An Interview with Mary T. Yelenick

by Father John Pawlikowski, OSM and Gordon Nary


Gordon: You currently serve as Main Representative of Pax Christi International to the United Nations. Please provide an overview of what Pax Christi International does.


Mary: Pax Christi International ("PCI") is a global Catholic movement for peace and nonviolence, with more than 120 member organizations, operating in sixty countries, on five continents. Pax Christi works to foster peaceful and just relationships among people. Among other things, PCI offers training in nonviolence to communities impacted by violence, emphasizing the need to acknowledge and address the root causes of violence if a just peace is ever to be achieved.


Headquartered in Brussels, PCI was founded in 1945, in the waning days of World War II (though query whether, given the subsequent expansion of NATO, and what is happening in Ukraine, World War II ever really ended), by a French woman (Marthe Dortel Claudot), supported by a bishop (Pierre Marie Theas), who envisioned a Christian movement for reconciliation, peace, and understanding.


One of the major projects of Pax Christi International is the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (see also Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and the World) launched at the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference convened in Rome in April 2016. The goal of CNI is to familiarize all Catholics globally, of every age and background, with the demonstrable power, long-term effectiveness, and concrete tools of nonviolence in preventing and resolving disputes. In that context, CNI has published numerous books and articles to educate and assist global peace workers.


My own work, and that of the entire PCI NGO team at the United Nations (as well as that of the PCI teams in Geneva (UN), Vienna (UN), Paris (UNESCO), and Strasbourg (Council of Europe)), is to share with policymakers the knowledge and global resources of PCI, explaining to them lessons learned and relayed by our many members around the globe, and to familiarize and share with UN member nations and staff (as well as with other NGOs) the demonstrable power and efficacy of nonviolence. We do this in many contexts: in our private advocacy with UN Representatives (including with Representatives of not only powerful, but also excluded and marginalized, nations); in our work with other NGOs in UN working groups and NGO coalitions (such as in our work, both at the United Nations itself, and with and among our global members, as part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN”), winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, in connection with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons); and in our own global PCI working groups (which prepared and presented to UN Member States last year a "Policymaker's Tool for Effective, Nonviolent Strategies for Sustainable Peace" (https://paxchristi.net/advocacy/nonviolence-a-style-of-politics-for-peace).


In addition to focusing on issues of nuclear-weapons abolition, we direct our expertise and advocacy to issues regarding Israel/ Palestine, as well as to the devastation wreaked upon global communities, and to the earth itself, from global resource extraction. Much of our recent work and growth has been in communities in the global South, particularly in Latin America and the Africa.


Father John: Some have argued that Jesus was a “pacifist” as well as the early church. Do you agree with them?


Mary: Yes, I do. For me, the fact that Jesus directed Peter to put down his sword – at the very moment in Jesus' life when that sword might have saved it – speaks clearly.


Active, creative nonviolence – including verbally, in the ways that Jesus responded to those seeking to entrap him with riddles and hypotheticals – presents a new paradigm, and invites new possibilities. As I read the New Testament, Jesus was a master pacifist.

Jesus understood that violence cannot lead to peace; instead, violence leads inexorably to either simply a temporary cessation, or an immediate escalation, of that violence. Violence prompts, and provides a justification for, further violence.


Throughout Jesus' life, he evidenced an awareness that any dispute is likely to be far more deeply-rooted and complex than any outside onlooker might understand. Jesus demonstrated a keen sensitivity to the hidden histories of people's lives and suffering; he did not cast away those whom his apostles, or detractors, had judged worthy of exclusion or punishment. Jesus knew that no one’s actions can be judged in a vacuum.


And when someone fails to probe that underlying reality, and simply resolves conflict violently, the circumstances giving rise to the dispute remain unaddressed. While an act of violence may temporarily suspend the dispute, it ultimately simply adds fuel to the fire. It is only through taking the time to listen, understand, and respond to the oft-unspoken or ignored needs of others, and their points of view, that a true and just peace can ever be achieved.


The concept of a "pacifist" is often mistakenly confused with the concept of “passivity.” Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. For, to the contrary, pacifism often requires more active thought, strategizing, and effort than does an act of violence. Active nonviolence requires a lot of time, and a lot of effort. It may be excruciatingly difficult to take the time to unearth the factors leading to another’s behavior; to understand the history of an offense; to probe why a national leader is acting in a certain way. Yet that is what is required, if the conflict or dispute is truly to be resolved, and if reconciliation to occur. Jesus understood this. Gandhi understood this. So did Dr. King. In their important book, Why Civil Resistance works: The Strategic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press 2012) (see https://cup.columbia.edu/book/why-civil-resistance-works/9780231156820), Professors Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth explain why creative, active nonviolence is, in fact, more than twice as likely as is violence to lead to a sustained peace).


