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Religious protesters have always been easy targets for criticism. They’re too extreme or too intense, too lacking in nuance and complexity, too single-minded, too over-the-top. They need to lighten up. And they keep going to jail. Willingly. They must be a bit crazy.

Perhaps a little.

But it has been my experience that much of the material that feeds the religious academic enterprise or is debated and discussed in our most respectable journals often starts out on the prophetic fringe and the nation’s jail cells. It was that way certainly with racism, Vietnam, apartheid, nuclear weapons and today, the School of the Americas and the relentless militarization of America. So we’ve turned over a few of our pages to excepts from the diaries of Franciscan Srs. Gwen and Dorothy Hennessey, who recently were released after spending six months in jail for their protests at the School of the Americas, and to a story about longtime peace activist Philip Berrigan, also recently released after serving time for acts of civil disobedience.

Those who go to jail willingly today for acts of conscience are the spiritual heirs of people like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, who wrote these prescient words after a jail stay in 1957:

“We were setting our faces against the world, against things as they are, the terrible injustice of our capitalist industrial system, which lives by war and by preparing for war; setting our faces against race hatreds and all the nationalist strivings. But especially we wanted to act against war and the preparation for war; nerve gas, guided missiles, the testing and stockpiling of nuclear bombs, conscription, the collection of income tax -- against the entire military state. We made our gesture; we disobeyed a law … ”

Rome correspondent John Allen passes on a request from his online column this week.

Every Sunday, he writes, there’s a Mass in English at 11 a.m. at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita (on Via del Caravita, just off the Via del Corso). The community that has formed around this Mass wants to take advantage of the presence of interesting people in Rome by sponsoring public talks, giving them a chance to disseminate their ideas.

Recently the first forum sponsored noted theologian Fr. Richard McBrien. The crowd at the McBrien talk was a terrific cross section of scholars, leaders of men and women’s religious communities, students, and other people in Rome interested in church affairs, writes Allen. (See Page 9 for more on McBrien’s talk.) [This is a wire services story and cannot be posted to our website.]

The request is that readers who know of people coming to Rome who might make interesting guests for the “Caravita Forum” drop John a note at his email address -- jallen@natcath.org

He will pass the information along to organizers. That’s no guarantee that every suggestion can be taken, he notes, but every idea is welcome.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002