Starting this November, we’ll be featuring something we’re calling the “I am Pax Christi” interview, a short conversation with the women and men who make up our movement. Today’s profile is Cesar Villanueva of Pax Christi Pilipinas. The interview was conducted by communications intern Marie Just in October at the Pax Christi International offices in Brussels.
Marie Just: How did you become involved with peace and justice work, and what was your first involvement in Pax Christi International?
Cesar Villanueva: When I was a young boy, I served in our church; I studied in a school where the church is called Queen of Peace. Indirectly I thought that must have influenced my passion for peace work. The Queen of Peace Church is a nice church, mostly Chinese people who go there. … So when I went to university I started being aware of the conditions of equality and justice and, after graduation I was attracted to a poster which said: “Why sell soap?” – because many people were selling soap after university – “when you can build people?” After that I applied for Volunteer Philippines and was sent to the poorest school in Naga City. I started a program there that was called “integration”. We made students aware of the realities of the ground. We exposed them [to the realities of the] dictatorship, the injustice, the corruption, and brought it to their attention. And I went on to work on that for seven years.
When I decided to go back to my Island of Negros Occidental — which is the fourth largest in the Philippines, 85% dependent on sugar — I was challenged with how I could contribute to build the peace that will be needed for the island … So I helped form the local peace community in Negros. … At the same time I was earning money from my university for teaching and a directorship (Director for Popular Peace Education, Pax Christi Institute); and then Father Niall O’Brien, a Columban missioner for 30 years on the island, who wrote a very beautiful book called Revolution from the Heart and who embraced the work of nonviolence in the midst of the armed conflict in my country, invited me in 1995 to the 50th anniversary of Pax Christi in Assisi in Italy. That’s how I got introduced to Pax Christi. … I was asked to be a member of the executive board and elected vice president for Asia. When I finished my term in the international movement, I decided to work as the national coordinator of Pax Christi Pilipinas to continue the work that I was doing, running the movement for almost 6 years.
(During this time) there was a project with Pax Christi Germany and Pax Christi in the Philippines. We were recipients of a civil peace project that gave us the resources to really involve everybody in the whole of the Philippines, and in fact, I am happy to say, we started an institute, Pax Christi Institute, which continues today as a training ground for peace workers, conflict workers. And this has now been accepted by the university also because we offer some masters programs.
MJ: During your time with Pax Christi Pilipinas, can you tell us a story about a time that the work of Pax Christi in the Philippines made a real difference in the situation in your country, or in the lives of people there?
CV: There are two things I personally did when I was Pax Christi National Coordinator. We started a Visayan Peace-building Institute which gathers all church social action workers, teachers, and community organisers in the field. We trained people in conflict transformation and peace-building. See, in my country, conflict is a bad word. So we have to make people aware that conflict is part of life and it shouldn’t be something to be afraid of. This is what we mean by “conflict understanding and awareness”. But also that a conflict can be transformed, not just solved. So we share the whole concept of conflict transformation, the thinking of Johan Galtung, the thinking of John Paul Lederach. And we share with them exact conflict analysis tools that will help people to be competent in handling conflicts. For me that’s one very important contribution that Pax Christi in the Philippines has made. And we now have an institution that is offering a master’s program in conflict and reconciliation – the only one in the Philippines, I think, at the moment.
The other thing that I think is very important: 85% of the people in the Philippines are Catholic. They assume that they know everything and judge people based on the fact that we are the majority. But we realise that when there are interfaith dialogues or dialogues with Muslims, Christians and Protestants, and indigenous people, many Catholics don’t know the Church’s social teachings on peace. So I was challenged to start what we call a Catholic peace-building dialogue, a dialogue among ourselves as Catholics and why we are for peace — what is the basis, what are the social teachings and biblical stories that support our work. I’m very happy that our Pax Christi Bishop-President, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, who is also now member of the International Board, helped us to do that. So we did trainings in Mindanao, gathering all the youth organisers for that purpose.
The last thing I would like to share is that we did do study fora on reconciliation. There are five or six peace processes in the Philippines and I think reconciliation is not much talked about. Pax Christi would like to contribute to the discussion on reconciliation. How can we begin to talk about reconciliation, even if there are conflicts that have not been ended, that have not been resolved? We came up with a simple book, which in the local dialect translates to, “How do you resolve conflicts, how do you calm things so that it can be resolved?” Peace-building.
MJ: What does nonviolence mean to you personally and professionally? How would you describe it?
CV: Nonviolence, I think, is the capacity of people to engage with conflicts with the total respect of the dignity of every person. And that means the use of all possible means that will not hurt the person. It is the ability to know and to think that even the most obvious violent person has dignity in his conscience and you can appeal to the conscience of that person and use that as a way of transformation. That for me is nonviolence.
It is also the ability to think that if you resolve conflicts early on, then you don’t need to lead to violence. At the same time, it is important to understand that in every conflict, there are deep, deep cultural biases and that there are deep, deep structures, that allow violence to happen. If we are made aware of these deep cultural biases and deep structures, maybe we can deny violence. Because violence is not natural. Conflicts are natural but violence is not. So it’s an option that people can make. And I think, as a person with deep faith in gospel values, I think that these aspects of human dignity and conscience are very important.
Cesar Villanueva was first introduced to Pax Christi over 30 years ago. He is the creator and director of the Pax Christi Institute on Non-formal Education that is based in Bacolod City. He has previously served on the International Board.