Our History

The very beginning of Pax Christi International

This text was published in 2013 in a book of the Flemish  section of Pax Christi, “Vulnerable Peace. 1945 til Today.”  The book includes contributions from Jo Hanssens, Etienne De Jonghe, Kevin Dowling, Annemarie Gielen, Mark Van de Voorde and Anne Vansteelandt.

«The story of the very beginning of Pax Christi” is based primarily on two sources:

  • « Les premières années de Pax Christi : 1945-1950 », Pax Christi International, 20 pages. Contribution of Michel Dortel-Claudot at the 50th anniversary of Pax Christi, Assisi, 26-28 May 1995
  • Pax Christi 1948 – Kevelaer – 1988,  “Die Anfänge der Pax-Christi-Bewegung in Deutschland”,Verlag  Butson & Bercher, Kevelaer, 1988, 64 pages.

Pax Christi was officially founded on 13 March 1945. At that time, Southern France was already liberated from the grasp of the Nazis. Pierre Marie Théas, bishop of Montauban in Southern France gave Marthe Dortel Claudot his full support to start a Christian movement for reconciliation and peace. On the evening of March 13th this movement was baptized as Pax Christi in a flat in Montauban. But what made it possible? From what did it originate ?

Bishop Théas’ Courage

Pierre Marie Théas was installed as bishop of Montauban on 3 October 1940. Initially he did not oppose  Marechal Pétain, who, by many in France, was considered the hero of Verdun in World War I. But beginning September 1941, the bishop often spoke out against Pétain’s Vichy regime. During his sermons on Sunday he called on priests and the faithful not to support organisations collaborating with the Nazis. In 1942 the repression of Jewish people in Germany was intensified and they lost all rights. More and more Jews were deported from France with the approval of the Vichy regime. A law was passed permitting the occupier to track down Jewish citizens and transfer them to Germany. In mid-July 1942 13,000 Jews were transferred to Paris. The men were deported to the camp in Drancy; the women to the camp of Loiret. At the end of August 1942, another 6600 Jews were arrested and deported to several camps.

Bishop Théas vociferously protested these actions. On 30 August 1942, following the example of Cardinal Saliège, he wrote a pastoral letter “About Respect for the Human Person.”  The letter was read in all the churches of his diocese. In it Bishop Théas wrote: “I wish to express herewith the angry protest of the Christian conscience  and I declare that all people, Aryan or non-Aryan are brothers and sisters created by the same God. All people of whatever race or religion are entitled to respect from individuals and governments. The present antisemitic actions constitute a provocation to human dignity, a violation of the most holy rights of man and of the family.” Included in the letter were clear instructions for parishes and Catholic institutions to hide and protect Jewish citizens. Radio London mentioned this courageous action on 9 and 15 September 1942. Georges Schnek, former president of the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium, said some years ago to Pax Christi Flanders that his parents moved to Montauban because they knew that they would find there a safe haven.

In Captivity

The letter of Bishop Théas made the Christian community in and around the diocese of Montauban very aware of what was happening. The Nazi authorities in occupied France reacted angrily. But Théas continued his resistance and his public opposition to the inhuman actions of the Gestapo, the German secret police. He continually urged Christians to protect Jewish people. On May 6, 1944 he wrote a letter to the local official of the German occupation criticising their barbarity. In the first days of June he refused to meet Marechal Petain during a visit of the official to Montauban. The following Sunday he called again for Christians to stand up and accept their responsibility towards Jews. During the night of June 9 Théas was arrested in his quarters by the Gestapo. At first he was placed in a small cell in the Montauban prison. After his liberation, he told Manfred Hörhammer, a German Capuchin and co-founder of Pax Christi Germany: “They threw me in the cell like a sack. There was no chair, no table, no bed, just the bare walls. I heard a bird singing in the morning  through a small window, and I started singing religious songs I knew by heart, so that co-prisoners in other cells could hear me.”

