I’ve never met Hildegard, but I’ve appreciated the counsel and friendship of Richard Deats, a former executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the U.S. Richard led training in the Philippines with Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, and he told me much about them. Richard taught me how events like the People Power movement of 1987 don’t just happen, rather they are a harvest from seeds planted through much training and organizing. News media may note 10 percent of an iceberg above the water level of history, but the wise activist pays special attention to the 90 percent below the surface where transformation is born.
Trainers of Social Change Through Nonviolence Around the World
Christ came to show that only self-giving love can overcome injustice and its roots in the heart and mind and conscience of people … So it is the task of the Christian to show this way in the revolutionary process and this can be done only if the Christian is with the people, with those who suffer, and not above them, but one with them.
Hildegard Goss-Mayr is not a name you’ll find in headlines. She works with the 90 percent of the iceberg most of us don’t see. Working along with her husband Jean Goss, the benefits are multiplied in the lives of the people she trained.
Background & Early Resistance
Born into an Austrian Catholic family, Hildegard learned the principles and practices of pacifism from her parents. Her father, Kaspar Mayr, was one of the first Catholics to join the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and taught his children to respect all people. When Hitler and the Nazis seized Austria, nine-year old Hildegard engaged in her first act of civil disobedience—refusing to salute when the dictator passed.
Later while sitting in a bomb shelter waiting for Allied bombs to fall, Hildegard came to a life-changing decision, to:
ither submit to the forces of death, of bitterness, hatred and the spirit of revenge—or to reject violence radically and to seek the forces of life that are able to overcome evil at its root in the minds and hearts of human beings as well as in the structures of society … I could not go on living unless I dedicated my life to peacemaking through the power of nonviolence.
After the war, Hildegard’s calling became crystallized in the teachings and self-giving love of Jesus. In 1953 Hildegard was invited to join the Secretariat of the IFOR. She began working on East-West dialogue, especially through European churches. She also taught about issues of nonviolence and conscientious objection to war, and began to develop the workshops that would define the core of her career.
Hildegard & Jean Meet
Through her work with IFOR, she met French peace activist Jean Goss. Jean had been a French soldier and was imprisoned by the Nazis for much of the war. During his imprisonment, Goss became convinced that God’s love as seen in Jesus Christ demanded nonviolent love from his followers. Beginning in prison and then in the larger community following the war, Goss sought to put this radical love into practice. When he met Hildegard, they each found a perfect life partner.
Hildegard and Jean became part of the
peace lobby that formed to provide input into the consultations of the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council. They prepared documents about the indiscriminate destruction of modern warfare, the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, nonviolence and the protection of conscientious objectors. The peace lobby helped many leaders at this historic Vatican council recognize that the traditional Just War Theory was inadequate to address the current ethical challenges of modern war. For the first time since the founding of Francis of Assisi’s order, the Catholic Church affirmed and encouraged the practice of the nonviolence of Jesus as well as affirming conscientious objection to war.
A majority of the Goss-Mayrs’ work, however, lay in their training programs, particularly in three significant areas of struggle: Latin America, the Philippines and Africa. In the 1960s, Latin American countries were usually ruled by military dictatorships, and there were many movements of revolutionary fervor that even drew priests into the violent liberation struggles. The Goss-Mayrs teamed up with bishops like Dom Hélder Câmera of Brazil who supported nonviolence as the way to break cycles of oppression and violence. They conducted seminars across Latin America, teaching nonviolence both from religious-philosophical foundations and in its pragmatic strategies. In Brazil, the term firmez permanente, or relentless persistence, captured the Goss-Mayrs’ active spirit of nonviolence.
Arrest & Release
During a trip to Uruguay, Hildegard was arrested on suspicion of supporting the Tupamaro guerrilla movement. During her time under arrest and questioning she was able to stay calm and express compassion for her interrogators. She was eventually released, and as she was being driven to the airport to be deported, her accompanying policewoman broke into tears that her country had arrested such a person as Hildegard.
Relationship with Adolfo Pérez Esquivel
One of their deepest friendships was with Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a leading organizer from Argentina. Hildegard often traveled with him and other activists to provide nonviolence training throughout Latin America. They were arrested once in Brazil where they were interrogated and tortured. Later, when Esquivel was imprisoned again, the Goss-Mayrs played a major role in the international campaign for his release.
Resisting Dictatorship in the Phillipines
Catholic leaders in the Philippines had heard of the Goss-Mayrs’ work in Europe and Latin America, and in 1984 invited them to their country to train nonviolent activists. At the time, dictator Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines. One of the leading voices of nonviolent resistance, Senator Benigno Aquino, had been assassinated in 1983 at the Manila International Airport as he returned from exile. The Goss-Mayrs met with Aquino’s widow, Corazon, and son,
Butz. Together they began to develop a network of people interested in nonviolent action against the Marcos dictatorship. Jean and Hildegard facilitated workshops that included small groups working on strategies and tactics. They analyzed the pillars of power supporting the Marcos regime and developed specific strategies for toppling those pillars.
Throughout the preparation of this movement, spirituality was central. Workshops included worship. Hildegard saw personal transformation as a foundation for the process of liberation:
The seed of the violence is in the structures, of course, and in the dictator. But isn’t it also in ourselves? … Unless we each tear the dictator out of our own heart, nothing will change. Besides a deepening spirituality, the Goss-Mayrs challenged the Filipinos to access their own cultural traditions and historical experiences to shape their movement. The people trained by the Goss-Mayrs held hundreds of workshops on nonviolence—dramatically multiplying the number of people ready to engage in the struggle.
When Marcos called for a presidential election to endorse his rule, Corazon Aquino ran against him. The movement was ready to take action, mobilizing the public and monitoring the polls. Although Marcos declared victory, Aquino’s supporters announced their own monitored results. Eventually, two generals and a few hundred soldiers declared support for Aquino. When Marcos ordered his army to arrest the generals, church leaders and the movement activists quickly organized tens of thousands of unarmed Filipinos to create a human shield to protect the generals. News media from around the world called it People Power. After a three-day standoff, the military refused to follow Marcos’ orders anymore, and the dictator fled.
Death of Jean & Hildegard’s Coninuing Work
In April, 1991, Jean died suddenly. Hildegard continued her work, shifting the focus to Africa where she conducted workshops throughout the continent. Tapes and books by Hildegard and Jean were carried far and wide. They were used especially in Madagascar to help church leaders confront the dictatorship of Didier Ratsiraka. Jean had visited Madagascar just before his death. Hildegard visited to help the movement leaders explore how to continue their nonviolent pressure. A nonviolent movement had developed that brought more than 100,000 people into the streets every week. These leaders helped the republic transition away from the dictatorship and into an elected government.
The mark of the long-term impact of Hildegard Goss-Mayr and her husband Jean is the number of people who use their tools of analyzing power, their process for developing strategies and their methods of teaching nonviolence. Hildegard said,
We should remember that no effort, no action that we carry out through the force of Love and Truth is ever lost.
Related Interfaith Peacemakers Articles
Relevant External Resources
- Richard Deats – Deats Peace
- Fellowship of Reconciliation – Wikipedia
- People Power Revolution – Wikipedia
- International Fellowship of Reconciliation – Wikipedia
- Second Vatican Council – Wikipedia
- Just War Theory – Wikipedia
- Tupamaros – Wikipedia
- Ferdinand Marcos – Wikipedia
- Benigno Aquino, Jr. – Wikipedia
- Corazon Aquino – Wikipedia
- Didier Ratsiraka – Wikipedia