Maybe the key to teaching, learning and practicing peace is in a spot that is itself full of peace.
"I live in an incredible place right along the Pacific Ocean" near Cambria, California, along the state's central coast near Big Sur, "which some friends found for me," said Father John Dear, for whom peacemaking has been the core of his vocation.
"They have this big wedding barn right out on the ocean," he added. "I'm surrounded by seals and otters and cows and dolphins and pelicans and seagulls."
Sounds peaceful indeed. But, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Father Dear's Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus won't open for in-person peace education until 2022. However, that doesn't stop him from offering online courses right now.
The center, at beatitudescenter.org, starts in earnest with an Advent series on nonviolence in December, and programs are scheduled into May.
"Right now, the greatest need in the church is to return to Jesus and his nonviolence. I've been thinking of that, especially this last year," said Father Dear, who is now a priest of the Diocese of Monterey, California, after spending 32 years as a Jesuit.
"Divisions in the church and the anger and the hatred in the election, and then of course, the racism and nuclear weapons and climate change and the pandemic, we Catholics seem to be meaner than ever, and it seems in some ways we're more like the religious authorities in the Gospel than the nonviolent Jesus," Father Dear said in a Nov. 18 phone interview with Catholic News Service. "And it seems in my lifetime we're getting worse, not better."
Father Dear wants to teach the nonviolence of Jesus as expressed by some of the 20th century's most highly regarded preachers of peace, including Dorothy Day, Trappist Father Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The center gets its name from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."
"Years ago, I did a book on Gandhi (for Orbis Books' 'Essential Writings' series). I leaned that Gandhi thought Jesus was the greatest person of nonviolence in history -- and that was incredible for me to hear. That was powerful," Father Dear said.
"Gandhi read from the Sermon on the Mount every day for 45 years. I think he may be the only person in history who did that. And that's how he became Gandhi," the priest added.
"The Sermon on the Mount is what it's all about. We've got be like Gandhi and read the Sermon on the Mount regularly."
In Gandhi's view, according to Father Dear, "the only people on the planet who don't know that Jesus was nonviolent are Christians. And that's been my big motivation."
The center's seed was started, Father Dear said, when "I was on a quasi-sabbatical this summer and decided, well, I'm 61 now, and I've been working 40 years on peace and justice, and I wanted to step up to the plate and start something new and really try to teach Catholics that Jesus was totally nonviolent and we have to be totally nonviolent too."
He added, "I've written 35 books and I've spoken to a million people around the world. I've been doing this all my life but never in a center, so I decided to start one."
Father Dear will conduct a New Year's Day online retreat called "The Year of Living Nonviolently," a Jan. 16 program in honor of Rev. King's birthday titled " The More Excellent Way of Love and Nonviolent Protest: Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and What it Means for Us Today," (Jan. 18 is the federal King holiday); separate February workshops on the Eight Beatitudes and the Book of Jonah; a Lenten series based on Father Dear's book "Walking the Way"; and an Easter-themed one-day retreat in April.
In May, Father Dear will observe the centennial of the birth of the late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, a personal hero of his. Father Dear also serves as Father Berrigan's literary executor. Father Berrigan died April 30, 2016, at age 94.
The wedding barn's use is reserved weekends for receptions and other festivities, but Father Dear will have access to it on weekdays once the pandemic is over, he said, noting there are several nearby motels for retreatants.