A few days later Théas was transferred to Frontstalag 122, a transit-camp in Royallieu near Compiègne. This was one of the largest camps in occupied France. There, about 54,000 people – Jews, political resistance leaders, trade-union-leaders  and foreigners of all kinds  – were imprisoned. More than 40,000 of them left this “waiting-room for death” for concentration camps and death camps in Germany and Poland. Théas remained there for about ten weeks.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

During a meditation in the camp, he commented on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and pointed out to his co-prisoners Jesus’ order to love their enemies. He asked how that command could be put into practice once the war was over. He, of course, intended to include the German people. This idea however was strongly opposed by his co-prisoners. “This is impossible. The Nazis killed our boys, our women and our children.” Théas stuck to his conviction: “That is true. But for real love such as Christ intended, there is no possible exception. Also with respect to our present enemy, the Germans, the Christian order to love remains valid.” Shortly thereafter he tried to lead them in praying the Our Father, but they could not say  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Théas still referred to Germany. Some prisoners called the Gospel “terrible.”

On 25 August 1944, after the landing in Normandy, Bishop Théas was set free. He returned to his diocese on 9 September 1944.  Manfred Hörhammer, who had a conversation with Théas after the war, remembered: “The idea of a French-German reconciliation remained  fixed in the mind of Théas.” In the French periodical Revue d’Histoire, historian Max Lagarrique provides additional insight into the personality and engagement of Bishop Théas. He called him “un prélat hors du commun – a very special Church leader.” In the end of 1944, after his liberation, Théas pointed out that the future must be reconstructed. One of his talks was entitled “I Love the Communists.” This was criticized by many people, but, indeed, the communists were more active against the collaboration than were other political parties. Later on, during the Cold War, Théas disapproved of their “Godless materialism and Marxism,” but he refused to consider the communists as enemies.

In the Vad Yashem records, dated 8 July 1969, the courageous actions of Théas were recognized. On that day he was proclaimed one of the “Righteous among the Nations.” Because of his brave stand during the war, Théas was well prepared to be a co-founder of Pax Christi in March 1945. Marthe Dortel-Claudot, a French teacher, was also present with bishop Théas at the birth of this new movement for peace and reconcilation.

Who was Marthe Dortel Claudot ?

Marthe Claudot was a native of the Alsace-Lorraine region, which made her well aware of the sensitivities in French-German relations. She studied literature at the Clermont-Ferrand University, and started as lecturer for Latin, Greek and French in a government high school. She was well appreciated for her qualities as a teacher and lecturer. Marthe Claudot was a progressive republican and strongly supported the separation of church and state. This ‘wordly woman’ was a practicing Christian and proclaimed without fear her well thought-out contemporary beliefs.  She married Auguste Dortel, a widower with three children, in Bordeaux in 1939. From then on she was known as Marthe Dortel-Claudot. The children – Collette, Michel and Jean – bore the same family name. Because of the war, the family moved to Agen in Southern France at the end of 1940. From the beginning Marthe and her husband opposed the Pétain government, which was collaborating with Nazi Germany. When the persecution and deportation of Jews began, they helped hide Jewish families. In 1942 Auguste Dortel joined the Resistance.

Marthe gathered energy from a deep spirituality, although she always remained very discreet about this aspect of her life. It was only after her death that her son Michel found her 81-page “spiritual journal.” His mother had insisted that her journal not be opened before her death. She also left a 13 page manuscript dated August 1979: “Details about the founding of Pax Christi and the first years of the movement.” In 1995 during the celebration of Pax Christi International in Assisi, Michel Dortel-Claudot presented an interesting paper based on both documents, entitled “The First Years of Pax Christi, from 1945 to Easter 1950.” It left us with a deeper insight into the hidden motivations of one of our founders.

Her prayer

Besides intense professional activity and daily family cares, Marthe Dortel-Claudot continued to develop her spiritual life. She read religious literature, such as Therese of Avila, and assisted at Mass whenever possible. She had regular contact with St. Hilaire parish of Agen and with the parish priest, Joseph Dessorbes.  On 10 November 1944 she was inspired to pray for German priests, an inspiration that initially provoked an inner resistance. She noted in her spiritual journal: “I was inspired to understand the mystery of Catholicism, that Jesus gave his life for all, and consequently that no one should be excluded from our prayer.” One month later, on December10th, after Communion and Thanksgiving, she was again inspired to pray for the German people: ”Christ gave his life for them as well as for ourselves.” At Christmas and during that week the inspiration to pray for the Germans was repeated many times, and she received an inner invitation to do something for them once the war was over.

