The forging of a nonviolent faith

IssueOctober - November 2019
Feature by Pat Gaffney , Milan Rai


Pope Francis meets Pat Gaffney. Photo: The Vatican

Pat Gaffney is a much-loved figure within the British peace movement and has served the movement in a variety of ways since the 1980s. One of the key organisers of the Ash Wednesday actions at the ministry of defence in London (calling for nuclear disarmament), Pat has been arrested 11 times for nonviolent civil disobedience, and has been imprisoned three times. This second part of our interview with Pat covers her three decades heading the British branch of the international Catholic peace organisation, Pax Christi. After 29 years of being the general secretary of Pax Christi UK,
Pat stepped down in April.

For a lot of people, becoming part of Pax Christi is a way of expressing or living out their faith. It's a place where people feel their deep values and their belief and their following of the gospel all come together. They are attracted by the way that Pax Christi has the freedom to critically engage both with the church and with society. For many people, it's a way of being authentic to what they deeply believe in, in terms of a Christian lifestyle.

Movements have their ebbs and their flows. I do feel Pax Christi is very fortunate to have had a very stable core membership.

In 1990, I was already a member of Pax Christi and I’d been to events and I'd worked with Pax Christi. In 1986, it was the International Year of Peace and we had all these committees that were bringing people together to look at ‘peace and disarmament’ and ‘peace and community’.

I'd been working at the Catholic aid agency, CAFOD, since 1980, in the education department. At CAFOD, we did quite a lot of work with Pax Christi in 1986, around making connections between peace and disarmament, the arms trade, militarism, things like that. We did a joint conference that year on peace and disarmament.

“It’s where people feel their deep values and their belief and their following of the gospel all come together.”

Pax Christi were also bringing speakers over, such as the Berrigans.* I was hearing about Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day partly through Pax Christi and partly through Catholic Peace Action, the civil disobedience group I was part of in London. So there was a sort of gelling of ideas.

I was very impressed by the work Pax Christi were able to do, being such a small organisation with very few resources. I was also impressed by the fact that they were international, there were sections in other countries, that was very important. I liked the resources, the posters, the literature they produced, it was very helpful in getting messages across.

From silence

I took a bit of time out from CAFOD in 1989. I went on my first silent retreat, a seven-day guided retreat, which means you stay in a place for seven or eight days and you see someone, in my case it was a priest, who was very involved in peace work.

You see that person every morning for half an hour, you talk about some things relating to scripture and they ask you to reflect on that, and then you’re silent the rest of the day, you’re on your own, you can walk.

The whole idea is you don’t clutter your head with lots of other things and lots of other readings. You’re letting your life and what you’ve done and who you are into an open space, to see if there’s anything in there!

That probably did lay some foundations for when the opportunity at Pax Christi came up, that I would never have thought of.

Then, three different people said to me: ‘Oh, there’s a job going at Pax Christi’ – the general secretary post. The first person asked: ‘Would you think of it?’ I said: ‘No, no, no. I couldn’t do that.’

When three people said it, and I considered it, I thought: maybe I could move across, maybe I could do this. Against a lot of advice from close friends, that’s how I moved from one to the other.

When I went for the job, there had been a big gap, there hadn’t been anyone doing the general secretary job for about 18 months. That was a bit of a risk in a way. It was a little bit fragile by the time I joined it. A bit of momentum had been lost because of this gap. But I knew there was a great foundation to build on, and there were a lot of great people in the movement.


Sister Katrina Alton, father Martin Newell, sister Beata, and Pat Gaffney protesting outside the DSEI arms fair, ExCeL Centre, East London, 3 September. Photo: Pax Christi

Surviving and thriving

At CAFOD, I had worked with a whole team of people in a department, where you had resources at your fingertips, and you didn’t have to worry about anything, you had staff, money, and the ability to do things creatively. I moved to a very small peace organisation that had to watch every penny, that didn't have physical resources available to it.

That was one challenge: how do you grow a movement, how do you sustain people, how do you communicate outwardly, how do you find time to do research and advocacy and campaigning – in a small organisation? So that was a huge challenge.

