In a time when we might be tempted to despair or discouragement in the pursuit of peace and justice, the lives of those who have gone before us can inspire us to hope. This was the theme of the eighth annual William K. Collinge Lecture, delivered by Father James M. Donohue on March 21. Father Donohue has taught theology at Mount St. Mary’s University since 1996 and chaired its theology department for 15 years. The lecture (named after my father) was jointly sponsored by the Interfaith Center for Peace and Justice and the Social Welfare and Justice Committee of St. Francis Xavier Church.
The models Father Donohue chose were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement; St. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador; Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche; and André Trocmé, pastor of Le Chambon, a French village that saved about 3,500 Jews from Nazi persecution.
What lessons can we draw from them? Father Donohue began with perseverance. King, Day, Romero, and Trocmé all met resistance from leaders of their own faith communities. They were perceived as troublemakers, going too far. But all believed that their faith required them to put the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast ahead of the status quo and the stability of their institutions. For instance, Romero’s advocacy on behalf of those threatened by death squads and human rights violations met with opposition from some other Salvadoran bishops. The Vatican counseled prudence and harmony and sought to curb his activities. Romero was murdered by soldiers in 1980—and yet we could say he ultimately prevailed: he was named a saint in 2018.
From Martin Luther King Jr., Father Donohue took the lesson of forgiveness. How might we learn to forgive those who have done us harm? We must, King says, acknowledge our own faults, try to find good in the other person, and resist the temptation to crush them when the opportunity arises. But why bother? King held that only forgiveness could stop the cycle of hurt and violence, and that without forgiving others, we ourselves become distorted and harmed. Finally, King says, we must forgive because only love has the power to redeem and transform not only our enemies but ourselves.
It is not only through forgiveness that we must be open to being transformed. Jean Vanier, who died last month, founded L’Arche, in which people with intellectual disabilities and people without disabilities live and work in community. The able-bodied help the disabled with dressing, bathing, and daily needs, but in turn they learn about their own vulnerability and they discover what it means to be compassionate. Both groups come to a better grasp of each person’s unique value.
In concluding, Father Donohue recalled the words of Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. People may wish not to live in dark times, Gandalf acknowledged. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Donohue added, “We have learned from those who have gone before us and, hopefully, we will pass on our own stories of courage and wisdom to others who come after us.”