Internationally renowned theologian and author Fr. Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., 1947–2021, wrote the following about his own road toward exploring reconciliation and peacebuilding in the worldwide Church.
Growing up in Nebraska, I would never have dreamed that I would become involved in international work in peacebuilding and reconciliation. Indeed, that whole field didn’t even exist at that time. The work as we now know it only began to emerge in the late 1970s. The religious dimension of it—how religious faith and practice helps strengthen the peacebuilding and reconciliation process—didn’t really come about until the 1990s.
How I got into the Work of Reconciliation
I can pinpoint exactly when my own interest began in this area. It was in January 1986, and I was leading a week on Precious Blood spirituality for the Precious Blood families. While we were together, General Agusto Pinochet, Chile’s dictator at that time, announced a plebiscite on his rule. The Chilean Bishops responded quickly by announcing a new national pastoral plan to be called “Reconciliation in Truth.” (The “in Truth” was added because, in neighboring Argentina, reconciliation had come to mean forgetting the suffering of the victims of a civil war, and letting the wrongdoers go scot-free.)
I was asked on the spot to give a presentation on reconciliation. I obliged, but it wasn’t very good, since I really didn’t know what I was talking about. After the presentation, one of the persons participating asked me point blank: “How do you reconcile with someone who doesn’t think he did anything wrong?” I had no answer. But it was that question that set me thinking about reconciliation.
A few years later, I gave a series of lectures on reconciliation in Boston. These were published in 1992 as Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order (Orbis Books). At that time, the Berlin Wall had fallen and there was much interest in how to rebuild societies that had suffered oppression under Communism. This little book was one of the very few on the topic that were available at the time. It was quickly translated into several other languages and circulated widely.
In 1996, I was asked by Caritas Internationalis to join a new international working group that would develop materials for training people in peacebuilding and reconciliation. Caritas Internationalis is a service organization for 162 Catholic relief and development agencies around the world. It is headquartered in the Vatican. Member organizations from the United States are Catholic Relief Services, the Campaign for Human Development, and Catholic Charities USA.
We developed a handbook for reconciliation and a training manual. They have been translated into many languages . . .
In 1998, I published another book on reconciliation, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies), as well as articles and chapters in books on the topic. As a result of these writings and my work with Caritas Intemationalis, I began to speak widely about reconciliation and to receive invitations to work in conflict areas.
What I do
Building peace after a time of conflict and working toward reconciliation are complex tasks. My part in this focuses upon the resources of religious faith for doing that work, and for sustaining spiritually those who are working in this area.
Peacebuilding is arduous and often frustrating work, since there are many setbacks and disappointments. What has come about in recent years is a growing awareness of how important the role of faith is in this work. Realizing that reconciliation is God’s work—a work in which we but participate—is an important perspective for being able to keep working in this area.
Likewise there are certain skills to be learned, such as how to deal with people who have come through deep trauma. The healing of painful memories and being able to get on with life plays a big role here. Helping people envision what peace might look like is another important skill. . .
Increasingly over the years, I worked with bishops’ conferences on these matters. Bishops have been thrust more and more into conflict mediation, peace negotiations, and the rebuilding of societies after conflict, and have no training in this area. . . . There were opportunities for me to work on the ground as well. Another area is how to relate all of this to the mission of the Church. . . .
The work has branched out into other related areas. In 1999, the Australian Bishops’ Conference’s Justice and Peace Committee asked me to talk about reconciliation between Australia’s Aboriginal population and the white settler population. Issues of polarization in the Church, and the response to the clerical sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. have also prompted many invitations.
The work is exhilarating, because one feels that such things help make a difference in the world. There are not a lot of theologians who are willing to get involved in this often messy and frustrating work. Whatever help we as theologians can provide is always greatly appreciated. One of the most touching tributes I have received was from Bishop Carlos Belo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his work in East Timor. He credited my work with shaping his own vision of reconciliation.
But as we learn in our faith, it is not my work, but God’s. A ministry of reconciliation flows directly from our Precious Blood spirituality. And I have been happy to be part of this.