Blessed are the peacemakers

By  Michael Higgins
  • February 19, 2008

{mosimage}We love to talk about peace and what it means or may mean, and yet we know how elusive the definition and the experience can actually be. I suspect that is why we look for people who embody the “reality” of peace, individuals who have given themselves over to a life of creating a culture of peace, people who understand directly the costs of peace.

Thinking of peace has put me in mind of two men who struggled to be genuine peacemakers and both of whom have died recently. I knew them both, although not in any sustained or deep way, and I treasure the few but valuable encounters I had with them.

Gordon C. Zahn was a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts; Pax Christi spokesperson; the author of that unsettling and serious work of exploratory scholarship, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars; the early champion of the extraordinarily courageous Austrian Franz Jagerstatter — now beatified — who for many years was seen as a traitor at worst and as an embarrassment at best by both the church and the state; and a correspondent and friend of Thomas Merton.

It was in terms of this special relationship with Merton that I was introduced to Zahn.  Donald Grayston, an Anglican priest and Merton scholar, and I were the principal planners behind a major conference on Merton’s thought hosted by the University of British Columbia in 1978 and Zahn was one of the presenters. He spoke on Merton and peace and argued persuasively that unlike many advocates for non-violence Merton “always kept the focus upon principle and motives rather than utility in a strategic or tactical sense. Thus, in a commentary on St. Maximus the Confessor, he clearly adopts the Greek saint’s portrayal of non-violence under suffering and persecution as the normal way of the Christian even to the point of saying, ‘the Christian who has recourse to force and hatred in order to protect himself is, in fact, by that very action, denying Christ and showing that he has no real understanding of the Gospel.’ This is not, Merton hastens to add, a formula for passive acceptance of injustice and the co-operation with evil such acceptance would imply. As he put it, ‘The genuine concept of non-violence implies not only active and effective resistance to evil but in fact a more effective resistance.’

Few appreciate this truth more existentially than Jagerstatter. He paid a heavy price for his witness. And he could not have had a more eloquent or tenacious advocate than Zahn whose In Solitary Witness: the Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter remains the most influential biographical study of the man. Jagerstatter, a simple father, husband and farmer, not inclined to reading weighty theological tomes, refused to serve in Hitler’s army because, as Zahn’s assistant and eulogist Michael Hovey pointedly remarks, “he had the clarity of mind and soul to discern the utter moral bankruptcy of the Nazi regime unlike almost all of the theologically trained clerics and hierarchs of his church at the time.”

Like Blessed Franz, Zahn was a pacifist, a conscientious objector and a man steeped in the Scriptures — a man of peace.

But there are different kinds of peacemakers, of course, and one who also deeply impressed me and who recently died, Fr. Frank Corliss, found expression for his peace-making activities through his work for L’Arche and Faith and Light: peace-making built on the foundations of tenderness and compassion, peace-making intimately connected with the demands of social justice.

I first met Corliss when I was an elementary student at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Toronto — he was our curate — and I continued to see him while I was a seminarian for the Scarboro Foreign Mission Fathers throughout the 1960s. When I last saw him he was pastor of St. Paul’s — not yet Basilica — in the heart of old Toronto and his zeal seemed undiminished. An exemplary priest, to my mind.

May they both know the unending joy of the Prince of Peace.

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