By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Hildegard Goss-Mayr’s call for reconciliation, forgiveness and patience in peace making resonated with the audience gathered Sept. 20 for the 2009 Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
The 79-year-old Austrian has spent her adult life living out that message around the globe, and her audience appreciated that fact with two standing ovations.
St. Ambrose University in Davenport hosted the event in Christ the King Chapel on campus. The university is a partner in the interfaith coalition that honored Goss-Mayr, the 39th recipient of the award first presented 45 years ago, posthumously, to John F. Kennedy.
Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, the university’s president, thanked the audience for coming “to join with us to be inspired by Hildegard’s extraordinary commitment to justice and peace and to be renewed in hope for the work that lies ahead for all of us.”
Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a retired priest of the Davenport Diocese and last year’s honoree, gave a history of the award that honors Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). The letter called on all people to secure peace among all nations.
The traditional litany honoring past recipients followed, with lighted candles placed on a table at the front of the assembly as the names were read — Martin Luther King Jr., Blessed Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Sister Helen Prejean among them.
Richard Deats, author of the biography, “Marked for Life: The Story of Hildegard Goss-Mayr,” introduced his book’s subject: “I can’t think of anyone alive today more worthy of receiving this award.”
Bishop Martin Amos of the Davenport Diocese presented the award to Goss-Mayr on behalf of the Quad-City Pacem in Terris Coalition. “… We recognize you as a teacher, a visionary and a pioneer who helped forge a new path toward peace on earth for all humanity.”
But Goss-Mayr, a humble woman who toiled in the trenches and not the limelight, said in her acceptance speech that “it is impossible to teach and apply nonviolence alone. Nonviolence is a collective way of thinking and acting in which we try to join together people of differing backgrounds in the combat for truth and justice.”
She said she would like the award “to honor also the many hundreds of women and men with whom I have struggled for life in dignity in Latin America, South Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in Israel and Palestine.”
Goss-Mayr thanked the audience for celebrating the memory of Pope John XXIII and described Pacem in Terris as a “bold call for an end to the arms race and the banning of nuclear weapons. It gave hope to people struck by fear all over the world.”
She observed that one of the greatest challenges for today’s peacemakers “is to reach out to the other, to the ones differing from us in order to disarm enmity ….” That statement impacted Kai Swanson of the Pacem in Terris coalition. “Enmity is a corrosive force in our lives. We ought to do what we can to give pause; ‘disarming enmity’ — that’s a call to action for peace,” he said after the ceremony.
Goss-Mayr, who grew up in bloodshed of World War II and the oppressive Nazi regime, said it is possible to obtain worldwide nuclear disarmament, more social justice, caring for and sharing of resources and striving for life in dignity for all. But “now has come the time to struggle for the realization of our vision, of our dream,” she said. “Enmity can be overcome through nonviolent dialogue and peace building .…”
The work is not easy or swift. “At times we are tired, ready to give up and to succumb to resignation,” she said. “During such moments I remind myself of the parable that Jesus told us: about the seed that falls into the soil; it takes time to transform itself, but finally it rises, grows, blossoms and bears hundredfold fruit. There lies the source of our hope and of our strength: nothing is ever lost that is done out of love and truth. The small seeds of nonviolence that we sow are part of a large field of worldwide, nonviolent transforming power inspired and sustained by the spirit of our living God. But if we refuse to sow our grains, even if they are small, there can be no harvest of peace.”
Don Moeller of Davenport said Goss-Mayr gave one of the best Pacem in Terris talks he has heard — “such a challenging message from one who lived it.” “And delivered with such humility,” his wife, Jerri, said.
Goss-Mayr’s emphasis on forgiveness impressed Lou Waechter of Davenport. “She was in all these different countries teaching people about forgiveness. There can’t be peace without forgiveness.”
What resonated with peace activist Chuck Quilty of Rock Island, Ill., was Goss-Mayr’s “example; knowing some of the things she’s done, you stand in awe.”
Added Sister Bea Snyder, CHM, a member of the Pacem in Terris Coalition: “This is a woman who lived what we all talk about.”
Hildegard Goss-Mayr’s speech, presented at the Pacem In Terris Peace and Freedom Award ceremony:
I feel very honored and grateful to be invited to celebrate with you the memory of our beloved Pope John XXIII and of the Encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Pope John has opened the Catholic Church to a new vision and to a new creative relationship with the modern world and the task of peace making. At the height of the Cold War, when over the Cuban crisis nuclear warfare was dangerously menacing all mankind, he called for a dialogue between East and West and did not hesitate to give himself an example, breaking through the wall of silence by inviting Soviet leaders and by talking with them.
Pacem in Terris, published during the Vatican Council when Pope John was already quite ill, was a bold call for an end to the arms race and the banning of nuclear weapons. It gave hope to people struck by fear, all over the world, to believers and people without faith. It was addressed to all people of good will, a breakthrough reaching out to all suffering and fearful women and men as well as to the political leaders of the globe.
I am very grateful that you are keeping alive the memory of Pope John and his peace initiative. And I am very grateful for the honor of receiving the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. I have, however, pondered a great deal with respect to this award. Your kind nomination for the award reminded me of the fact that it is impossible for a person to teach and apply nonviolence alone! Nonviolence is essentially a collective way of thinking and acting in which we try to join together people of differing backgrounds in the combat for truth and justice. Wherever I had been invited to teach nonviolence to victims of injustice, I assumed responsibility for them and with them – to the point of being arrested with some of them in Brazil or Uruguay. Therefore I should like this award to honor also the many hundreds of women and men with whom I struggled for life in dignity in Latin America, South Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in Israel and Palestine. Let us include in this award also the unknown peacemakers worldwide and give honor to them!
