Gordon Zahn, Prophet of Peace

When Gordon Zahn (1918-2007) began his own journey to pacifism, he was convinced of two things: first, that had he been educated in the traditional Catholic schools of his time, he would never have heard of pacifism; secondand he was given rather strong encouragement to think this waythat he was on the lunatic fringe of the church. But he was also convinced that the path of the early church was the correct one and that pacifism was the normative Christian position and that the just war theory was at best an attempt to justify what Realpolitik had already decided was necessary. For many a decade, Gordon followed the lonely road of preaching pacifism in the company of others on the edges of mainstream Christianity. But this was a determined lot, and Gordon, who despised meetings to the depth of his being, continued to show up whenever asked, attended meeting after meeting and was eventually successful in efforts with others to resurrect Pax Christi USA, establishing it as a premier American peace organization.

Gordons witness to peace was accomplished in the classroom, on the lecture circuit, writing at his desk or attending endless meetings for the cause; but developments gave special luster to his contributions. First, during discussions at the Second Vatican Council on the draft of Gaudium et Spes, then known as Schema XIII, about war and the just war theory, he met Archbishop Thomas Roberts, S.J., of Bombay and members of the British hierarchy in England and began a correspondence with Archbishop Roberts. Gordon gave a major briefing to members of the British hierarchy in Rome and was instrumental in persuading them to support the insertion of a positive statement on conscientious objection. The council thus reversed Pius XIIs teaching that if one was a Catholic and ones nation legitimately declared war, a Catholic citizen could not be a conscientious objector.

Advertisement

Second, and perhaps more important, Gordon discovered the story of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitlers army in any capacity because he was convinced of the immorality of the war. Franz, married and the father of three daughters, was beheaded for his convictions. Gordon came upon this story while doing research on the role of Catholics in Hitlers Germany, and then sought out Franzs widow and interviewed many of the townspeople and some clergy. The resulting book, In Solitary Witness, celebrated Franzs life and became a major contribution to the Catholic peace movement. One of Gordons proudest moments came when he was at yet another antiwar rally and heard someone say that he was burning his draft card in memory of Franz Jägerstätter. One flame had led to another.

But surely the proudest moment would have been the beatification ceremony of Franz last month in Austria. Unfortunately, Gordon suffered from Alzheimers disease during the past several years and was unable to attend. One of Gordons relatives reported that she read the letter of invitation to him and, though he had been unresponsive, he opened his eyes, sat up and took a deep breath. Perhaps he was aware of the ultimate fruit that his story bore.

Gordon was not a flashy person and was rather modest in his personal way of living, but day in and day out he bore constant and often solitary witness to the cause of peace to which he dedicated his life. He can now skip further meetings and rest in peace.

* Photo courtesy of Pax Christi USA.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The appointments are part of an ongoing effort to give a greater role to women in the work of the Roman Curia offices, the central administration of the Catholic church.
Gerard O’ConnellApril 21, 2018
Ivette Escobar, a student at Central American University in San Salvador, helps finish a rug in honor of the victims in the 1989 murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter on the UCA campus, part of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Jesuit martyrs in 2014. (CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala) 
A human rights attorney in the United States believes that the upcoming canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero in October has been a factor in a decision to revisit the 1989 Jesuit massacre at the University of Central America.
Kevin ClarkeApril 20, 2018
Journalists photograph the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
In California, Catholic opponents of the death penalty are trying to protect the largest population of inmates awaiting execution in the Western Hemisphere.
Jim McDermottApril 20, 2018
Photo: the Hank Center at Loyola University Chicago
Bishop McElroy said that Catholics must embrace “the virtues of solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope and peace-building.”