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:
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