Speaking Personally: Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi


Where do you think your commitment to justice and peace comes from?

I think this was very much a home-grown thing, not given a name such as justice and peace. My father was a shop-steward and being a Scot I also heard something of the influence of Keir Hardie on the lives of working people. After raising her two children my mother trained to be a nurse and she too was involved in her union and when a local hospital was threatened with closure took part in a campaign to it. There was no song and dance about this; it was just what people did. Then when I went to train to teach in the early 1970s I was very inspired by what I heard of the life and changes in church in Latin America, this thing called Liberation Theology; reading the work of Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, these titles alone imply a radical reading of the times; joining the Young Christian Students taking part in projects such as the Simon Community and Third World First (now People and Planet) and for this I have to thank the Religious of the Assumption. Again, I don’t recall this being called justice and peace. We were provided with many opportunities to become involved in the world beyond ourselves, to think out of the box.

What for you are the most important areas of concern today?

First, that we have not yet managed to shift thinking about security and peace out of the military box and second, that as a Church we have not yet learned the deep value of the practice and possibility of nonviolence. Failing in these two things has, I feel, stopped us making genuine progress is ridding the world of war and violence.

How mad is it that the UK Government has the 6th largest military budget in the world? We go on applying military solutions to problems that cannot be solved by weapons and armies: extremism in its many forms, poverty, climate change. How great it would be if our churches, schools, communities could engage people in discussions about what security means to them, tease out key issues and concerns, and then ask what investment and resources are needed to address them? This would begin to reshape thinking and prompt creative economic and political decisions making

As for nonviolence, for many the word still conjures up passivity, doing nothing, allowing oneself to be walked over. Yet we have only to look at key practitioners, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mairead Corrigan, and the work of Pax Christi, to see that active nonviolence faces injustice, violence, the mis-use of power and aims to stop and transform them. Again, we need to invest in nonviolence – be educated about it, trained in it, develop a spirituality to underpin it so that we can confidently begin to apply creative nonviolent solutions to the challenges we face. The Jesuit Daniel Berrigan writes about the enormous energy, ingenuity, and money and so on that goes into war and war preparations and laments the half-heartedness, lack of energy and investment that goes into peacemaking.

What sustains you in your commitment?

Most of all people. The memory and energy of all those who have formed me to this point in my life – from family and friends, colleagues from my teaching days and my work with CAFOD and for the past twenty-five years the Pax Christi community. Their witness, sticking power and their friendships are a reminder that we need relationships that offer discernment about the important matters of life to stop us going mad, to stop us from trying to do things on our own. Being able to share a common world view with others, building communities with others around our concerns is vital. Then there are all those I meet here and overseas who work for peace and justice in desperately hostile environments. Whether it is the person in a parish who struggles to get a dialogue going about militarism in schools or a family in Palestine challenging laws that force them to live apart or those working with refugees in Syria worn down by the never-ending violence. If they will not give up the very least I can do is try to accompany them by small acts of peacemaking here.

I do also need some ‘time out’, quiet time when I can stand back a bit, take stock, reflect and pray, to remind myself of the bigger picture and of our real source of hope and courage.

What are your hopes for a Church like ours for the 21st Century?

Pope Francis and the way he is choosing to live out his role. His words reach beyond our ears and our brain; they touch something deep within us. How many times has he used phrases such as ‘we have forgotten how to weep’ and challenge us to ask the question, ‘who is my brother/sister?’ He makes it clear that we are get into the mess and muddle of the world – and not obsess about status or place. He wants us to be passionate, not lukewarm people. I find this very attractive, and of course very challenging!

All of this, I believe, is speaking in a fresh and vivid way to a largely secular society. It will therefore support and strength networks and organisations that have been doing the work of peace and social justice for decades. Maybe we will feel emboldened to see our work in new ways and if we have become stale or disillusioned, we will find the courage to change and work differently.  Fear of change can paralyse us and rob us of hope.

Soon we have an election and after that a new (?) landscape within which to work. So we have to be ready to pick ourselves up from disappointments and see a host of new opportunities, new faces with whom to share our visions and passions.