Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

'Symbol Is What We Live By': With Yearly Fast, Priest Calls on Churches to Embrace Christ's Nonviolence

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

'Symbol Is What We Live By': With Yearly Fast, Priest Calls on Churches to Embrace Christ's Nonviolence

Article excerpt

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. …

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