extensive spiritual writings and peace activism.

“Her extraordinary leadership, along with the openness of the Vatican dicastery, I think, is going to bear tremendous good fruit for the global church,” he said.

Katongole said that during the meeting he was reflecting on the fact that the event was taking place near the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which was marked April 7.

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Ugandan theologian Fr. Emmanuel Katongole speaks during the Vatican conference on nonviolence April 4. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

Ugandan theologian Fr. Emmanuel Katongole speaks during the Vatican conference on nonviolence April 4. (Pax Christi International/Johnny Zokovitch)

He remembered speaking some years ago to a bishop from the country who noted that some Catholics had participated in the killing and said his greatest challenge was “forming people who can say no to killing.”

“For me, the Rwanda genocide is in the back of my mind, and the question of this bishop: How do we form Christians who can say no to killing?” said Katongole. “The call of the Gospel is a call to nonviolence as the way of God.”

He said that if Francis chose to write an encyclical on nonviolence it would “set a tone for the church” that would “free our imagination from the inevitability of war and violence.”

Katongole said he imagined that such an encyclical would contain reflections on places where nonviolent strategies have worked, calling them “stories of hope, where you can see this already in place.”

“It will be really an encyclical about hope,” he said. “I think Pope Francis more than any pope … is more in a position to make this clarion call.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 3-16, 2019 print issue under the headline: Vatican’s nonviolence meeting renews hope for encyclical .



by Veronica Pelicaric, Pace e Bene Coordinator of International Programs

Villanova University, a Catholic and Augustinian university outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, invited Pace e Bene to give a one-day training for staff and faculty. The inspiration to do this came from Diane Nash, who underscored the importance of training when giving a lecture at Villanova last year. The staff of the Center for Peace and Justice Education, Campus Ministry, and Student Life responded to the call and made the training happen with outstanding commitment and competence. The workshop was filled to capacity and it took place in a beautiful setting at the IHM Spirituality Center in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Next year, this group of staff and faculty hope to have a similar training for students.

How many of us Catholics see the connection between Jesus and nonviolence? Very few until now. But as the practice and principles of nonviolence are gaining traction throughout the world, that connection is becoming unavoidable. As Pace e Bene’s John Dear has shown in his many books, Jesus’ life is the story of nonviolence. Called “my beloved son” by God at his baptism, Jesus will later say in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:24) that the beloved sons and daughters of God are blessed peacemakers. Peacemakers are the children of the God of peace. To the very end, Jesus remained faithful to that identity, and called all those who follow him to do the same.

When Gandhi died, two books were found next to his bedside: The Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. He found inspiration and solace in these two seminal books and made the connection that led him to proclaim that “nonviolence is the greatest and most active force in the world” and that “nonviolence is the highest expression of humanity’s conscious state.” Pope Francis titled his 2017 message for the World Day of Peace “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace.” In a world rife with nuclear threat, environmental crisis, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness which we drown in consumerism or numb with the latest gadget, these messages could not be more timely. It is time to wake up to a new story and apply it in our personal lives, in our relationships, and in concern and action for social and global welfare.


It is in this new paradigm that we will find what we all are looking for: inner peace. In the same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about not worrying and not being anxious. How does our crippling and harmful stress lead to the violence of consumerism which perpetuates our system of global injustice? In workshops we create the space to ask this important question and experience many teaching and learning moments.

The following is a rough summary of the workshop. My hope is that reading this might encourage some people to organize nonviolent trainings in their communities, educational facilities, and other relevant venues. Needless to say, a workshop like this one can only provide a bird’s eye view of the nonviolent path. But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

We began with a centering exercise followed by introductions punctuated with the participant’s expectations. After shared agreements to create safe space, we touched on Gospel stories that highlight three fundamental expressions of violence: direct, structural, and cultural. The Man with the Withered Hand (Luke 6:6-11), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), and the Woman Accused of Adultery (John 8:1-11) speak of oppression as evidenced in patriarchy, hierarchy and racism. These were as alive in Jesus’ time as they are today.


Using creative, active, and powerful nonviolence, Jesus prioritizes the law of love over the law of people. He teaches that serving, not dominating, makes humans great. Furthermore, when he turns the other cheek, he denies the oppressor the right to humiliate him and thus refuses to cooperate with humiliation, a very important aspect of nonviolence. (For an in depth explanation of this reading on turning the other cheek, I recommend Walter Wink’s little book Jesus and Nonviolence.)

