Who she is: Director of Pax Christi Metro New York
Lives in: Middle Village, Queens, N.Y.
Sr. Camille: You have been the face and energy of Pax Christi Metro for 14 years. What brought you into this arena?
Pace: I don't remember when I read in The Tablet of a group of Catholics who were engaged in some kind of peace activism. Intrigued, I was curious to know more, but it was years before I inquired about them at St. John's University, where I worshipped on Sundays. The sister in charge of the choir directed me to a Fr. Jim Reese, who taught at SJU. He was a member of Pax Christi Queens. He directed me to Elaine L'Etoile, another member of the group, who invited me to a meeting one Sunday evening in September 1987. I dragged along a friend so I wouldn't be a lone stranger in the group. I was immediately drawn in and have been a member ever since, even though at that time, I knew nothing of Pax Christi beyond that little local group. That's when and where my education began.
What do you see as Pax Christi's challenges?
I'd put our challenges in two categories: those related to mission and those related to administration.
First, mission: Being the Catholic peace movement (so dubbed by Pope Pius XII in Pax Christi's early history), we come up against two problems. Because we're Catholic, there are those who have a preconceived notion about us. They may expect us to be focused on issues that are too conservative, or, ironically, others may think we're too liberal and therefore not orthodox enough to call ourselves Catholic. Then there are those who won't support religious organizations of any faith. Some even consider us self-righteous and elitist.
Administratively, our biggest challenge is that we are so small. We don't have nearly enough monetary or nonmonetary resources to be on sound footing at any time. Only a couple hundred on our mailing list support us financially. Most are religious and clergy or people in modest-income service jobs. We just don't have enough money to get us beyond a one-person staff (me) to do everything that any organization needs to survive. Our volunteers are much valued but are part-time and often temporary help. The struggle just to survive steals time from the mission of educating and advocating for peace in parishes, schools and the community.
Despite our very small, under-resourced reality, PCMNY has a great track record of being the Catholic voice for peace and justice in our region, which includes the New York archdiocese and the Brooklyn diocese. Many times, we represent the Catholic church at meetings and events on such topics as the Islamic State group, Israel/Palestine, nuclear weapons, and torture. We also join forces with others, including other Catholics, on issues like human trafficking, immigration reform, and climate change.
Because of our collaboration with such groups as Abolition 2000 (for nuclear weapons abolition), the Metro New York Religious Campaign against Torture, and the Flushing Interfaith Council in Queens (which Pax Christi Queens convened), we are known, respected, and appreciated well beyond what our size would suggest. As a matter of fact, sometimes people's comments reveal their assumption that we are much bigger than we are.
What do you work to promote?
We work to promote peace and peacemaking inseparable from social justice. This peace is grounded in Catholic social teaching and the Gospel. We work to make Catholics, in particular, aware that our church calls all of us to be peacemakers, that peace is as fundamental to our faith as any other issue for which the church is better known.
Can you name some of your successes?
We've produced programs on conflict resolution and forgiveness that grow out of our Catholic identity and our focus on prayer, study and action. Our programs are appropriate for both adults and high school students. We also have a program on "Teaching Peace with Dr. Seuss" for younger students.
We offer daily email action alerts that keep subscribers informed about not only our own, but also others' events and actions on matters of peace and justice. We provide weekly parish bulletin reflections on the Sunday readings. Our website has a seasonal reflection with prayer and suggested actions. Besides our newsletter, Kerux, which is posted three times a year, we have frequent updates in Kerux Live! Three recent issues have offered well-informed articles on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, and climate change. We also reach out to folks on Facebook and, less so, on Twitter, spreading our message of Christian peacemaking.
Our signature and founding event is our Good Friday Way of the Cross/Way of Peace, which is already being organized for the upcoming 33rd consecutive year. Each Station is prepared by a different group around a contemporary theme representing how Jesus continues to suffer today. We hear a Scripture passage and reflection composed by a group, offer a prayer of the faithful, and sing a hymn. As we process across Manhattan, we sing Taize chants to maintain the reverence of the procession.
We also honor peacemakers each year, both renowned, like Martin Sheen, and our own local members who give so much but would never be recognized in the larger society. We celebrate "Peacemaking through the Arts" as well, having hosted concerts and plays for many years now. One year, we were honored to have Pete Seeger join two of his protégées, now known as emma's revolution. Our next Peacemaking through the Arts event will be Feb. 8, when we host the one-woman play about Holocaust casualty Etty Hillesum, a woman whose writings reveal great faith, wisdom, and challenge to all of us to this day. The play is simply called "Etty."
For many years, we've remembered victims of violence, especially children, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. In the past few years, we've added a particular focus as we learn about work being done on behalf of children caught in domestic violence and the sex trade. Our Hiroshima/Nagasaki memorial has expanded in a similar way, as has our celebration of U.N. International Day of Peace.
I know you respond quickly to public manifestations of violence.
Yes, we do. When New York City was attacked on 9/11, PCMNY was at the forefront with a public statement and activities to call for a nonviolent response that looked at the causes and the ramifications of proposed future behaviors.
