Where peace is not an afterthought
By ARTHUR JONES
Peace is often the stepchild in parish peace and justice programs, according to Bernadette Rixner. But not at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Sioux City, Iowa, under Rixners energetic leadership.
She and her husband, Jim, began family life on an Indian reservation at Standing Rock, S.D., where Jim was a social worker with the Indian Health Service. They arrived at Blessed Sacrament in 1975. The Vietnam War had Bernadette Rixner weighing her role in a church that could see abortion was wrong but not war.
Under those circumstances, while responding to a need to give her life to God, she felt she would be a Christian first and then the best Catholic I can be. Feeling blessed (the Rixners have three children) but not guilty about it, she wanted to reach out to people not similarly blessed and bring blessings to them.
When in the 1980s Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens, bless his heart, asked each parish to set up a peace and justice committee, our parish really got into it -- from setting up a food pantry to legislative work. (Soens is now retired.)
For the peace part, the Franciscans at nearby Briarcliff College had programs, too. Blessed Sacrament peace and justice folks plugged into some of those. Their other efforts included explaining the U.S. bishops1983 peace pastoral to the parish. Peace pastoral sessions were held for four Sundays.
With any peace issue developments, she said, we make sure we have peace prayers for children and adults.
When in January 1997 the peace and justice committee decided on a parish-wide, year-round program using Parenting for Peace and Justice Network materials, Fr. Tom Geelan, the pastor, used the bishops Stand Against Violence Week and then Lent as the fulcrum to develop a family pledge and a school pledge for nonviolence.
Geelan mentioned the pledge in his homilies and wrote to every parishioner saying the parish was going to be offering the pledge. There would be a peace tree and parishioners could sign a paper pledge, and put their name on a peace dove to hang from the tree.
The pledge would be kept at home to review each month.
The first time around, 62 families signed. That number has now doubled. The pledge is renewed annually, and when the pledge families receive a blessing at Mass, Geelan follows that with a blessing on all the parishioners, pledging the parish to work for peace.
Other parishes around the country have followed variations on these themes. Holy Spirit in Louisville, Ky., had its families creating a circle of peace. There were handouts with questions developed for everyone, from seniors to youngsters, as the parish connected to local organizations that were challenging some of the violence in their community.
St. Francis Borgia Parish in Washington, Mo., is a rural church that waged peace by creating seven one-page bulletin inserts for Lent and Easter and wallet-sized cards each week that offered a brief reflection and action for each pledge component (see below).
St. Cecilia Church in Glen Carbon, Ill., focused an entire school year on peace; and at St. Alphonsus Church in St. Louis, the program brought together the combined talents of the peace and justice committee, the liturgy commission, the family life committee and the role models program. The parish continues to do legislative advocacy work around the issues of gun violence, media violence, school violence, domestic violence, hate crimes and the violence of poverty.
Back at Blessed Sacrament, Sioux City, the peace tree may have wilted a bit and the doves may have molted, but in any event liturgical needs changed things around so that the peace pledge names are now inscribed on a freestanding scroll at the back of the church.
But theres a continuing follow-up -- a blue card pledgers can carry to hand out. It reads: I caught you making peace.
And it has a symbol on it anyone from the 1960s and 70s would recognize instantly: The two open fingers of the peace sign.
National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999