New society looks at Merton, peace - Catholic Courier

New society looks at Merton, peace

Katie Schroeder is passionate about social justice and living her life for God. A sophomore at Nazareth College, Schroeder recently found a way to combine both of these passions — she joined the newly created Rochester Thomas Merton Pax Christi Society, which has met three times so far.

Thomas Merton, a well-known Trappist monk, author and social critic, was born in 1915, joined the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in 1941 and died in 1968. During his lifetime he published more than 50 books on topics ranging from theology, social justice and spirituality to history, literature and war.

Pax Christi USA is a group that is dedicated to advancing peace in the world through Christian nonviolence. The group rejects war and other forms of violence and advocates for respect for all creation and for economic and social justice.

Incorporating some of Merton’s views into the nonviolent philosophy of Pax Christi seemed like “a nice marriage,” said Sister Donna Del Santo, SSJ. The new group was founded by Sister Del Santo and three people with connections to Nazareth College: Dr. Christine Bochen, professor of religious studies; Msgr. William Shannon, professor emeritus of religious studies; and Jamie Fazio, campus minister. Bochen and Msgr. Shannon are both founding members and past presidents of the International Thomas Merton Society.

Each meeting has drawn 20 to 30 people so far, said Sister Del Santo, noting that about half of them have been young adults. Because of today’s political climate, and especially the recent presidential campaigns, people are hungry to learn more about what it really means to be Catholic, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about our Catholic identity in the political arena. I would venture to say that some principles of the Catholic social teaching were lost,” Sister Del Santo said. When choosing a candidate to back in presidential election, it seemed that “either you were anti-abortion or anti-war, but it didn’t seem like you could be both.”

There is more poverty than ever before in the world and in the United States, which is also fighting a war that’s anything but holy, Sister Del Santo added. People are becoming frustrated with the lack of a strong Catholic voice and are actively seeking out answers, she said.

Sister Del Santo said she hopes that the Rochester Thomas Merton Pax Christi Society might eventually become that strong Catholic voice, at least in the local area. Another of the society’s goals is to aid the spiritual development of its members, particularly the young adults, and to spark within them a commitment to social justice. The hope is that these people will eventually become the political, business, social and religious leaders of the community, she said.

The society’s first few meetings have been spent introducing participants to Pax Christi, Merton’s writings and the principles of nonviolence. Participants also have discussed what drew them to the society and why they want to work for peace and nonviolent social change. It’s easy to agree with the idea of nonviolence, but takes a lot of studying and preparation before someone can actually live nonviolently, Sister Del Santo said.

Schroeder said she finds these discussions encouraging. She recently took one of Bochen’s courses about Merton and was surprised at how relevant his teachings still are, even decades later.

“The fact that his writing on war and politics is so applicable to 2004 is frightening. Merton is not some secluded man who is discussed in class and whose teachings are left at the door. He is present in our society today through discussions of war, fear and violence,” she said.

Schroeder said she’s also been encouraged by the number of people who’ve joined the society and by the fact that it welcomes both students and other adults. So far the group has a nice combination of people who’ve been working at social justice for a long time and others who are just beginning to explore it, Sister Del Santo said. Some of the members had been students of Merton and wanted to learn more, while others were looking for a place to learn about nonviolence and peace-making, she added.

Schroeder is looking forward to learning more and beginning to witness to the peace of Christ with the society, she said.

“Linking Merton with a Catholic peace movement seems so natural. Too often, religion is used to divide people, and then violence and hatred emerge. Merton calls us to love in the name of God, putting aside our differences and reaching out to live in solidarity,” she said. “I think I can speak for a lot of Christian college students in saying that we feel close to God when we act in solidarity and serve less fortunate brothers and sisters.”

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