Father John: Do you think recent Popes have provided sufficiently clear moral guidance regarding nuclear warfare?


Mary: Yes – I think that Pope Francis has been crystal clear, as I will discuss below. First, a comment about not only nuclear warfare, but warfare generally.


The default reaction of many Americans (including, unfortunately, many American Catholic lawmakers) is to brandish or deploy a weapon whenever we perceive a threat. We are loath to take the time necessary to probe and address the reality, or the history, of that threat; we instead demand quick “solutions." This impulse proves over and over again to be dangerously delusional and self-defeating. The use of weapons has never resolved a problem long-term. While it may temporarily force one party to back down, that use of force simply ensures that the underlying dispute or grudge will continue to simmer, only to erupt, likely with even more ferocity, later. As we continue to witness daily (both on a domestic and international basis), those who think they can resolve a dispute through the use of force are only consigning their children to a guarantee of future war.


The existence of nuclear weapons greatly enhances, as opposed to diminishing, the risks of global warfare. Numerous scholars have revealed how many nuclear disasters have been narrowly (and fortuitously) avoided over the years. That streak of luck cannot last forever.


Nuclear weapons allow no room for error, misjudgment, or precipitous action. They are dangerously vulnerable to theft, mistake and miscalculation. As has been repeatedly said, if we do not eliminate nuclear weapons, they will eliminate us. Every second that nuclear weapons are permitted to exist poses the risk of global extinction – of everyone, and everything. The recent failure by nuclear-armed nations of the world, at the recently-concluded Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty 2022 Review Conference the UN in New York, to abide by their Treaty obligations only escalates that risk.


Pope Francis recognizes this. His voice has been strong and forceful in repeatedly repudiating the naive, wishful-thinking, and self-serving (at least for nuclear-weapons manufacturers, as well as those lawmakers to whom the nuclear-weapons industry pays service) doctrine of “nuclear deterrence.” Here are but a few examples:

  • In November of 2017, at a Vatican conference sponsored by the Holy See's Discastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in Vatican City (at which I was deeply honored to be present with Pax Christi and other global peacemakers (https://paxchristipeacestories.com/2017/11/14/report-from-vatican-conference-in-nuclear-disarmament), and remember very clearly the electricity and deep gratitude in the room as the Pope spoke), Pope Francis issued a clarion call regarding nuclear weapons, making clear that the "threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned”

  • In November of 2019, during his visit to Hiroshima, the Pope stated that “the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral”

  • On August 9, 2020, seventy-five-years after the United States' nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pope Francis again called for “prayer and commitment to a world completely free of nuclear weapons”

  • And in a recorded message delivered earlier this year (2022) at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, in Vienna, the Pope reiterated that a “world free from nuclear weapons is both necessary and possible... If we take into consideration the principal threats to peace and security... not a few doubts arise regarding the inadequacy of nuclear deterrence as an effective response to such challenges... Here, I wish to reaffirm that the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral... Possession leads easily to threats of their use, becoming a sort of "blackmail' that should be repugnant to the consciences of humanity” (https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2022-06/pope-francis-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons-is-necessary.html).

Gordon: Tell us about your educational and legal career prior to working for Pax Christi International:


Mary: My educational and career choices were made possible by my very supportive and generous parents – both of whom came from challenging backgrounds. My mother, Maesel J. Reed, was born in Iowa to a family impoverished and fractured by the Great Depression and the chronic illness of her mother – experiences that ultimately helped make my mom a deeply compassionate woman.


My dad, John A. Yelenick, whose mother also died young, was the eldest son of a man who made his way to Ellis Island from what is now Slovenia, and whose introduction to this country as an immigrant entailed not only early hunger and poverty, but frightening intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan. The conscious decision by my newly-married parents to move, in the 1950s, to the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver, Colorado – an early racially-integrated neighborhood in which, their real-estate agent had “warned” them, redlining restrictions would not apply – very positively affected my upbringing.


I attended Catholic grade schools (Cure d'Ars and Christ the King), taught by the Sisters of the Precious Blood of Dayton, Ohio. In my early school years, our classes were wonderfully diverse. My mother, a life-long feminist who had not grown up in the Catholic church, and whose skepticism about any religion that did not fully honor the gifts and talents of women was later embraced by even my cradle-Catholic dad), was the room-mother, Girl Scout leader, and sports coach for kids of many backgrounds and hues. My dad, a businessman and Denver civic and church leader, traveled and spoke statewide alongside Denver archbishops, raising funds for Colorado parishes.


