Peace and nonviolence at the Ministry of Defence

Credit: London Catholic Worker

This Ash Wednesday, a group of Catholic peace activists will gather to pray and protest peacefully outside the Ministry of Defence in London.

They’ve done so every year since 1982 to pray, witness and offer nonviolent resistance to the UK Government’s willingness to deploy weapons of mass destruction.

For those who started the prayer vigil in 1982, the ongoing Cold War provided the terrifying spectre of all-out nuclear war.

Whilst the imminent threat of mutually assured destruction may have left the public consciousness, the danger is still very real and the morality of nuclear weapons is an important – thought perhaps understated – pro-life issue for the Catholic Church:

“I plead for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons; nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutual assured destruction are incapable of of grounding us in an ethics of fraternity” – Pope Francis, Peace Day message 2017

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics attending Mass will receive ashes on their forehead as a symbol of our penance and repentance.

Outside the Ministry of Defence, however, some activists will face arrest for marking the Ministry building with the sign of the cross using blessed ashes.

As we start our Lenten journey this Ash Wednesday and examine our own conscience, we ought to seek God’s forgiveness for the guilt of the nation in preparing for nuclear war.

We pray for peace and fraternity in the world and we give thanks for those who will witness to the Gospel of nonviolence, justice and and peace in London.

We remember and give thanks also for the witness of a priest of our own Diocese, Fr Peter Keeling, who was himself imprisoned for his part in a protest during the 1980’s:

Fr Keeling planting trees with refugees in 2009 (Credit: M’bro Diocese)

For Father Peter Keeling, a spiritual journey which started in Kent took him to Durham Prison, via New York. In 1973 he went to listen, very sceptically, to talk by Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest who had been imprisoned for direct actions such as burning draft papers as a protest against the Vietnam War.

Disapproving of such behaviour, Father Keeling didn’t expect to be impressed. But, he says, ‘He was just magnificent. I suddenly saw the gospel message in a whole new light.’ Daniel Berrigan had been very influenced by Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Father Keeling, fired with enthusiasm, decided he needed to know more. He went to New York and lived and worked at the Catholic Worker house. Long discussions with Dorothy Day gave him a thorough grounding in the Catholic Worker philosophy.

On his return to Britain he felt he needed to do something to express this philosophy, and decided to take part in an action against nuclear weapons. Hearing about CPA he made contact with them, and eventually took part in the MoD Ash Wednesday action in 1987.

After marking the building with a cross of blessed ashes, he was arrested and spent a couple of hours in a police cell, before being charged with criminal damage. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted and fined £20 with £10 costs. He returned to his parish in Middlesbrough with no intention of paying the fine, as this would be an admission of guilt, and he believed he had done nothing wrong. In August he appeared in court for non-payment, and was sentenced to five days in prison.

Wearing his clerical garb, Father Keeling left Middlesbrough handcuffed in the back of a prison wagon, not knowing where he was being taken. He was in an individual cell in the wagon, so it was not until they reached their destination that his fellow passengers saw him. ‘When we all piled out at Durham I was the only one in handcuffs because the others were all remand prisoners, and when I got out they all nearly fell over with shock. One said, “Be very careful in here Father, because there are some really bad people in here.”’

When news circulated that a Catholic priest was being held, the other prisoners rallied round and looked after him, supplying soap, shampoo and other little necessities. Because of his short sentence, he was placed in a cell alone, so he didn’t mix a great deal with his fellow inmates. But the Anglican prison chaplain managed to get permission for him to join a prisoners’ discussion group, and here he found quite a lot of sympathy and respect for what he had done.

The reaction from the prison officers was mixed, and interesting. Some, he says, ‘treated me like they treated the other prisoners, pretty inhumanely at times.’ But from other officers he received surprisingly respectful treatment. Once, a prison officer who escorted him back to his cell refused to lock the door. He didn’t want to be a part of locking up a priest.

Although he was in prison for such a short time, Father Keeling received a great deal of mail from supporters, and a prison officer from the mail room delivered this to his cell personally. He told him ‘I’ve worked here for twenty years and I’ve never ever delivered mail personally before, but I felt I wanted to in your case.’ When the time came to leave the prison and Father Keeling was being escorted out, he heard the voice of a prisoner he’d never met shouting from the gallery above him, ‘It’s a pity that while you were in here you couldn’t have said Mass. That would have been a great act of solidarity, to have a priest who was a prisoner say Mass for prisoners.’