The office was in north London, near Manor House station, in the basement of a church. Apart from me, there was one part-time administrator who worked in the mornings for a few hours a day, one part-time peace education worker who was based in Liverpool, and one project worker who was out a lot, and volunteers.

Today, Pax Christi has three full-time staff, a four-days-a-week publications/membership person and a part-time editor. And a good team of volunteers!

Economic survival was always the biggest challenge for Pax Christi. I think that’s a constant thing in peace movement circles. Always having visions and ideas of more that you can do, but just not having resources. That kind of frustration.

Positive things: Pax Christi has managed to maintain its membership base – it’s not enormous but it has maintained a constant membership base the whole 29 years I was there. People obviously leaving and dying, but people also coming on board. That to me says something good, that there’s a need there that Pax Christi meets in people.

Like almost every movement, always the question is: Where are the young people? Where are the young people? Again, I think we got to a stage where we thought: Well, actually, we're not going to worry about that. Because people come on board at any time in their life. It might be that the click about ‘Oh! I want to do something about these issues. I'm going to find out where to go’ can happen in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s.

So, I never worried about ‘Where are the 18-year-olds?’ Because my sense was: people will join us when they see the need and they will seek us out and be part of us. And actually I think that's happened. I think we see that happening.

Pax Christi has never been swamped with money but we've always had the money to do what we want to do. Whether that's providence or....

Part of my feeling was: people will join us and will donate and will give to us if we're seen to be doing something that they value.

“A few of us sat around and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Catholic church could come out more clearly and forcefully with a commitment to nonviolence as a way of bringing about change?’”

To me, that's always been an important part of being a membership movement. You don't take anything for granted. You're not getting grants coming from all sorts of places externally. You're able to do what you do because people want you to do it. I think that's quite healthy.

We had never gone down the track of project funding and having to twist and turn to meet criteria for external funding and sources – such funding is helpful but that can often dictate what you want to do. Whereas we'd always just done what we wanted to do because we felt it was the right thing to do, and the money came. That might not be the case for the future but that's how it's ticked over, all these years!

War and networking

Back in 1990, it was all exciting, the Berlin Wall had come down the previous year, there was all this excitement about ‘the peace dividend’. I was coming into a movement when there was a lot of hope.

We knew stuff was rumbling underground that would lead to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Things had got slightly better in Central America. The peace dividend was the big thing.

The lack of resources was a particular challenge because within a few months of my starting work in Pax Christi we were entering a period of war.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and from then on we seemed to be in a cycle of violence and military intervention and counter-violence.

Of course, in the peace movement, we were trying to respond to that. That was a real tension. A crisis arises. You have very few resources, you don't have a base from which to draw – but you have to mobilise.

I suppose that then allows you to look at the creative counter-side to the challenge of no resources, which is: well, we have to actually work together. We've just got to sit round a table and see what we can do together. What strengths do we have? What messages can we share? What common actions can we take?

I think that's what we did very well at that time, in the early 1990s. We had a Christian Network of Peace that was very strong at that time, and the National Peace Council [which existed from 1908–2000 – ed] set up some very good working groups on the Gulf Crisis.

Another key thing in the early ’90s was we didn't have the technology that we take for granted today.

There we were in this tiny office, with other Christians, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Christian CND, the Quakers: ‘What are we going to do? We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to write to all the bishops. We’ve got to put the brakes on this.’ And how do you do it? You type out letters on the old typewriter and you post them off....

We had had all the technology at CAFOD, so I said: ‘We’ve got to get a fax machine!’ How could we challenge what was going on in the Gulf and write statements and write to government, and co-ordinate between ourselves, if we couldn't communicate what we were doing or send drafts around and get decisions made?

Bringing in a fax machine was a big thing. It was a huge decision! And that was just amazing, an amazing investment. It just took you into another realm of possibilities of communicating like that. (snaps fingers) It was wonderful. (laughs)

There is still a fax machine in the Pax Christi office! I refused to get rid of it!

