Thursday, May 14, 2009

Teaching Peace: In Memoriam Msgr. William Kerr

Today we receive the sad news of the untimely death from a stroke of educator, human rights and peace advocate, Msgr. William Kerr. At the time of his death, Msgr. Kerr was executive director of the Claude Pepper Center for Intercultural Dialogue at Florida State in Tallahassee.

What I found most interesting about his life story, however, was his founding of the Pacem in Terris Institute in 1993 when he was president of La Roche College. The program provides scholarships to students from conflict, post-conflict and developing regions of the world to study at La Roche. By providing these scholarships, the Pacem In Terris program brought together students from the United States and developing nations of the world, creating a microcosm of the global community that models what the world, at its best, could be – a world of respect and open dialogue in an educational setting – a world of peace. From its beginnings in the war-ravaged remains of Yugoslavia through its expansion to the Middle East and Africa, more than 450 students from 21 countries have benefited from this extraordinary initiative.

Here is the story of this program in Fr. Kerr's own words:

The Pacem in Terris Institute: educating college students from war-ravaged lands
by William A. Kerr
The Catholic World
November 1994

What happens in today's world when governments fail to solve conflicts? And, further, what happens when the conflicts at hand are violent ones which threaten the broader peace of a region or even a hemisphere? The news media have illustrated the answer for us every day over the last three years: in the former Yugoslavia war rages with all its concommitant horrors, including the latest euphemism for genocide known as "ethnic cleansing." Most Americans have asked themselves repeatedly whether, in the absence of other conflict resolution efforts, the church, or indeed any religious group or movement, should step into the fray and attempt to foster the peace. The Catholic response has been a practical one.

If Pope John Paul II's recent efforts to prod the conscience of the Western world over the Bosnian conflict mean anything at all, they certainly signal that it is the duty of the church in the modern world to protect the innocent and to assist peoples in the peaceful resolution of differences. But what practically can the church - or for that matter, any religious group - do in the face of guns, weapons and the intractably violent positions of warring parties? This dilemma raises a larger and very pressing issue for every Christian: What is the role of religion in protecting the common good when political authority fails to do so?

Public theology - usually understood as the contribution which religious values make to public policy and the pursuit of the common good - is a kind of "conscience" for most political policies. Frequently, religion is the inspiration of public theology. When the principles of democracy and Western civilization are not implemented to protect the common good and the rights of the human person, it is often religious values, as articulated by Christians, Jews and Muslims in our society, which can help to set the course for peace. In the agony of inaction which many American Christians have felt over war in the former Yugoslavia, a kind of "public theology" may be the only guiding principle to help bring about any kind of peace there. But how can world governments, both European and American, be influenced by public theologies appropriate to given circumstances?

There is a saying that nothing is accomplished unless it is done personally by a few dedicated individuals. Indeed, over the last two hundred years of American history, all of the great movements which have transformed our culture - including universal suffrage, civil rights and now the gradual reform of drunk driving behaviors - have been effective because of the personal dedication, at first, of a single individual or a small group of private citizens who have worked together to change the whole of society.

Outraged by the continuing slaughter, rape and destruction of people in the former Yugoslavia, a few determined individuals at a small Catholic college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania decided that something should be done. Their compassion for war victims, inspired by God's word, is their dynamic force. With support from private donors, foundations, politicians, government agencies, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, a small institute was founded to rescue and educate college students from war-torn areas. This special effort, known as "The Pacem In Terris Institute," has made a significant impact on the lives of some of the victims of the war in Bosnia.

The Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Institute was established last year at the Divine Providence Sisters' La Roche College in Pittsburgh to provide for the safe transport, care and education of young people from war-ravaged areas of the world. At present, some thirty college-age students from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia live and study together as "Pacem In Terris" students at the college. The changes which they have experienced are matched only by the changes they have brought about in the lives of the faculty, administration and their fellow students. No one who has met these special young people is left unaffected by their story.

The Pacem In Terris Institute is inspired by the religious values found in Pope John XXIII's famous 1963 encyclical of the same name. Based on a commitment to the dignity of each individual, Pope John's exhortation to the community of nations is as timely today as it was thirty years ago:

Any human society, if it be well ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person; that is, their nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because they are persons, all have rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from their very nature. And, as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable, they cannot in any way be surrendered.

If we look upon the dignity of the human person in the light of divinely revealed truth, we cannot help but esteem it far more highly, for all are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and are, by grace, the children and friends of God and the heirs of eternal glory.

In our own day, we are encouraged likewise by Pope John Paul II, who reminds us that the newest crisis for the global community is "the rising tide of immigrants" forced to flee their homelands and to become refugees in foreign places. Too often, these displaced peoples are denied their most fundamental rights and the basic dignities of human living.

Taught by the lessons of the Holocaust and now of "ethnic cleansing," young people from war-torn areas must be educated to break the cycles of resentment and revenge which have fueled the major conflicts of the twentieth century. But an essential part of that effort will rest in a reorienting of their values, both through religion and effective governance, which can safeguard the ultimate dignity of every human person. Public theology is the indispensable soul of world peace.

When those of us who helped establish the Pacem In Terris Institute visited the internment camps of Bosnia and Croatia to meet the future La Roche students, we were astounded at what we saw.