Now in a country parish in Yorkshire, Father Keeling feels a little removed from the peace movement, and agrees that since the end of the Cold War some of the urgency surrounding nuclear weapons has dissipated. But there are still many areas where there is much to be done. With the local United Reformed Church minister and his wife, he formed a Justice and Peace group which has concentrated its efforts on the issue of landmines. He would be quite prepared to take direct action again and go to prison if necessary. He’s quite clear that he wouldn’t be prepared to pay any fines which might be imposed, as he says, ‘You have to carry your resistance right through.’

Bernadette Meaden, ‘Protest for Peace’ (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1999) pages 54-56


Eleven days to save the world?

Next week will be an important one for the future of the planet. In a city marked by much bloodshed in recent months, Paris has the opportunity to become a place where the nations of the world stand together for the future of humanity.

World leaders will be gathering for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to try to agree a legally binding and universal agreement to tackle global warming.

The climate conference will bring together the United Nations for eleven days in the French capital and will, for the first time in over twenty years of negotiations, attempt to keep global warming below 2°C.

Since the industrial revolution, human activity has undoubtedly caused changes to the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists predict that an increase of the global temperature by just 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels could be catastrophic for the planet.

One has only to look at melting ice-caps, rising sea levels, droughts and extreme weather events to know we must change course before it’s too late.

According to the UK Met Office, the global temperature has already increased by 1°C since the industrial revolution. There isn’t a moment to lose.

For the Christian, caring for the planet is an important part of the faith. Because we see the earth as God’s creation, we understand it as a gift and a place of encounter with Him.

Through the eyes of faith we see the world as a precious book which God has written to us and we are reminded in the Book of Genesis that God entrusted the world to us to ‘till and keep it’ (Gn 2:15). Thus we take on the task of caring for His handiwork.

This is not a new initiative because the Church since its earliest days has cared for creation. By looking at the history of monastic communities we know that monks organised their time around the seasons in order to care for the land and give glory to God. ‘To work and pray’ was their motto.

In recent decades the social activity of the Church has been directed towards alleviating social ills and tacking issues such as unemployment, health inequalities and conflict. This has often come at the expense of environmental issues.

Thankfully Pope Francis has brought the Church into the question of climate change and has tackled it head-on with the publication of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’.

As the climate talks in Paris begin, this is an important opportunity for Christians to pray, reflect and act for the planet. May we give it our support and do our part to look after our mother, the Earth.

As Pope Francis says, “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”

Br Tom Robinson, OFM, is a Franciscan novice in Ireland. He is originally from St. Francis and St. Clare’s parish in Middlesbrough and now lives in County Clare. This article was first published by The Clare Champion on 26th November 2015.

Things that make for peace

Anne Tracy, Alan Gerrard, Nan Saeki, Tom Robinson, Clare and Dave Palmer.

“Things that make for peace” was the theme of this year’s conference of the National Justice and Peace Network in Swanwick, Derbyshire, from 17-19th July. 

Attending from the Middlesbrough Diocese were Clare and David Palmer, Alan Gerrard, Anne Tracy, Tom Robinson, Nan Saeki, Elizabeth Love and Patricia Clarke.

Guest speakers included Prof. Paul Rodgers from the Peace Studies Department of Bradford University and Fr Edu Gariguez, a Fillipino religious leader and environmentalist.

Pax Christi’s Pat Gaffney with Fr. Edu Gariguez.

Fr Gariguez has spent a number of years campaigning against large-scale mining projects which have threatened the existence of indigenous peoples in his native Philippines.

“I am fulfilling the mission that God has given me as a priest”, said Fr. Gariguez when asked about the motivation behind his campaigns for justice, peace and care for creation.

Organisations such as Pax Christi, Cafod and Missio were represented at the conference fayre whilst a variety of workshops were held on subjects such as the Pope’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’ and the militarization of young people.

Bishop John Rawsthorne, a patron the Justice and Peace Network, celebrated a lively and energetic Mass for the conference attendees.

Tom Robinson said: “The weekend was a fantastic opportunity to join with fellow campaigners from across the Church and to share experiences, encouragement and support.

It was heartening to hear about the varied campaigns taking place in our parishes and to meet like-minded people who are committed to the justice and peace cause.”

As the conference came to a close, participants anointed one another with the words “Blessed are you, a peacemaker”. May our small acts of peace overcome the world!