Martin Sheen: How Mother Teresa, Dan Berrigan’s lawyer and I fought to end the Gulf War
It was a quarter-century since the beginning of World War II when Pope Paul VI spoke to the U.N. General Assembly and pleaded with the world to leave its violent ways aside and follow the path of peace.
“No more war, war never again!” he exclaimed.
Another quarter-century later, that message had all but dissolved as war exploded in the Persian Gulf. In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Western powers had assembled a ground and aerial combat force the size of which had not been seen since 1945. Led, of course, by the United States, these forces had begun a staggering campaign that would ultimately leave countless dead and displaced.
I could not believe that violence was the only way to address the invasion, nor war the only answer to Sadaam Hussein’s aggression. I have been an activist for most of my adult life, having been blessedly influenced by my dear friend Daniel Berrigan, S.J., whom I met while doing a film about Dan and his brother Philip, in 1981. This activism has led me to picket and pray and, on dozens of occasions, spend brief moments in jail for acts of (quite minor) civil disobedience. The carnage unleashed in the Persian Gulf compelled me to act yet again in hopes that somehow the bloodletting would end.
It didn’t. For all the marching and debating and activism that the peace community could muster, the war continued unabated. It seemed there was nothing we could do but be faithful to a call for peace and echo the words of Pope Paul VI.
My friend Joe Cosgrove thought otherwise. Not only is Joe Cosgrove a dedicated lawyer (now a former judge) and committed peace activist himself; he is in all ways a brother to me. Joe was Dan Berrigan’s friend and lawyer and participated with me in my first civil disobedience arrest and has represented me ever since. “I have an idea,” Joe said. “We can ask Pope John Paul II to bring the issue of the war to the World Court on behalf of the Vatican.”
What seemed to be a wacky idea got even wackier as it was explained to me. The only “country” that had consistently objected to the build-up and carrying out of the Gulf War was the Vatican, with Pope John Paul II issuing plea after plea for the fighting to end. Joe had a simple plan: Since the only parties allowed to invoke the World Court’s jurisdiction are actual nations, and since the Holy See is a recognized diplomatic entity, it could bring an action to the court to challenge the war’s legitimacy under international law. Simple, right? The only problem was that neither of us were particularly close with the pope. But Joe had thought of a solution to that as well.
I could not believe that violence was the only way to address the invasion.
As a graduate of Notre Dame, with degrees in international studies, theology and law, he had made many contacts relevant to this venture, including someone who was quite close to Mother Teresa, who had also been outspoken about the war. Working with Joe over the course of a few weeks, this friend of Joe’s put him in touch with Mother Teresa, who was going to be in Rome a few days later. She invited us to meet her there and to bring our proposal, which she agreed to share with the pope. Easy as that.
I don’t know what motivated me to agree, but within a day I found myself flying from Los Angeles to New York, where I would meet Joe and head to Rome on this peace pilgrimage. It was about 6 p.m. when I arrived in New York, and while I waited for Joe, my better senses started to take over. How did I get myself into this foolish escapade? I was flying to Rome to deliver a message to Pope John Paul II through the intercession of Mother Teresa of Calcutta so that a suit could be brought in the World Court to stop a raging war in the Persian Gulf. It hurts all sensibility just to write those words! How could this group of ours have the audacity to think we could accomplish anything, let alone something of this magnitude?
Joe arrived a short while later, and I was prepared to tell him and the others that I was backing out. Nice to see you, I’d say, and then head back to the West Coast. But Joe arrived alone. “Where are the other pilgrims?” I asked. “What others?” Joe replied. “It’s just us!”
Now it got even more absurd.
I calmly explained to my dear friend that we were on a fool’s errand and wasting our time if we thought the two of us could do anything worthwhile in Rome. Joe listened carefully but held fast to his plan. He noted the sometimes inherent “foolishness” of the Gospel and the foolishness of thinking that we can, on our own, control anything. “We’re going there to tell the truth, and the rest is in God’s hands,” he said. “Besides, how can we determine what’s in store for us before we even take the first step?”
