Pax Christi pilgrimage of pardon, reconciliation and peace, November 2015.
How different is the remembrance of war in a land and among a people destroyed by war! This is one of the strongest feelings I took away from our Pax Christi Peace Pilgrimage to Flanders between 29 October and 1 November.
Twenty members of Pax Christi British section joined with Pax Christi members from Germany, Flanders, Wallonie Bruxelles, France and Pax Christi International to mark the 70 anniversary of our movement and the centenary of the First World War in a spirit of pardon, reconciliation and peace.
Our home for our few days was the Peace Village in Mesen near the French border and a short drive from Ypres. Within an hour of our arrival we were ‘exposed’ to the madness that had locked this region into war for four years, destroying and flattening everything within sight. The only thing not destroyed in Mesen was the crypt of the medieval parish church of Saint Nicolas which served as a German field hospital. Today, in a spirit of resilience and in a commitment to peace the Church has been completely rebuilt, with 58 Pax Bells, peeling each hour in honour of Peace and Mary, mother of God. Nearby, the newly created Irish Peace Park with memorials to both the Unionist and Nationalist who died in the area, with flag stones carrying words and poems of peace from many who were killed during the Battle of Mesen/Messines.
The impact of war on the civilian population was thoughtfully presented by Piet Chielens, coordinator of the Flanders Fields Museum. Images of a flattened Ypres, of refugees, of those who refused to leave but stayed to search through the rubble and fill in shell holes and give witness to the city that once was Ypres. We could replace the word Ypres for Homs or Damascus or Kabul, or any of the cities of today where life is destroyed by war, and where human resilience will not give in to violence.
It was in this area that chlorine gas was first used with devastating results. Our group quickly made the link with the use of chemical weapons in our time –the Iraq Iran war, their use against the Kurds and more recently in Syria and the use at this time of tear-gas against communities in Palestine.
The experiences affirmed us in our work for peace. The past urges us to say a clear NO to war. So we must work to stop the arms trade which plays a major part in creating conflict which inflames the refugee crisis of today. We must resist being manipulated by propaganda – messages and stories and images that seek to dehumanise others and so allow us too easily to inflict torture and violence on one another. We must not allow war to become sanitised or romanticised, glossed over: rather we must expose its real costs to human life, community and the environment.
Our main pilgrimage day ended at the German cemetery of Vladslo where the remains of 25 thousand German soldiers are buried. The Kathe Kollwitz sculpture of the Grieving Parents is here: timeless and nation-less images of grief and loss and wasted life. To be there as an international group brought an added quality to our presence and prayer. We lit the Easter candle and carried the light out to the flat granite stones of the cemetery while singing ‘Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray’.
This time of reflection brought us to the foundation of Pax Christi 1945 when Marthe Dortel Claudot and Mgr Theas of France began a movement built on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially at that time towards the peoples of Germany. The Peace of Christ – Pax Christi was born from another lived experience of war and destruction.
Pat Gaffney, General Secretary