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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: A pilgrimage, and a life, pursuing peace

Father Jack Morris marks his 50th year as a priest this year. (Colin Mulvany)
Father Jack Morris marks his 50th year as a priest this year. (Colin Mulvany)

Thirty years ago, a small band of people were walking across America, from the west side of Washington to Washington, D.C.

The following spring, they continued their pilgrimage, after a flight to Ireland, all the way to Bethlehem. They slept in church basements and in homes. They ate lentil soup and peanut butter sandwiches. They broke bread with people in the Midwest and Yugoslavia and points between. All told, they covered 6,500 miles in 20 months – on foot and in the spirit of one of the lesser-heeded teachings of Jesus Christ: “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.”

The Bethlehem Peace Pilgrimage, conceived by Jesuit Father Jack Morris, was an attempt to raise the alarm about the nuclear arms race and the devastation of our addiction to bombing, not loving, our enemies. Three decades later, as the 84-year-old Morris celebrates his 50th year as a priest and works on his memoirs in the infirmary at the Jesuit House at Gonzaga University, he sees a country as dedicated to war as ever.

“I think we’re making progress toward doing ourselves in,” Morris said this week.

And yet the pilgrimage does not loom as an exercise in futility in Morris’ mind. The memory of the event and all it stood for has lived on; every year, when around 150 new recruits begin their time with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps – a Peace Corps-like organization Morris founded for college graduates – they watch a presentation about the walk and the values it reflects.

“Every year, we at least get our oar in the water with these young people,” Morris said.

Morris is a lively, energetic man, but his health is failing. He can no longer walk. He’s been reunited in the infirmary with a longtime friend and co-conspirator in the cause of peace and justice, Jesuit brother Fred Mercy, and the two men banter happily even when the subject is death.

“Dr. Mercy over here thinks I’ve got cancer,” Morris said.

“He’s in denial,” Mercy said.

Morris said he’s avoided getting an exact diagnosis.

“I don’t want a biopsy!” he says. “I’m an old man. I don’t need to live on and on and on.”

In a time when the loudest religious voices often seem the least Christlike – the least peaceful, the least kind, the least loving – Morris and Mercy are a bracing example of a radically humane Christianity.

Morris’ driving question is: “How do we put peace into the center of church thinking?”

“If the church spent as much time on peace issues as it does on birth control and abortion, we could have peace,” he said.

Morris grew up in Anaconda, Mont. He served in the Navy but feels that an antipathy toward war was always a part of his family, dating to the pall that an uncle’s death in World War I cast on his mother. When he was in college at Georgetown, he was following a secular path, studying and dating a young woman, when he realized that his heart was calling him to a different life.

He left Georgetown for Regis College in Denver and joined the Jesuits in 1950. Twelve years later, he was ordained a priest. Through his career, he worked around the region, in Oregon and Alaska, as well as spending a decade in Uganda ministering to refugees.

In a tribute to Morris written in 1999, friend and fellow Jesuit Dave Hinchen wrote, “Jack Morris is a dreamer and a doer, a man of great passion with a deep compassion for the individual striving for answers on how to best serve God, for the Church with all its foibles, and especially for the poor and those left on the margins of our world’s abundance.”

In the 1970s, Morris became drawn to the peace protesters who had gathered around the Trident nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Wash. He met George Zabelka, the Catholic priest who was chaplain of the crew of the Enola Gay, which dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.

“He had never really gotten over being a part of that,” Morris said.

Zabelka was harshly critical of the social mechanism of the military and the way it distances people from things being done in their name. Morris developed the idea of a pilgrimage, and soon gathered about a dozen others – including Zabelka – who were willing to give it a try. They would walk to Bethlehem, carrying a Christian message of peace and opposition to nuclear war. They set off on April 9, 1982, with a crowd of hundreds in attendance outside the Trident base.

“It was symbolic,” Morris said. “These weapons could crucify the entire human race, so we left on Good Friday.”

The walkers ranged in age from 20 to 67. They walked about 20 miles a day, slept where they could, ate simple food, gave presentations on peace. They arrived in the capital for the winter, and then flew to Ireland to conclude the walk.

At the time, Morris told a reporter for the Associated Press, “A few people drove by and gave us the finger on the trip, and a few more would shout, ‘Go do it in Russia.’ But I could count those incidents on my fingers and toes.

“We really never had any significant problems and that surprised me. I expected there would be some.”

They arrived in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 1983. Everyone who started the march finished.

“I was glad we were there and we were done,” Morris said. “I was tired of walking.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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