Arlington, Virginia – For more than 50 years, Marie Dennis has wondered, as a middle-class white woman who once worked for the United States Navy, how she could respond as a Catholic to the calls for justice from people around the world.
It’s not an easy question to explore, she admitted to the Catholic News Service Aug. 6 on the eve of receiving the Teacher of Peace award from Pax Christi USA at the organization’s 50th anniversary conference.
She still realizes today as program director of the Catholic Initiative for Nonviolence, her final leg of her journey, that it requires listening to and, just as importantly, learning from people who struggling to overcome racism, poverty, war or environmental degradation.
“I am a product of the Second Vatican Council and all of this time of change, of transition, of challenge, of rethinking what it means to be a Catholic Christian, what it means to follow Jesus,” Dennis said.
The teaching began with herself and with her six children.
“For me, that was the most important education I had,” said Dennis, a physicist by training who has worked on the development of nuclear-powered submarines. “It was not information. It was how do you live Christianity. It was how do you do this consistently with my children.”
Dennis recalled how she was particularly inspired by the document “justice in the worldwhich emerged from the 1971 Synod of Bishops, addressing the issue of justice and liberation for the poor and oppressed.
She has also read several times A theology of liberation: history, politics and salvation by Fr. Dominican. Gustavo Gutierrez, Peruvian theologian. The book discussed how religious faith could be applied to help the poor and oppressed by getting involved in political and civic affairs.
Realizing that injustice could be fought by “educating through experience,” Dennis helped co-found the Ecumenical Center for New Creation, which brought “controversial critical issues” to middle-class congregations for scrutiny. through the prism of faith.
His desire to learn new perspectives led Dennis to move his six children from a comfortable Virginia suburb outside of Washington to a farm in the northern part of the state. But even that decision, she realized, was a sign of privilege. Poor and marginalized people, she understood, cannot move to a new place that is safer, where food is easier to get and where the impact of climate change is less severe.
In 1989 Dennis joined Maryknoll, first with the Maryknoll Society when the missionary order re-established a public policy office in Washington. In 1997 she was appointed director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a post she held for 15 years.
During this time, Dennis became co-president of Pax Christi International, the Brussels-based Catholic peace organization formed from the ruins of World War II. She served with Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, traveling the world to learn from people living on the margins.
With both organizations, Dennis focused on educating policy makers on how their decisions affected people who lived barely or faced violence from fighting militias, corporate exploitation and lack of essential products.
“(The job) was how to do the same thing by bringing policymakers to a different experience than they have when thinking about broader issues,” she told CNS.
Dennis also began to explore Christian nonviolence around this time. She realized that the challenges faced by disadvantaged people around the world are forms of violence. This led her to be part of the young Catholic Initiative for Nonviolence which was introduced in 2016 following a Vatican conference.
“It’s really since 9/11 and the war in Iraq that it’s become increasingly clear to me that the context of violence, whether it’s racism or economic injustice, insecurity food or environmental injustice, is just violence,” Dennis said. “So that started to help me learn what nonviolence is and how it relates to the gospel.”
While presenting the award on August 7, the final day of the three-day conference, Dennis told the 325 attendees and an online audience that Pax Christi’s growing engagement in the United States with “intersecting violence” opens a new chapter for the half-century. old organization as it engages in evangelical nonviolence.
She described nonviolence as “more than pacifism”, calling it “a spirituality, a way of life”.
“It is a potentially universal ethic that could guide the world, including in times of crisis, towards peace rather than justified war, towards respect and inclusion rather than exploitation. And it is a proven approach and effectiveness of profound peace seen through the prism of justice,” she said.
Practicing nonviolence “is not just violent, but muscular and actively engaged in preventing or interrupting the violence that is ingrained in our culture, by the way we relate to each other, for that matter. too many people in our society who have been and still are bruised, broken, killed by ‘the system’ and the way we humans treat the earth,” Dennis said.
“And it’s a nonviolence that energetically promotes just peace, new history, beloved community, new creation,” she said.
Crediting Pope Francis for his ‘vision, creativity and commitment to the cry of the earth and the cry of those forced to live on the margins of our world’, Dennis said she sees a ‘paradigm shift’ who finds “a penchant for non-violence in Catholic Social Thought which is enriched by the synodal process” that the Church is going through.
She welcomed the interest of the pope and other Vatican officials in the work of the Catholic Initiative for Nonviolence, but warned conference attendees that much work remains to be done.
“Reclaiming the central role of evangelical nonviolence would require a radical transformation of the internal life of the Catholic Church, as well as of the public face, voice and engagement of the institution,” Dennis said.
She also warned that the shift to nonviolence was being pushed back by “fierce and mighty” forces and called on Pax Christ USA members and the church not to back down.
“Our work is not done and I’m afraid it won’t be for a long time,” she said.