Still more accomplishments come by way of our local groups from peace Masses in the Hudson Valley and downtown Brooklyn to an anti-war toy campaign at Christmastime, first initiated in Queens.
What have you learned along the way?
I've learned a tremendous amount about our faith, both from Scripture and Catholic social teaching. I've learned about peacemaking and peacemakers whom I never encountered in school -- and I am almost exclusively Catholic school educated, right through a doctorate in education and an Advanced Professional Diploma in religious education.
I've learned about resources, like NCR, that I didn't know before joining Pax Christi back in 1987. I've also learned about other Catholic organizations, about other faiths, and about the U.N. from the inside.
What parts give you greatest satisfaction?
I get my greatest satisfaction from writing. When I write, I feel like God is writing through me, and I am sometimes surprised by what I find on the written page. Through writing, I feel like I am doing my best to share the message and mission of Pax Christi.
I learn as I teach, whether I'm writing an email or Facebook message, a bulletin insert, an article for Kerux or Kerux Live!, a seasonal reflection, an appeal letter, a brochure or flier for an event, a prayer service, any form of writing. I think writing is my greatest gift from God, and so it is my greatest gift back to God and people.
I'm not ashamed to admit I feel great satisfaction when people affirm my efforts. It's not so much about me, but that something I did or said had a positive effect on someone else.
Who are your strongest collaborators?
Not sure if I can call my board president a collaborator, but Margaret Flanagan has been wonderful in multiple ways. She is my primary listener and supporter. She volunteers in every way she can from the office to events.
Outside of PCMNY, Catholic Charities is our strongest collaborator, both financially and in terms of programming. They lead one of our Good Friday Stations each year. I provide a conflict resolution workshop for their classes twice a year.
Where and with whom did you grow up?
I grew up in Middle Village, Queens, N.Y., with my parents. (My only brother died of leukemia two months before his 10th birthday and four days after my 6th.) I had cousins nearby who were very much a part of my life. I also had a number of friends.
How do you pray?
I use the book Give Us This Day for daily prayers and reflections. I also use a little pamphlet, "Let Peace Fill My Heart: Prayers for Nonviolence," which has daily prayers as well. Then there are prayers I offer in my own words.
What is your image of God?
What a tough question! The more I age and the more I read, listen to others, and contemplate this, the more mysterious God is to me, so I'd have to say God is Mystery. Another way I conceive of God is Spirit, more than Father/Mother or Son/Daughter. Without meaning it to sound like a cliché, I do think God is Love -- and Peace, Joy, Justice, Wisdom, Compassion, Mercy, Kindness, Generosity, basically all virtues and more. God is also Beauty, as diverse and remarkable as all of creation. Ultimately, God is greater than the sum of the parts, but we humans only have the capacity to imagine the parts to get a hint of what God is -- hence, Mystery.
Has it changed over time?
Yes. I used to think of God as more of a person to whom to turn with requests and praise and thanks, and I still fall back into that in prayer, but I don't think that's actually as accurate. I think that's why we set ourselves up for disappointment. That image of God as a separate being misses God where God is: in others, in creation, in good deeds, in kind words, in loving acts. It seeks direct responses such as a clerk in a store might provide. It also leads to frustration, doubt and disappointment when prayers don't seem to be answered. If we recognize God in goodness, then we can find God even in places of pain and sorrow because there's always someone or something that is equally present to counter the darkness.
Can you say why your image of God has changed?
I think my image of God has evolved or matured because of life experience. I connect it a lot with prayer. Praying to God as if God were a separate entity is a fallacy. I think praying is what changes us, hopefully leading us closer to God, but not in any way affecting God's behavior toward us. God is already and always Love. More and more, no other image of God makes sense to me, but it's still very hard to remember and embrace. It's so much easier to fall back on old ways, expecting God to be our personal magician.
Where do you envision yourself 10 years from now?
Retired. Beyond that, I don't know. I love NYC, but I hate the cold. Maybe I'll become a snowbird. I do imagine myself volunteering in some social service, whether Pax Christi or elsewhere.
What inspires you?
People who can keep going and do so graciously in the face of all kinds of trials and tribulations. I wish I were more like them.
I think of several people I've known who have dealt with terminal illness with strength, calm and fortitude. I think of people who have cared for aging, dying loved ones with patience, good humor, and love and wish I had been more like them when caring for my aging, dying mother.
I think of someone like Daniel Tillias in Haiti, who has dedicated himself to his impoverished home of Cité de Soleil, creatively developing programs for the young people to direct their energies to positive activities while teaching them about nonviolence. I think of firefighters who go into a burning building to save people and property, no matter their race, ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation, faith, age, economic class, or health, when instinct says, "Get out!"
I also think of people who go into conflict situations unarmed to stand with people in the face of war and other violent attacks. I think of the health care volunteers going to West Africa to fight Ebola. There are so many people doing amazing things and not getting the attention they deserve that would inspire so many others.
What is your favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?
I don't usually think in terms of favorites, not even for food or movies or colors. I always feel "favorites" vary with circumstances, but I did think of two passages, so I guess they hold special meaning to me. One is "Jesus wept." The other is the story at the end of John's Gospel where Jesus and Peter have an exchange around the question, "Do you love me?"