Out of vulnerability, you also get strength and you get the recognition of how we need one another, and the value of our differences – Who's bringing to the table the focus on the arms trade? Who's bringing to the table a concern for conscientious objectors? Who's bringing to the table the faith dimension? Who's bringing to the table the issue of militarisation?

“We are up against a very strange strand of right-wing Christianity, Christian Zionism.”

You all bring something to the table and you recognise: ‘Oh, we're not alone, we can pull this expertise and experience together.’ So, out of the challenge came a strength, really: what we can do together when we network, when we co-operate.

Maybe it’s rosy, thinking back to that time – there were difficulties because there were tensions – but I do have a strong sense that there was huge co-operation, an outward-facing peace movement that had something to say, that was visible in its presentation of a challenge to that war nationally and internationally, that was trying to build solidarity between groups.

Particularly during the 1990s, that rolled from the 1991 Gulf War to the sanctions crisis to another round of war. So, we were constantly re-evaluating our role. How were we looking at the impact of war and then the indirect impact of sanctions and then the direct impact of war again? We were being challenged all the time to do that.


There are two strands of how Pax Christi came to do so much work on Israel and Palestine.

One strand was the fact that Britain had been, somewhere or other, at war in the Middle East since the early ’90s. There was a sense that: ‘This is calling us, calling our attention.’ We’d done all this work with the Iraq war. There was this other part of the world that we in the British section of Pax Christi had not done much about.

The other strand is that, in 1999, Pax Christi International decided to have its big international gathering in the Middle East.

For all sorts of practical reasons, we had it in Jordan, because that was where most people could get to. We could even get Palestinian partners across into Jordan.

At that gathering, we elected as our international president the person who was then the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the first Palestinian to be leader of the Catholic church in the Middle East, Michel Sabbah, a lovely man, a great spokeperson for the Palestinian cause, a great spokesperson for nonviolence, for the church being involved in the region. That was quite pivotal.

So we in Pax Christi UK decided that Israel-Palestine would become more of a focus for our own awareness-raising and our own campaigning. And also the other Pax Christi sections decided that as well. So we started having a look at some common focus for advocacy and campaigning work as a movement.

Initially, that took the form of delegations to the region. We started producing resource materials, educational materials about what was happening, what the occupation was all about, its impact on people.

We started looking at peacemakers in Israel and in Palestine, surfacing the voices of those on both sides who were trying to work on peacemaking in communities, looking at the faith dimension of what was going on in the region.

In 2003–2004, we had an international campaign with Pax Christi branches in about eight other countries on the separation wall [an illegal barrier Israel is building almost entirely on Palestinian land in the West Bank – ed]. We tried to do advocacy work on that, with the European Union, with our own government.

Under attack

We had some quite difficult times in the mid-2000s with some Jewish and Christian groups who were coming to us and saying: ‘How dare you, you’re a Catholic group, you shouldn’t be creating division between Christians and Jews!’

We had to really hang on in there and talk, and have dialogue, and have meetings, and listen, and maintain our position that we had a very clear role in speaking out against injustice and human rights violations when they happen.

From our perspective, that wasn’t a critique of the Jewish faith or the Islamic faith or the Christian faith, that was a critique of the political set-up.

Also, when religion is used to reinforce prejudice or violence or is used to structurally oppress people, that religious base needs to be questioned and challenged.

We felt able to stand our own ground and to maintain our position and our own clarity about why we were doing what we were doing. It was less easy for Pax Christi in other countries, in Germany for example.

We are up against a strange strand of right-wing Christianity, Christian Zionism. Their vision is of an Israel either converted to Christianity or annihilated. In recent time it uses theology to justify exclusion, Israel only for Jewish people, and so legitimises the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is a hugely strong lobby.

I remember being attacked almost physically at a number of meetings where I had spoken.

A busload of Christian Zionists came to disrupt one meeting.The minute you mentioned the word ‘Palestine’, they would say: ‘There’s no such place.’

The minute you showed a map, they would challenge that. Just shouting everything down.

Someone spitting in my face. At one stage, I was ‘the devil’. Those groups seemed to have calmed down somewhat, I haven’t heard of them since the mid-2000s.