I also want to express my admiration to your coalition for having cooperated in your peace efforts for so many years as an ecumenical body. In our globalized world more than ever before we need to overcome walls of separation. Never before have we been so close to each other as people from different cultures and religions – and still we know so little about each other. On the contrary, enemy images, distorted visions of each other are being built up by political manipulation, by interests for power and domination, through extremist and fundamentalist positions; and quite often we allow religion to become a factor of division, even of hatred, of violence and war. It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges for peacemakers in our times is to reach out to the other, to the ones differing from us in order to disarm enmity, to listen, to discover the truth of the other, to build confidence. In our globalized world our aim should be to build networks locally, nationwide, but also worldwide of former enemies who are reconciled and thus to advance the building of a human family, where diversity can be lived in unity.
In Europe we were encouraged by the message of President Obama: “Yes, we can.” In other terms it was an appeal like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream.” It is an appeal to open our minds and hearts to the truth that is possible – if we want to – to obtain, for instance, worldwide nuclear disarmament, more social justice, caring for and honest sharing of the scarce resources of our globe, striving for life in dignity for all or considering all nations as equal partners. While it is very important to have a clear vision of the aim for which we should strive, this is only one part of reality. The second part implies: now has come the time to struggle for the realization of our vision, of our dream. No president can do this alone. He needs the active support of the people.
For the peace worker, this means that now has come the time to prove the strength of the transforming power of nonviolence; now is the time to stand up and jointly speak for more social equality and justice; it is the time to build in our neighborhood, in our society, models that show how enmity can be overcome through nonviolent dialogue and peace building; the time to develop alternatives that protect the resources of our planet; to build up strong international campaigns for (nuclear) disarmament; to support the peace services of the UN and to multiply with the help of training peace workers examples of prevention of violence and peace building in areas of conflict.
It is true that at times we feel overwhelmed by the dimensions of the problems with which we are confronted. We feel small and without strength; we see so much suffering and so little progress. At times we are tired, ready to give up and succumb to resignation. During such moments I remind myself of the parable that Jesus told us: about the seed that falls into the soil; it takes time to transform itself, but finally it rises, grows, blossoms and bears hundredfold fruit. There lies the source of our hope and of our strength: nothing is ever lost that is done out of love and truth. The small seeds of nonviolence that we sow are part of a large field of worldwide, nonviolent transforming power inspired and sustained by the spirit of our living God. But if we refuse to sow our grains, even if they are small, there can be no harvest of peace.
Let me terminate by telling you an example of patient, but wonderful growth of a small grain of peacemaking and reconciliation:
Three weeks ago, on Sept. 1, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. That day in 1939, Hitler issued an order to open fire in Gdansk (Danzig), now part of Poland. Three-million Poles were killed during this war; the most terrible concentration camps were built on that territory. At the end of the war, in 1945, the borders of Poland were moved further west, and 10 million Germans were forced to leave and poured into Germany and Austria as refugees.
You can imagine the bitterness and hatred prevailing between these nations. In the mid-1950s during the Cold War the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) started an East-West project to build contacts over the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. My husband Jean and I were charged with the mission to try to build an approach to reconciliation between the Poles on the one hand and the Germans and Austrians on the other. In 1955 we were able to travel for the first time to Poland to build up contacts with open-minded and very committed Christians; we were able to help with medical supplies and with literature that they needed and started to talk about our responsibility for peace-building.
Little by little, trust and friendship were built up. Building on this basis we decided in 1959 to move one step forward: we proposed to our Polish friends to prepare for a pilgrimage to Czestochowa (the Polish national shrine of Mary) where German and Austrian Christians would come to ask Poles for forgiveness and of our co-responsibility in the murderous event of the war and oppression, thus to start together the journey toward reconciliation and a new peaceful relationship.
However, our Polish friends had been so deeply hurt that they were not yet ready to accept the challenge. One your writer spoke up: “We cannot forgive. Every stone of our city of Warszawa has seen the spilling of Polish blood.” Jean and I realized that the time for this step had not yet come. We had to return to our hotel and promised our friends to come back whenever possible. Before leaving, we prayed together the prayer that we all know: the Our Father. When we got to the passage: “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive …” our friends stopped praying, and after a terrible silence they would affirm: yes, we have to try to forgive, otherwise we would betray the message of Jesus. We were all deeply moved. We were aware that reconciliation demands a deep, inner transformation. During two years, on both sides – in Poland as well as in Austria and in Germany — we prepared for this inner and outward pilgrimage.
The fruit was the first small seed of reconciliation. It grew step by step: among Christian movements like Pax Christi, and among Polish deputies as well as in the church. At the end of Vatican II the Polish episcopate invited the German bishops to celebrate with them the millennium of the Polish church. In 1972, West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt in Poland publicly asked for forgiveness for Hitler’s war and oppression. And now, 70 years after the outbreak of WWII, the Polish and German episcopate published together and extraordinary document that did not only condemn the aggression of Germany, but this time the Poles were ready to admit that they, too, had to ask for forgiveness for the suffering of the several million German women, children, families who were expelled from Poland after the end of the war. But the document goes further: putting the main emphasis on reconciliation and peace building, explaining that the long, but successful way towards reconciliation between Germany and Poland should be taken as an example for other regions of the European Union and for other parts of the world.
Dear friends: Let us continue to sow the seeds of justice and peace and with unwavering confidence, that one day, they will bear fruit. Are we not privileged and blessed to be called help build the Kingdom of justice, truth and love in our life and in the world? Let the flame of this joy prevail in our hearts.