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'Symbol is what we live by': with yearly fast, priest calls on churches to embrace Christ's nonviolence.

Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy exuded remarkable vigor for someone who had not eaten in 27 days. The 65-year-old Melkite priest was three-quarters of the way through his annual 40-day fast, which he described as a "fast for the truth of Gospel nonviolence."

Many peacemakers tackle violence through temporal means; McCarthy uses spiritual tools as well. As he sees it, the abundance of homicidal enmity on the planet is more than a political or ethical problem. It represents the failure of Christians to take seriously the Gospel of nonviolence preached by Jesus. For the past 24 years, he has fasted from July I to Aug. 9 for the conversion of his coreligionists.

Christ's total rejection of violence is the clearest of New Testament teachings, he said, and yet for most Christians "nonviolence is a non-thought."

A Catholic intellectual, McCarthy has had a varied career as lawyer, university educator, and now as rector of St. Gregory the Theologian Seminary in Newton, Mass. He and his wife, Mary, a former college professor, have 13 children. (The Melkites are Eastern-rite Catholic and permit the ordination of married men.)

But McCarthy's primary ministry, pursued for most of his adult life, has been proclaiming Christ's nonviolent teachings as central to an authentic understanding of the Gospels. Over the past four decades, he has written books, conducted retreats worldwide, and penned hundreds of articles on the subject. In 1968, he established the Program for the Study of Christian Nonviolence at Notre Dame University, the first peace studies program in the United States. Four years later, he cofounded Pax Christi USA. In 1992, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fifteen years into his ministry, McCarthy realized convincing Christians their religion is unequivocally nonviolent required more than reasoned argument.

"No one was arguing that Jesus was not nonviolent.... But it wasn't making any difference," he said. "It occurred to me that Christian justification of violence was so deeply rooted, so thoroughly nurtured from generation to generation, only prayer and fasting could remove it."

"Symbol is what we live by," McCarthy later said. "On the negative side [the fast] is a symbolic gesture about the awful history of Christians killing Christians and thinking that is justified by God and Jesus Christ. On the positive side, it is a call to the churches to teach what Jesus taught."

The fast has always concluded on Aug. 9, a day that McCarthy believes "horrifyingly illuminates the normality of homicidal violence in Christian life." On Aug. 9, 1942, at Auschwitz, Nazis gassed Edith Stein, a Jewish scholar who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun. A year later, Germans beheaded Franz Jaegerstatter, a Catholic peasant from Austria, because of his refusal to serve in the military. Two years later, U.S. pilots dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, using for their target the city's oldest Catholic church, the Urakami Cathedral. In every instance, Christians killed Christians.

The U.S. bomb crew was "entirely Christian," McCarthy noted. "They managed to do in nine seconds what imperial Japan couldn't do in two centuries--wipe out most of the city's Christian community."

Intercessory prayer and fasting are longstanding Catholic practices, typically associated with monastics. McCarthy, however, has prayed and fasted in the midst of the world. Between 1987 and 1991, he traveled to Jerusalem and several sites of reported Marian apparitions, including Medjugorje, Croatia, and Knock, Ireland. During the early '90s, he went to Auschwitz and St. Radegund, Austria, Jaegerstatter's home village. On the 50th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, he offered Mass at the city's Urakami Cathedral. Aug. 9, 2000, found him sitting outside Huntsville Prison in Texas, protesting a double execution approved under then-Gov. George W. Bush. McCarthy called the executions "an absolute abomination.... The vast majority of people involved in this are Christians from the governor to the people guarding the prison, to the person who turns on the drip."

In each locale, McCarthy concluded his fast with a Mass. His homilies, published in a slim book titled August 9, used local examples to illustrate what he called "the deadly confusion" that has taken place in Christian churches of all denominations. The churches have not only betrayed Christ's teaching of unconditional love for friend and enemy, he argued, they have sanctioned their betrayal with a "homicide-justifying Christianity" that is "devoid of mercy."

"The god of war is not the God of Christlike mercy," he wrote. "Mercy is what we need. Mercy is what God wants."

McCarthy regards Aug. 9 as a day of horror and hope. It reveals the worst of what can' happen when the churches betray Christ's teachings but also offers examples of a Christian alternative to violence. He saw this paradox most clearly in the martyrdom of Edith Stein. While at the Westerberg Detention Camp, awaiting transport to Auschwitz, Stein cared for children who were neglected by their traumatized mothers, and confided to two visitors she wanted to offer her suffering for her Nazi persecutors.

"You move away from violence by not doing it, by returning good for evil, by being a merciful person.... Edith Stein knew she was going to her death yet she continued to practice little acts of mercy. That is exactly what life has to be if it is going to be any different," McCarthy said.

In 1990, McCarthy added a new tradition to the fast: 24 hours of prayer and Eucharistic adoration every July 16 at the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, N.M. The world's first nuclear bomb was detonated at the site on July 16, 1945. After seeing the bomb's blast, Robert Oppenheimer, who masterminded the weapon's design, recalled a verse from the Hindu text, Bhagavad-Gita, "I am death, the destroyer of worlds."

"Things have been let loose empirically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally by the bomb that has produced a cauldron of evil in this world," said McCarthy, who goes to the site on July 16, a day known to Catholics as the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to pray for forgiveness "for the sins of the ancestors" and protection "from the consequences of what is going on." He said he celebrates the adoration of the Eucharist at the test site's fence, aligning the monstrance with the area where the bomb was detonated.

"The juxtaposition asks the question, 'Where does the power lie?' Does it lie in this little piece of consecrated bread and all that it represents, or does it lie in the bomb?" he said.

The number of people participating in the fast has varied over the years. According to McCarthy, only a few have fasted the entire 40 days. Others have abstained from one food item, fasted part of the time or devoted 10 minutes a day to reflecting on Gospel nonviolence, he said. For years, Catholic peace groups in New England and The Church World, a Maine diocesan weekly, publicized the fast. More recently, it has been announced on the Center for Christian Nonviolence, a Web site of McCarthy's writings.

The fast's most famous participant was Fr. George Zabelka, whose story is told in a BBC documentary, "Reluctant Prophet." The Catholic chaplain for the U.S. pilots who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Zabelka strongly supported the use of atomic weaponry in World War II. After attending one of McCarthy's retreats in 1973, he experienced a crisis of faith and then became a tireless advocate for disarmament, traveling to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to apologize for his "priestly silence" on the bombings. In 1987, Zabelka, then 73, joined McCarthy for the entirety of the fast, a practice the aging priest continued until a year before he died in 1992.

Stoicism for the sake of stoicism was not the point of the fast, said McCarthy. He likened fasting to prayer: Both are acts of love, a giving of oneself for others. "The idea isn't that you are trying to placate God by suffering," he said. Despite his fierce and unrelenting criticism of the churches, he still believes Christianity has a part to play in relieving an "anguished humanity." As he fasts, he prays. He prays the churches will soon convene an ecumenical council, on some Aug. 9, to unequivocally proclaim that violence is not the Christian way. He prays they will disassociate themselves from the "politics of homicide" and bring to the world the presence of a Jesus who loves unconditionally. Asked about the efficacy of his sacrifice, McCarthy said it is "a temptation to judge its worth. You do it because God wants you to."

Related Web site

Center for Christian Nonviolence

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Title Annotation:Paths to Peace: Prayer & fasting
Author:Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 20, 2006
Previous Article:In our own backyard.
Next Article:A one-man vigil light for urban peace.

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