The spice of life

Working at Pax Christi, I think almost every day, you could have a plan at the beginning of the day, and then the day evolved and the plan would shift somewhat.

The days would vary from trying to write a leaflet that we were going to give out that night at St Martin-in-the-Fields (in central London), to co-operating on trying to get a lobby of parliament together, to emptying the dustbins, to making lunch for the volunteers, to trying to get the bishops to come out with a statement because we felt the faith groups could get their different church leaders behind something. The variety was enormous.

You might have a bit of all of those things in the course of a day.

What a great gift to be in an organisation where you're able to have that variety, where it draws out the best in people!

Gathering people

We also made a decision to try and really decentralise by being present around the country. So I spent quite a lot of time really trying to work around the country, visiting members, working with groups, learning from people, encouraging people as a way of growing the movement.

The way we work in the Catholic church is that Pax Christi is an agency but we work closely with partners in peace and justice work around the country, with religious communities, with religious orders. We would look for opportunities to hold regional gatherings, trainings, workshops, as a way of decentralising.

We did a series of regional gatherings with other agencies, with the Quakers, with Fellowship of Reconciliation, with CAAT, over a number of years in the early 2000s.

We decided that, collectively, we wanted to do gatherings around the country – in Bristol, in York, in Cardiff, in East Anglia, several others.

The whole idea was to try and bring people together, members of all those different groups, and part of it was networking, for people to actually meet one another – because we're not good at getting out of our own boxes.

There we had a room of maybe 100 people, probably most of whom had never met before but they were all beavering away on similar issues.

We would have done a training day that would have been partly getting people to articulate what brought them into the peace movement, what issue, what concern, what experience brought them in? Sharing that with others.... What keeps them in the movement? What do they need to be sustained?

Then we would have offered maybe a variety of workshops, a workshop on campaigning, on peace education, on the arms trade.... Then we would have sessions where people could showcase their own work. What's the strength of a local CAAT group, for example?

Then we would have a session on: 'How might you work and co-operate together beyond this?' That was an example of working with other organisations.

Nonviolence at home

Working in a more focused way with Pax Christi groups, I have been doing some work in the last couple of years on growing the Catholic nonviolence work.

Trying to do more explicit work on how people see nonviolence, what they understand by it, looking at the focus of the Gospels, and what we would say is a gospel of nonviolence.

Looking at the model of Jesus, his words, his actions, his interventions, what do we see there about nonviolence in action?

Pax Christi has always invested in peace education in the formal school sector. A lot of our other work is also education.

Formally, in schools, we’ve always had a peace education worker, they’ve always been fantastic people, they’ve created excellent resources. But one person trying to multiply a whole lot of things, it’s very difficult.

Global nonviolence

We’re learning now from more parts of the world, because Pax Christi is going into this new project, the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, with the Vatican, and just becoming more and more and more aware of huge amounts of grassroots work on nonviolence that is going on that we just don’t hear about on a day-to-day basis. I’m learning about solidarity through meeting groups in Palestine or East Timor or Africa now, where I’m meeting more partners.

With the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, I was in from the beginning when a few of us sat around and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Catholic church could come out more clearly and forcefully with a commitment to nonviolence as a way of bringing about change?’

That resulted in getting the Vatican on board for a conference. To be in at the start of something, again, has just been incredible, to see it grow from an idea to bringing in the big Pax Christi family and then bringing in Vatican people beyond that and theologians and academics….

But it’s a very slow process. We started in 2016 and it’s grinding away, ‘grinding’ has been the operative word. We’ve got this buzz of all these people all around the world doing amazing things, acting, reflecting, creating tools and resources.

Then channelling that into a theology and into a new study and acceptance of nonviolence – that is slightly a bit down the line still.

It’s a lot of boring, slogging work behind the scenes! It’s lots of Skype meetings, and more Skype meetings, and more Skype meetings, and delicate letters and reframing things.

And language! I’m just realising how limited we are by language. Working primarily in English, and how even American English and British English don’t always convey the same things.

Keeping going

That’s a huge learning, the importance of language and how it doesn’t always translate easily, a lot of this work we’re trying to do. We’re needing more patience. It’s slogging!

