Dominique Pire (full name: Georges Charles Clement Ghislain Pire; February 10, 1910 – January 30, 1969) was a Belgian Dominican friar whose work helping refugees in post-World War II Europe saw him receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958.
On December 11, 1958, Pire delivered his Nobel Lecture entitled “Brotherly Love: Foundation of Peace”.
“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” (Newton)
Please understand that this is not a formal address, but simply a message, a message from the heart, to continue a talk begun here in this very city on October 21, 1958. On that day I said to you: “What my heart seeks this evening is to make contact with yours.” On the tenth and fifteenth of November came the response from the heart of Norway like the bolt from the blue in a classic romance. On November 10, at 3:15 in the afternoon, a telegram arrived from the Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament. On November 15 it was followed by a note from His Majesty King Olav V who wrote:
“My dear Father Pire,
I was very glad to learn of the affection that you have expressed for Norway following your stay here, and I am all the more pleased that the Nobel Peace Prize has now been awarded to you in recognition of your great philanthropic work on behalf of displaced persons.
I congratulate you most sincerely and tender my warmest wishes that your activities in the interest of humanity may continue.”
Of what good would another account of my life be? I covered the essentials on October 21. An American journalist once said to me: “Your life is a paradox.” I refer him to the poet Charles Péguy who said: “It would take me a day to write the history of a single second. It would take me a year to write the history of one minute. It would take me a lifetime, to write the history of one hour. It would take me an eternity to write the history of one day. One can write anything save the history of what one has done.”
Of what good would another lecture on peace be? Peace is not something to lecture about, but something to put into practice. My friend, Doctor Schweitzer, in this very same place, on November 4, 1954, said in his Nobel lecture: “The essential fact which we should acknowledge in our conscience and which we should have acknowledged a long time ago, is that we are becoming inhuman to the extent that we become supermen.” On the same occasion he went on to claim “the intellectual certainty that the human spirit is capable of creating in our time a new mentality, an ethical mentality. Inspired by this certainty”, continued our friend from Lambaréné, “I too proclaim this truth in the hope that my testimony may help to prevent its rejection as an admirable sentiment but a practical impossibility. Many a truth has lain unnoticed for a long time, ignored simply because no one perceived its potential for becoming reality.”
What better way is there of making peace a reality than to tackle the problem of human suffering?
I. Help All Men
Whether or not one has won the Nobel Prize, each of us living in contact with our fellowmen feels a joint responsibility for all forms of suffering, both physical and moral. But no one feels capable of discharging the entire responsibility. Common sense and a desire to be practical soon force us, albeit reluctantly, to limit our activities to a particular aspect of the task or to a particular affliction, without ignoring, misunderstanding, or underestimating the others. From the messages, many and diverse, that have found their way to my desk since November 10, I should like to read you two which highlight the problem precisely. Both are written by people who have suffered much, who have at some time believed all to be lost, and who therefore possess the insight and detachment needed in order to speak with dignity of suffering. The first writes:
“While visiting the Canadian pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition, I was impressed by an inscription in bold lettering in the section on social service. The gist of its message was this: ‘ No way of helping is more important or more rewarding than that of personal initiative.’ In this respect, the Aid to Displaced Persons is a splendid medium and an original one. For us who have so little influence on the great decisions taken at the UN and elsewhere, this is as effective a means as any of working for peace, albeit within Europe alone.Whereas the man in the street despairs of having a say in major political questions, he has every say and every opportunity to put his words into practice on the Displaced Persons problem.
I am unmoved by the pessimists who say that the Nobel Peace Prize has failed to avert violence. I believe that the world is making progress spiritually, slowly no doubt but still making progress. We proceed, as it were, at the rate of three steps forward and two steps back. The important thing is to take that extra third step. In this lies mankind’s only chance, and you are among those who make it possible, who are persistently on the attack, who close ranks and charge again, pressing forward and persevering so that, often in spite of ourselves, the rest of us are swept along by the tide of your enthusiasm. You launch your attack with tact, with practical common sense, often with humor – and always with love and a deep respect for man, always with an acute concern for justice.”
As you can see, the suffering of refugees is a problem which has succeeded, as could many other problems of human suffering, in bringing home to many people a part that they can play in the struggle for peace.
This concept is even more sharply underlined in the second letter, which reads as follows:
“At first, I said to myself: What he is doing is admirable, bur even if he succeeds in setting up some ten or twenty homes for the aged, he will still have saved only a fraction of the Hard Core… You have stuck to your task, however, and your success has followed a geometrical progression. The time had to come, and has indeed arrived, when you would be in a position to solve the entire problem, or at least to make a start on the greater part of it.