At Gasinci, in eastern Croatia, there were rows and rows of huts, resembling a military encampment. At the outer edges were tents, filled with human beings huddling together for shelter and human companionship. There were families of six and eight living in one-room wooden shelters, resembling closets. For persons accustomed to comfortable homes within beautiful neighborhoods, the refugee camps are nightmares.

An 84-year-old Croatian woman who had lived in Sarajevo all her life, raising her family and tending her garden, now sat on a borrowed cot which served as both chair and bed holding her last earthly possession - a rosary. As she prayed, she cried, and when I spoke gently to her in English - a language she did not understand - her joyful embrace suggested genuine gratitude for the fact that someone had noticed her.

As we toured the common shower and latrine facilities, we realized that the occupants of the camp are indeed prisoners. People have no say in their lives and wonder each day if it will be any better than the last.

Particularly affected are young people who want to be involved in life but are deprived of the freedom to use their talents in constructive ways. One of the most impressive features of the camps are the young volunteers who transcend despair and do for those in greatest need what these people cannot do for themselves. For instance, they volunteer to walk with the older members of the camps on regular exercise trips, or spend afternoons listening to elderly strangers tell their stories. Frequently teenagers commit themselves to becoming part of work crews for the camp's sanitation.

Parents have nothing with which to buy their children clothes, medicine or even candy. These otherwise willing and responsible persons are prevented from earning any kind of wages. As a result, they are totally dependent on visitors who care enough to tour the camps and bestow upon them tokens of charity. Apart from the obvious physical and social injuries which war routinely inflicts, it is clear that self-respect is a major casualty.

As we sat on the floor of a hut which served as home for one of our students, her mother served us Turkish coffee in what had once been beautiful china, but which was now cracked and chipped. It was a wonderful moment of human solidarity and, as we started to leave, this Muslim family presented us with a Christian New Testament. Holding hands in a farewell gesture, together we said, "God is good."

Throughout these humble camps it was clear that government programs had faltered, that patriotism had been confused, and that human suffering was immense. But it was also evident that religious faith still provided a sense of hope and meaning for those so savagely imprisoned and abused. The testimonies to the faith given by those abandoned in prison camps was an unforgettable experience for all of us. In the hearts of these many victims is a culture of religious belief which one day may form a new political structure, dedicated to the free exercise and support of a religiously diverse society.

While concerned governments on both sides of the Atlantic stand by, fretfully puzzling over their next political maneuver in Bosnia, the Pacem In Terris Institute attempts to express God's love by reaching out to college-age students. Not only are they offered an exit from the camps but they are challenged to become persons of peace who dedicate their lives-in whatever careers they pursue - to changing attitudes and structures that diminish the dignity of others because of ethnic, racial or religious differences.

As the students bound for Pittsburgh rode the Red Cross vans out of the prison camps, other detainees lined the roads to applaud their good fortune and wish them well. Those who remained behind knew that these young women and men are the future of their people.

The Pacem In Terris Institute, with its emphasis on the dignity of the person, exists to help its students fulfill the expectation of those who look to them with hope. They will return educated and, the Institute hopes, influenced not only by their academic specializations but also by courses in ethics and conflict resolution. Strengthened through their experiences in a caring, supportive community, hopefully they will help to bring peace to the many lands of war.

As his ticket was given him and he was directed toward the concourse for the flight to America, Meho Grdanovic, a young Bosnian recently freed from a camp in eastern Croatia, waved his boarding pass and said, "Today is my second birthday!"

To give birth anew to the goodness that God places in all of us and to motivate young victims of war to turn swords into ploughshares is the aim of La Roche College's Pacem In Terris Institute.


In the summer of 1993 Msgr. William A. Kerr witnessed the beleaguered faces of the people living in a Croatian refugee camp. "There were young children, teenagers, some without families. There were elderly people lying on cots, just waiting," he recalls. "I was asked to walk around the camp so they could see me, because just to see that someone would come to them from America gave them hope."

Kerr was in Croatia on a mission of hope: to bring a number of students from the camp back to America, where they would begin their freshman year at La Roche College.

Since he became La Roche's president in late 1992, Kerr has succeeded in making the small Roman Catholic college in McCandless, PA a model of global awareness. Under a program he initiated, 31 international students - predominantly from Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia - are now enrolled at La Roche, their tuition paid by a fund established by Tatjana Grgich, a Croatian-American. Along with other private donations, Grgich's funding helped found Pacem in Terris, an institution at La Roche that "will continue to reach out to other refugees and other young people all over the world," Kerr says.

The students spend their first year at La Roche studying the usual freshman curriculum, along with improving their English skills. While the students will stay here to complete their degrees, most are anxious to return home after graduation to help rebuild their communities. Many choose their majors based on what will most benefit the people back home, Kerr says.

Prior to becoming president of La Roche, Msgr. Kerr spent eight years as vice-president of university relations at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Before that, he served as a campus chaplain and instructor at Florida State University. At La Roche, he keeps a hand in classroom life by teaching American History.

In the fall of 1993, 1,800-student La Roche College celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding as a liberal-arts college by the Sisters of Divine Providence.

Photo: At a forum last year, Monsignor Kerr encouraged students to "be open to God's call". “I think sometimes when we go through our lives and we make decisions, we must always be open to what it is that God is calling us to,” Fr. Kerr said.

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