It’s just taking one step, and then taking the next step and then taking the next step. That’s all it is. You’ve just got to keep at it, when it’s not going well. That’s the big thing.

When it’s not glamorous, and it’s not the flavour of the day, and it’s not giving you any energy…. It’s having the sense of ‘If I stick at this, something might come out the other end.’ (laughs)


Fausta Valentine, Pax Christi administrator, (left) and outgoing Pax Christi director Pat Gaffney at Pat’s leaving party at Maria Fidelis Senior School in central London, 13 April. Photo: Pax Christi

Stepping back

After I’d been at Pax Christi for 27 years, I felt that some new thought and new energy and new insights were needed.

I didn’t feel stale, personally, but I’m sure I would have come across as being stale. (laughs) You feel, we’ve just got to get some new thought in here!

We’ve done things this way, or we’ve approached things in this way, or this emphasis has been given, because of the person in the driving seat. So I felt that we needed some new blood and new thought. While we were in a relatively strong state, might this be a good time to reflect on that?

My going became part of Pax Christi planning for the future. I gave my friends there and my team two years’ notice. For the organisation, for the other staff members and the board, to see it as a way to plan freshly for the future. I couldn’t just walk out after a month. I felt: we’ve got to weave this into the bigger picture of Pax Christi and planning for the future. It might seem odd (laughs) – it was a two-year planning process.

I found it helpful because it helped me to prepare myself for standing back. I hope it was helpful for the team and for the board for looking forward, so that there weren’t going to be too many surprises at the last minute or things just dropped.

It was personally very, very difficult. I was very afraid of (laughs) what I was going to do with my life!

When you’ve been in something for nearly 30 years, it becomes your community and your family as well as the place where you work. Some people say: well, that’s not a very healthy thing to do. But that’s the reality, that’s what it was.

So it was difficult imagining life without Pax Christi – but I can tell you I am surprised by the joy I am experiencing of being in a different place and the choice I have to still do much of what I was doing but also to do other things as well. The gift again of choice, about how you use your time and energy and your resources. You can still find places to use what you want to give in other ways. So that’s a big learning for me! (laughs)

It was a lot of responsibility, but shared. The staff team, the people I’ve worked with over the years have been tremendous, really, and likewise all the management board people – because they’ve come through Pax Christi, they’re Pax Christi members.

So you’re constantly working with people with a shared vision and with a shared energy. That makes a huge difference. You don’t often find that outside the peace movement or the NGO movement. It’s part of the culture of movements. That level of commitment and energy and creativity that people give.

I’ve just now got this enormous circle of people around the country and around the globe, because it’s an international movement, of people who I thought, when I walked out the door and left Pax Christi, that I would leave behind. And I realise I haven’t left them behind at all!

I’m part of this community but in a slightly different way.

And I’m beginning to be part of other communities as well. I want to get more rooted in local projects because I’ve never had time to do that.

We’ve set up a group here in South London called the Kennington-Bethlehem Link, trying to link the community of Kennington with the community of Bethlehem, and that’s really encouraging.

I’m trying to do some pastoral work, some chaplaincy-type work, because I want to spend more time just doing things with people and not administering them or campaigning.

But I will also keep the campaigning and nonviolence work going. I just feel very lucky because yet again I can juggle a whole variety of things! (laughs) But they create your life!

I don’t mean to sound holy but I really do feel it’s been a very blessed experience being involved in Pax Christi, in the sense of: ‘My goodness, to have a job where I’ve been able to do all that, and to get paid for it!’

It’s been very luxurious, as well. When I think about the lack of choice that so many people have about the work they do, and the slogging, boring, grudging work that people have to do…. For all its ups and downs, haven’t I been lucky, really? That is an overarching thing, really.

Also, it’s been community, and it’s been family, and it’s been global, and it’s been exposure to some of the best things that you could hear and see and experience. So I think: ‘God, haven’t I been lucky.’ Really – I don’t mean that in a gratuitous way. Not many people get that opportunity.

Topics: Radical lives