“We’re going there to tell the truth, and the rest is in God’s hands.”
He was right. Sometimes the most blessed things in life come from unplanned moments. Whatever grace was to come of this trip was to come from God’s grace, not our efforts.
When we arrived in Rome, Joe made a quick call to the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order Mother Teresa had formed many years ago. We were told she was awaiting our arrival, so we gathered our things and hurried to meet her. We arrived at the nondescript door of a structure that had once been a large chicken coop but which now housed the sisters and Mother Teresa when she was in town. This was a place of utter humility, service and prayer. As we were ushered into a room, we saw a small chapel stacked with clothes that were to be distributed to the poor. In a moment, a tiny figure in a white sari with blue stripes met us with a broad welcoming smile. It was the living saint of Calcutta.
It was immediately clear that to her, no one was a stranger. In an instant, we were her friends, as if we had known one another all our lives. It wasn’t a skill, nor an act; it was just who she was. And it was pure gift. We spoke and shared and laughed (Mother had a keen wit and sense of humor) and told stories about our lives and our families.
Then we got down to business. Although Joe had explained things to her during their phone call a few days earlier, Mother confessed that she had never heard of the World Court, and with that revelation, she asked the most practical and innocent question: “So how do they make them obey?”
Indeed. What a question. Joe said that he had written a brief for the Holy Father that explained that the war violated several principles of international law and that a ruling from the World Court could, perhaps, spark a concerted effort to bring it to an end. Mother was patient but not terribly interested in the polemics. She had given Joe the floor, so she just listened, and when he finished she took the brief and matter-of-factly said that, indeed, she would be with the Holy Father in the morning and would deliver it to him in person. In utter humility, she asked: “What else can I do? I’ve written to the presidents but have not received a reply, so what can I do?”
I thought of all she already had done: the time Mother’s visit to Lebanon caused all warring factions to call a cease-fire while she was there; the Nobel Peace Prize she received for her tireless work with the “poorest of the poor.” I thought of a desperate world that looked to her for guidance and comfort and hope. “All we can do is pray,” she said, something, perhaps, we hadn’t really thought of.
As Joe and I walked back to our hotel, we looked at each other and just wept. We’d been in the presence of something indescribable; we’d planted seeds of hope and peace. At that point, all we could do, as Mother said, was “pray.”
At that point, all we could do, as Mother said, was “pray.”
The next day, a few hours after Mother’s visit, Pope John Paul II held his weekly audience and issued one of his strongest rebukes of the war to date. Perhaps something had taken root.
Mother had invited us to join her and her community for early Mass the next morning. Very early. I met Joe in the hotel lobby around 4:30 a.m. and told him what I’d heard on the news: There was a rumor that a cease-fire in the Gulf was imminent. When we arrived at Mother’s chapel, the news was confirmed: The war was over! A liturgy of hope was now a liturgy of thanksgiving and remembrance. Joe and I sat on the floor at the back of the chapel next to Mother who knelt in quiet meditation. When we reached the prayer of the faithful, gratitude for the war’s end was offered by several of the sisters. And after a long silence, a small voice made a final request: Mother asked that we “pray for all those we promised we’d pray for.” For Mother, that was the entire world.
A few weeks after we returned from Rome, we received a letter from the Vatican secretary of state with a message from Pope John Paul, thanking us for the brief Mother had delivered on our behalf and offering us his apostolic blessing. A few days later, on Easter, when he gave his Urbi et Orbi address, John Paul spoke yet again of the importance of international law, this time mentioning several points that were in our brief.
Did Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul or our prayers have anything to do with ending the war? Frankly, that is none of our business. As Father Berrigan often reminded us, we are only required to tell the truth and say our prayers. The rest is in God’s hands.
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