Stereotypes of nonviolence—that it is passive, ineffectual, and cowardly, for example—are hard to ignore. Yet to simply state this misconception would not be very meaningful. So asking the question “Why is it so difficult to talk about nonviolence?” opened the possibility for people in small groups to discover the answer by themselves. And so they did. When scrutinizing the lives and motivations of nonviolent heroes, it is clear that the practice of nonviolence is much more arduous than the practice of violence and requires a soul-force not easily accessed.

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The impact of nonviolence on human and non-human life is so very different as well. Erica Chenoweth, in her seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works, explains that nonviolent movements are twice as successful as violent ones. Giving historical examples, she states that when 3.5% of the population engages in active and strategic nonviolent resistance, it changes everything—toppling dictators and resolving issues without further bloodshed. A striking piece of news delivering a message of hope worthy of our consideration!

When people first encounter these teachings they sometimes feel discouraged, guilty, and wonder how they could possibly make a difference. The visual symbol of The Two Hands of Nonviolence is a powerful reminder that we can train moment to moment by saying no to injustice and yes to truth and brotherhood. With one hand (the stop sign) I refuse to cooperate, but with the other hand extended I offer to work together in finding a better solution that honors our common humanity.

Educating ourselves can be done in so many different ways once we open our eyes and decide to be peacemakers. To strengthen this possibility, we revised Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory and Walter Wink’s statement that the myth of redemptive violence has been played out since Babylonian times. We are conditioned to believe that violence will end violence, and we reinforce this notion in our modern media, entertainment, and politics. That is why Jesus’ nonviolent message is so important: He has offered a third way to passivity or violence—militant nonviolence.


Before lunch, we discussed Dr. Martin Luther King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence in small groups, generating a great deal of enthusiasm and reflection. To counterbalance the after- lunch doldrums, we engaged in a kinesthetic exercises that sustained people for the rest of the day. It was then time to tell nonviolent stories, Gospel-related and otherwise, that provide a rich source of learning and inspiration, highlighting our shared humanity and the deepest longing in our heart: to be of service and make a difference.

A five step process for nonviolent engagement, which we have called CLARA (Center, Learn, Articulate, Receive, and Anchor) came next. We learned about how each of us finds our “main seat”, both in the moment and otherwise, by connecting to our breath and doing practices to lessen reactivity. We learned about mapping conflicts through acknowledging needs and fears and also how to understand issues through awareness of attitudes, behaviors, and context. We spoke about best ways to articulate our situation, to receive the truth of others, and how to anchor agreements.

Bill Moyer, an engineer, saw that social movements follow very precise stages which he called MAP (Movement Action Plan), better known as Eight Stages of Social Movements. With time running at my heels, I explained this process using the Civil Rights Movement as a model. Time constraints become so real to facilitators at this point in the day! This was no exception.

The final exercise revolved around five questions concerning the visioning of nonviolent Gospel communities. For this to be truly experiential, we went for inspiration to a process called The World Cafe (www.theworldcafe.com). We divided participants into five groups, allotting a question per group written on a big sheet on a table. They responded to their question and then rotated through the other four tables to add to what was already written there. This gives very rich input in a very short time.

As homework, people were asked to report back to the organizers on the relevance of the day’s content to the work done at Villanova and how this might be included in a training for students.


We ended with a beautiful closing exercise that fosters a tangible and soulful experience of our human interconnectedness and the possibility of working together to create a humane society.

In an interview held some years ago, Jean Vanier said that in order to be good Christians we had to be a bit crazy—crazy for Jesus and for peace. It is up to each one of us to figure out how we might live out this craziness. And in all probability, it will bring us to sanity.

Jean Vanier ended the interview exclaiming: “Jesus is Incredible!” And to that we can only add: Indeed.

* * *

If you are considering scheduling a workshop for your organization, don’t take our word about the benefits of what we have to offer. Listen instead to the people who have experienced it for themselves in the comments below from our Villanova University post-workshop evaluations:

  • “I am profoundly grateful for this day—it has called me to real self-reflection and inspired me to think about ways to center non-violence in my work and in my own spiritual growth and becoming. The closing exercise was incredibly powerful. Thank you!”

  • “I loved the interactive elements of the workshop and the opportunity to engage the full self: body, mind, emotions, soul/spirit, and to engage inter/intra-personally. Thank You!”

  • “I am excited to see how we will apply what we learned on campus!”

  • “I am grateful for the time, attention, and skill of the facilitators. I feel open to possibilities for letting go, waking up, and standing up.”

  • “The most important thing I learned was the need to actively promote non-violence, not just avoid violence.”

  • “To me the best things about this workshop were:
    1) Seamless flow of theory and quotes—narrative examples—discussion, processing, sharing
    2) The depth, experience, and soulful wisdom of the facilitators was healing/restoring/consoling/centering/inspiring.”

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