My high school years were spent at St. Mary's Academy in Englewood, Colorado, taught by the Loretto Sisters. I trace so much of my interest in learning about the world, and my interest in social justice, to the education I received, both in grade school and in high school, from these wonderful communities of women religious. To me, Catholic Sisters have always been the heart and soul of the Catholic Church. I remain Catholic because of them.


I attended my first two years of college at PrescottCollege in Arizona, having memorable educational experiences at Ivan Illich’s CIDOC in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Common Cause in San Francisco. My final two years of college were spent at Colorado College, from which I graduated magna cum laude, majoring in political science with a focus on Latin America. My college readings, including “The Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano, greatly helped shape my view of the world.


Following my college graduation, I traveled east, to attend law school in Washington, DC. Upon graduating cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center (where I served as an Editor of the Journal of Law and Policy in International Business), I clerked for two years with a trial judge, John F. Doyle, in Washington, DC – learning the importance of delving deeply and fairly into the positions of both parties, if one is truly to understand, and attempt to resolve, any contentious issue.


I then moved to New York City, where I accepted a position with a large international law firm headquartered in Rockefeller Center. Being a Colorado native, and an outdoors enthusiast, I had never dreamed that I would remain for very long in New York. But I enjoyed my work, and my new city, and I remain in New York, now several decades later, with my spouse, Elizabeth L. Broad, a talented graphic artist.


My work as a litigation partner in a major global law firm – from which I retired in 2016, to commence my work with Pax Christi at the UN – was challenging and rigorous, and entailed a lot of travel. But it also exposed me to a wide variety of people, ideas, and issues I would never have encountered otherwise. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during my years as a big-law attorney was to be less judgmental. I had arrived at the New York firm holding various preconceptions about my soon-to-be colleagues and clients – people with whom I would ultimately forge close connections. I eventually learned that there is always more than one side to a dispute; that we need to listen carefully, and without prejudgment, if we are truly to communicate and understand; and that stereotypes don't neatly comport with reality. I also acquired valuable knowledge and advocacy skills that have proven useful in my work at the UN for Pax Christi International.


Gordon: You also serve on Pax Christi International's Anti-Racism Team. What is the mission and some of the challenges of the Anti-Racism Team?


Mary: The most difficult part of being on an anti-racism team in the context of an organization expressly devoted to peace and nonviolence is recognizing that I, and other white people in any organization, are – notwithstanding good personal intentions; histories of close friendships with People of Color; or a personal commitment to social justice – the beneficiaries and, too often, perpetuators of an unfair, deliberately constructed, horrifically violent, long-standing system of injustice against People of Color. When we white people witness explosive examples of overt racist animosity, we tend instinctively try to reassure ourselves that “that's certainly not me, nor does that express what I believe; therefore I am not racist.” But racism is not simply expressing a personal racial animus. Racism is a system of interlocking privileges and benefits that have been granted over the centuries to white people, and denied to People of Color.


White people are so used to these disparities that we often do not even recognize them. And we white people who are actively engaged in social justice work sometimes tend to see ourselves as being more “aware” or “woke” than others. But there is so much that I, while having deeply studied, and thought about, and read about, and talked about (and, hopefully, lived at least a modicum of) anti-racism work, still fail to recognize and confront.


White social-justice people need to engage, daily in frank conversations and honest introspection, facing and acknowledging painful truths about our own social status, opportunity, and standing. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable, with love. We need to make reparations. This work needs to be done by whites, with whites. For a white person to ask a Person of Color to “explain” or “teach me about” racism," or – even worse – to seek personal absolution of one’s complicity in perpetuating racist structures is unfair at best.


Every issue that we address in our work for Pax Christi is, at base, inseparable from structural racism: global violence and inequality, and the Doctrine of Discovery” used to justify centuries of the exploitation of, theft from, and murder of indigenous people by white (too often Catholic) people; the decision by the US to incinerate people in Japan with our nuclear weapons; US nuclear weapons testing in, and irradiation of, the people and lands of the Marshall Islands, and in the American Southwest; the plundering and poisoning of the lands and waters of indigenous people by global extractive conglomerates; the atrocities committed in the context of Israel-Palestine; the wars of aggression waged by largely white nations against nations comprising primarily Black and Brown people . . . all of these reflect, manifest, and perpetuate racism.


Father John and Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.


ADDENDUM: Here is a link to my April, 2022 interview with Pressenza on issues relating to PCI, justice, and peace: