US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Peace trained

By Heather Grennan Gary | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
In Catholic classrooms and Ugandan villages, Patrick Corrigan strives to learn how to heal wounds of violence.

In 2007, six months after his college graduation, Patrick Corrigan found himself about as far from a leafy, peaceful campus as he could get-in Kampala, Uganda, sitting in on a meeting between parliamentarians and representatives of the Lord's Resistance Army, a notorious rebel group that has terrorized the region for decades and is best known for abducting children and forcing them to participate in its bloody campaigns.

"It was quite an experience for me, sitting across a table from a delegation that represented some of the world's most violent people," says Corrigan. "It wasn't a good feeling to sit and talk, but on the other hand a peace agreement presented the only opportunity for achieving what victims of the conflict most desired-an end to the war and a chance to rebuild their communities."

Corrigan was catapulted quickly into an unusually high level of negotiations-he was just starting a two-month internship with the Great Lakes Parliamentary Forum on Peace, also known as the AMANI Forum (Swahili for "peace")-but he was hardly new to the ideas of peacebuilding and protecting human rights.

Bake sale for peace: As a sophomore double major in liberal studies and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan first grabbed Corrigan's attention. He whipped up a pitcher of Kool-Aid and a batch of brownies and took them out to a university quad, where he sold them to fellow students and gave the proceeds to Catholic Relief Services.

"It didn't raise that much money, but people started talking," he says. One conversation led to another, and soon a movement was under way, resulting in a student-organized academic symposium that drew more than 500 people, including leading experts on Darfur.

The experience was a formative one for Corrigan, who credits his Catholic education for whetting his appetite for social justice and service. At St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, he took to heart the motto of being "men for and with others." At Notre Dame, the constant message was to apply what he learned in his courses to the world beyond-and that's what he wanted to do after graduation.

"It was one thing to learn in the classroom, but I wanted an experience of immersion, of feeling it in my bones," he says. He joined the Holy Cross Overseas Lay Missionary Program in September 2007 and spent 16 months teaching English and computers and coaching basketball at Holy Cross Lakeview Senior Secondary School in Bugembe, Uganda.

Making connections: While interning with the AMANI Forum during a break from teaching, Corrigan focused partly on healing and reconciliation work within communities, including efforts to reintegrate child soldiers into communities. The experience gave him the opportunity to listen to people's stories and provide consultation on peacebuilding ideas generated at the grassroots level.

"Peacebuilding is not about programs but about helping people get connected," Corrigan says. "It's about building interdependence and establishing trust between people. Once you do that, it's harder for violence to prevail."

While peace in northern Uganda looked promising during Corrigan's time in the country, the government's negotiations with the LRA collapsed last fall, and open warfare started again in December. Corrigan has been discouraged with the development, but he knows firsthand that the setback isn't the whole story.

"I was astonished with how resilient the victims really are. They're trying to restart their lives. They know what their communities need."

He returned from Uganda last December and is beginning a master's program in public policy this fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he plans to study how parliamentary bodies use legislation and oversight to support peace processes and contribute to reconciliation. While he's not sure where it will lead him, he says it's likely he will return to Africa. "Helping victims of conflict is where I want to take my career."

Amazing grace: Corrigan's time in Uganda and the relationships he made there helped his faith grow stronger than ever. "These people still believe in God; they still have joy. Their celebrations of Mass were some of the most joyful ones I've been to," he says. "When I saw the faith of victims, it deepened my experience of Jesus and what it means to follow him. It was the closest I've been to walking the Way of the Cross with Jesus."

It also revealed to him that no matter his efforts, something bigger is always at work. "A lot of the time I thought I was a bad teacher. Some days I was lazy." But then he was reminded of the "Romero Prayer," written by Bishop Ken Untener, "that we are workers, not the Master Builder. I realized that the transformation of something ugly into something beautiful is at the heart of the mystery of grace.

"I didn't make the impact that I had anticipated before going to Uganda, but I have faith that God will take the imperfections I brought to my ministry and make them bear great fruit in ways that I can't even envision."

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 7, page 47).