As for "Jesus wept," I've heard different explanations about why Jesus wept, but I like to think of it very simply and directly: Jesus wept because a loved one had died. I like the humanity of that image. I like believing that Jesus understands how we feel when we lose a loved one because he experienced it as a human being.
As for the end of John's Gospel, there is so much in that scene. There's Peter asking about John, and Jesus basically telling him, Don't worry about him. This is about you and me. You're who I care about right now. I like the reconciliation built into Jesus asking Peter to declare his love of Jesus three times, and the fact that the word "love" carries a variety of meanings (lost in the English). I like the link between love and service: Feed my lambs.
I find it very poignant when Jesus foretells that now you can do as you like, but a time will come when others will dress you and lead you where you may not want to go. I don't see that as, necessarily, a prophecy of Peter's death; I see it as a recognition of what happens to all of us when we age. I saw it with my mother, and I saw how hard and sad it can be. I particularly love how excited Peter was to see Jesus in the first place and how Jesus was very casually preparing a meal for his friends. Overall, I find it a beautiful scene of reunion, reconciliation, commission, nourishment, and loving friendship.
Do they make a difference in your life?
I feel a closeness to Jesus because he wept at the death of Lazarus, and I feel both a call to service and reassurance that Jesus loves and forgives me because of the example of Peter.
What about your faith is most meaningful to you?
Another hard question. I don't know. I think this is one of those questions that you don't realize has an answer because you just take it for granted. I'm asking myself, if I didn't have my faith, what would be missing? Probably hope, hope that there is a God, that I'll see my family again when I die, hope that this world can be a better place, hope that there is meaning in all this seemingly chaotic universe.
Where do you see faith in action?
My faith is definitely in action in my work for Pax Christi. I wouldn't be doing this work if it weren't for my faith -- and hope. I believe without the shadow of a doubt that this job is a vocation for me. If I ever had a mystic experience, it was in deciding to apply for this job and being reassured that God had chosen me. I don't say that arrogantly; I say that most humbly and with tremendous hesitation to put it out there publicly.
I also see my faith in values I try to live in my personal life -- my environmental ethic, how I vote, what I do with my personal time, and so forth.
Who most influenced your belief system?
I think my belief system is a cumulative reality. I think back to my days in Catholic elementary school, the religion classes, the books I read (I loved reading biographies of saints), the whole Catholic parish life. I was part of two parish folk groups where we planned liturgies as well as led the music. The changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council influenced my understanding of the faith, putting more emphasis on Jesus in the Gospels, on love as the greatest commandment, on mercy, and less on punitive rules and regulations. I taught in Catholic schools, and it's not just a cliché to say you learn as you teach.
What in contemporary Catholicism distresses you?
Unfortunately, the Catholic church is known worldwide for its positions on sexual matters like abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and the child abuse scandal. It's not known nearly as well for its far more important mission-related positions on war and peace, torture, nuclear weapons, death penalty, immigration, poverty, climate change, and so forth, what we know as Catholic social teaching.
I wish the bishops would be as outspoken on these topics as they are on the sexual matters. Can you imagine what it would be like if they said they would deny torturers or makers of nuclear weapons Communion or if they threatened excommunication to those who deny the poor affordable housing and living wages, nutritious food, universal health care, high-quality education, and a clean environment? What a difference that could make in this country and the world!
What causes you sorrow?
I can answer this in two ways, one institutional and the other personal.
Institutionally, this job makes me excessively aware of the violence and suffering in the world. It's hard to hold on to hope; it's hard not to get depressed. To know of the violent conflicts in places like Gaza and Syria; the poverty in places like Haiti; the health crisis in West Africa; the environmental disasters happening around the world because of global climate change; the abuse of women in central Africa and elsewhere; the trafficking of children, especially girls, across the globe; the greed of transnational corporations; the corruption of politicians; the distorted priorities of our church is a real test of one's heart.
And on a personal level?
Loneliness. I live and work alone. As much as I like my privacy and can be very productive alone, I like having other people around for moral support. I like consulting with people when I think things can go in a multitude of ways. I like sharing responsibility. It also hurts me deeply to feel used, unappreciated and disrespected. While this is not the case with many people, it is with some who are most important to me. Perhaps it shouldn't matter, but it's a lot easier and more pleasant to serve when you feel you are valued.
What causes you joy?
Being with people with whom I can be open and honest, who can be open and honest with me; doing things that stimulate my mind, affirm my values, and lift my spirits cause me joy. Accomplishing a task well for Pax Christi pleases me, and hearing people thank me relieves my sense of doubt and reassures me that I've done well.
Babies and animals give me joy. Seeing someone do a kind deed in person or even on video can bring tears to my eyes in a positive way. I enjoy eating out; seeing a good movie, concert, or show; going to a museum or street festival; traveling to new places; staying home and playing games (especially Scrabble); being with family.
What gives you hope?
People doing good, especially in the face of despair. Realizing that none of us is really alone when it comes to working for peace and justice. We share in the struggle.
[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]
Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.