On 24 January 1945 Marthe noted in her journal that when praying, she clearly felt that she should  pray and make other people pray ‘for the healing of the German people from the moral and spiritual disaster caused by twelve years of Nazi rule’. She consulted the parish priest, who encouraged her to start a prayer group. On this she wrote: “The first two participants of the prayer group are a war-widow and a daughter whose father has been deported to Germany.” Shortly after, Fr. Dessorbes suggested speaking to a Church leader who could support the idea of praying for Germany.

She mentions in her spiritual journal the support of Joseph Dessorbes: ”Without his support and his approval I would never have dared to consider the inspiration I received as the will of God. I could not have faced the problems and dangers of the atmosphere and the situation at that time: an unfinished war, prisoners and deported who did not return, all kinds of restrictions, lack of freedom, the hate of the occupier… I was obedient to God, and that was it.” 

Meeting of the two Founders

In 1979 Marthe Dortel-Claudot wrote about the origin of Pax Christi: “On March11, 1945 I called on Mgr. Théas at his diocese in Montauban, accompanied by my husband and my uncle. I was allowed a personal meeting with the bishop. When entering I felt convinced that it was God’s will that I should turn to him. Mgr. Théas agreed, providing I submitted his approval to the archbishop of the region. On March 12th I visited Cardinal Saliège in Toulouse who, without hesitation, gave his encouragement. The next day, on 13 March 1945, Bishop Théas authorised me as his secretary to start a crusade of prayer for Germany. As I was leaving,  he added: “You have been sent by the Holy Spirit.” She noted further:  “On the same evening my uncle proposed to call the movement ‘Pax Christi’, which I accepted gladly.”

In the very first Pax Christi circular letter from Easter 1945, Bishop Théas, based on his own experiences, wrote: “Our devotion to the excellent cause we want to serve will become a never-ending source of sanctity and joy. He who writes this has celebrated two times a Holy Mass dedicated to Germany during his captivity in the camp in Compiègne. This gesture of Christian charity gave him great satisfaction.”

Pax Christi began with the joining of two spiritual experiences of forgivingness and reconciliation – those of Pierre Marie Théas and Marthe Dortel Claudot. In the simple meetings on 11 and 13 March 1945 these experiences came together and resulted in one single project. Pax Christi began as an authentic spiritual effort, a sign of the reconciling love of Jesus for the German nation and for all people and all nations.

Steps towards reconciliation from 1945

In the same circular letter from Easter 1945 Théas noted: “Many people do not understand that Catholics who have resisted the German occupation are now united in praying for Germany. Why help the Germans after fighting them? We who are obeying the spirit of Christ and have confidence in his inspiration understand this very well. We are full of Christian joy. This does not keep us from calling evil whatever is evil. We reject all systems that are not in agreement with the Gospel. The Gospel rules our life. Our hearts are inspired by a feeling of love that includes our enemies and  forgives insults, a love that wants to heal the German people and save them from further evil.”

Bishop Théas and Marthe Dortel-Claudot were both firmly convinced by the Gospel call to reconciliation. They had great credibility as they promoted reconciliation because they had resisted any collaboration with Nazi Germany and without hesitation had taken action to save Jewish people. But Pax Christi as a movement for reconciliation was not welcomed by everyone. Several French bishops stood aside and kept silent. Bishop Théas, however, did not hide his convictions. He said that he loved the communists as human beings, but not their vision of society. Pax Christi opposed the French communists who claimed to monopolize the work of peace after the Second World War.

Social dimension

Bishop Théas and Pax Christi also did not agree with those sections of the French resistance who claimed to impose their own justice after the war. Théas named the so-called purifications that occurred barbaric. On 10 September 1944, in Montauban right after his return from imprisonment, he caused a sensation by declaring “justice must be done, but only the installed legal authorities are entitled to pronounce verdicts in a serene and compassionate atmosphere, guaranteeing justice for everyone.” Théas preferred to be called “the imprisoned bishop” rather than a hero of the resistance. His social commitment set such an example at that time that Max Lagarrique in his Revue d’Histoire called him “an abbé Pierre before abbé Pierre.” Some also call him a pioneer of the theology of liberation. In the opinion of Théas the liberation from Nazi dictatorship should have been followed by a liberation from servitude to capitalism.

In August 1945, Marthe Dortel-Claudot gave a speech about the new Pax Christi movement during the “Semaines Sociales” in Toulouse (where Social Weeks had started again right after the Second World War). There, she met Angelo Roncalli, the new apostolic nuncio in France who later became Pope John XXIII. Mgr. Roncalli, who convened the Second Vatican Council on 11 October 1962 and published the encyclical Pacem in Terris, was a fervent supporter of Pax Christi from the very beginning.

Vézelay 1946

A “crusade of prayer for peace” was organized from 19 to 22 July 1946 in Vézelay (Mid-France) by Benedictines from the abbey of Sainte Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire, in the French department of Yonne. The young Pax Christi movement supported this initiative. Exactly 800 years earlier, from the same hill, Bernard of Clairvaux had called for the Second Crusade in the Holy Land. The “crusade for peace” of 1946 was exactly the opposite – an action of penitence, conversion, forgiveness and peace, in a European context. Fourteen wooden crosses were brought in pilgrimage from Great Britain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and from several places in France to the magnificent Roman basilica. Ignaas Lindemans, one of the former presidents of Pax Christi Flanders and at that time a student at the Catholic University of Leuven, followed one of those fourteen wooden crosses with the Belgian delegation. German prisoners of war who helped build lodging for the pilgrims requested at the last moment permission to have a cross as well. A fifteenth cross was soon erected. To this day those crosses, including the German prisoners’ cross, which is always decorated with flowers, are visible in the basilica of Vézelay. Entitled “Croisade de la Paix  Allemagne 1946,” it contrasts with the figure in the background of Bernard of Clairvaux who called for an armed crusade in 1146.

On All Saints Day 1946 the description of Pax Christi as a “crusade of prayer for Germany” was changed to a “crusade of prayer for the nations” at the suggestion of Mgr. Roncalli, who was appointed apostolic nuncio in France in December 1944. Pax Christi became a spiritual movement of prayer for all nations as well as for reconciliation between Germany and France. In 1947 Théas was appointed bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes. This gave the movement new opportunities for international meetings and exchanges. In 1948 an international pilgrimage for peace was held in Lourdes, with about 18,000 participants from 12 countries. In the same year a Congress about “Catholics and Peace” was also held in Lourdes.

Kevelaer 1948

From 1 to 4 April  1948 the first international Pax Christi Congress took place in Kevelaer, Germany, near Aachen. Bishop Théas, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, her husband and many Pax Christi members from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy and other countries attended. The organisers had hoped for 150 or 200 participants, but about 600 came, many from  the four zones into which Germany was divided after the war. Witnesses said that a feeling for a new start was in the air. Subcommittees reflected on the possibility for reconstruction of Germany and Europe. Marthe Dortel-Claudot talked about the origin and aims of the Pax Christi movement. She praised the dynamism and the activities of the new German Pax Christi section, which was officially installed during that congress. Bishop Van der Velden from Aachen, was named first president of the German section. On April 4th, the Sunday after Easter, several thousand people attended the closing ceremony. The event was well covered by the German press. In his homily, Cardinal Josef Frings from Cologne said: “Against the threat to world peace we oppose our belief and our crusade of prayer for peace.” Bishop Théas ended with the words: ”I salute the reunited Germany and bring a brotherly kiss from Christian France, a kiss that brings forgiveness and asks for forgiveness, this is called the kiss of reconciliation.” These words pronounced in 1948 received in Germany after World War II an unexpected and historical significance.

Towards a new future

Reconciliation after the Second World War was in part made possible by Pax Christi, opening the way for something entirely new in Europe, in deep contrast to what had happened after the First World War when there had been no question of reconciliation with Germany. The winners dictated a severe treaty of Versailles. During the 1920s Hitler used the terms and reparation payments of this treaty to build his national socialist party. By that way the seeds for the Second World War were planted. Thanks to efforts for reconciliation after the Second World War a new breed of politicians came forward: first Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet in France, then Konrad Adenauer in Western-Germany, Alcide de Gasperi in Italy  and Paul Henri Spaak in Belgium. Their project was not a project of revenge and hatred, but a project of collaboration and reconstruction in peace, reconciliation and understanding.