You are the living proof that the true solution results from this and this only: setting your whole heart and soul to the one task, however modest, that Providence suggests, and never letting go.
This initial act of love, which at first seems to benefit only a few unknown people, eventually affects the whole world, becoming a bond of international solidarity. This is truly magnificent.”
The “initial act of love” to which my correspondent refers, helps you not only to become a man of single purpose (in itself a powerful attribute), but further and above all, to maintain contact with mankind itself. Such contact is rewarding both to yourself and to those you meet. No longer do you run the risk of allowing humanity to become a mere concept, increasingly abstract and theoretical until it disappears altogether. It becomes once again what it really is: the individual man, the personal crisis, the single destiny, the specific needs. The heart resumes its role as the source of the noblest virtues that initiate pacific action: Love, Initiative, Tenacity, Realism, Patience.
Love. Through love we come close to the hearts of our brothers – at the beginning, throughout the course of, and right up to the end of our lives. Recently, a refugee wrote to his godmother: “I always look forward to receiving your letters; the warmth that radiates from them is a great comfort to me. Yes, I feel that spiritual values are the most important things in our earthly lives and that without them life itself is so full of sadness that it is scarcely worth living. Often, when I was alone, I used to think of you beside me, taking my hand and stroking my forehead. I would have liked to put my head between your hands and to feel your warmth and affection flowing through me. I always had to remind myself that we can be together only in spirit. This thought consoled me, for spiritual bonds are by far the most rewarding. They never deceive us and they go with us to our graves, and even beyond. Thank you for comforting me and for having made the last years of my life the best. I face the end of this life with serenity, even though I know that my wish to be buried in Hungary can never be fulfilled”.
Initiative. I have frequently said and written: “A loving heart is an inventive one.” It finds a thousand ways to help and comfort others. It stays fresh and full of life; one might say it stays green. The editor of a leading Norwegian newspaper was aware of this when he wrote: “There is an old saying that a person who can make plants and flowers grow has a ‘green thumb’.Father Pire, then, has a ‘green thumb’. Whenever his heart comes in contact with other hearts, something immediately starts to grow.”
Tenacity. In thanking me on October 21 at the aula, Mr. Finn Moe said: “You have explained something which strikes me as both essential to and characteristic of the work about which you have spoken tonight. That essential is an individual who decides to devote all his energy, faith, and enthusiasm to this task of restoring self-respect and faith in humanity to those who have been forced to flee, leaving everything behind.”
Realism. Man-to-man contact teaches us not to expect others to be as we would have them be, but to accept them for what they are. This, of course, calls for enormous patience. A woman refugee from one of the Baltic countries wrote in a well-known Belgiannewspaper: “Few people fully appreciate how much love and patience are needed in dealing with refugees. When these people leave their countries, their only possessions are their characters and their bitterness. What intrigue one must unravel, what caprice one must deal with every day in these homes for the aged, in these villages of Europe of the Heart.”
Let us be wary of mass solutions, let us be wary of statistics. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. To be sure, helping men individually naturally implies that one cannot help them all, at least not directly. After all, who in one lifetime can give himself completely to everyone? But what one man cannot do alone, the will of many may yet achieve. There is perhaps no surer road to peace than the one that starts from little islands and oases of genuine kindness, islands and oases constantly growing in number and being continually joined together until eventually they ring the world.
II. Let No Man Be Forgotten
How mistaken are those who think that I reduce all problems of suffering in the world to the sole dramatic one of Displaced Persons. My friends, all the time that I am helping those who are but a fraction of the number of refugees in Europe alone, I keep seeing behind them all the other refugees, not only in Europe but in every corner of the world, whom I cannot help. Recently, I read an article entitled “The Seven Sorrows of the World”, in which the author listed the seven great refugee centers of the world.
Behind this multitude of refugees, however, I see so much other suffering: the starving, the homeless, the imprisoned, and legions of others; My colleague Follereau, champion of the leper cause, wrote to me on November 11 from Tokyo:
“May I say how happy and proud I am to be counted among your friends. All who combat social injustice and human misery, all who wish to see peace reign on earth between men of goodwill, will be honored by this distinction. I am at present visiting the leper colonies of Japan. I shall then go on to Korea and Formosa. Barring unforeseen complications on my trip, I expect to return to Paris around Christmas. Shall I at last have the pleasure of seeing you? But I realize, as you wrote and told me, that we do not have to see each other to know one another. I have not forgotten my plans for the village offered me by Africa. I hope that events will allow us to carry them out soon.
Once again, my heartfelt congratulations.
Yours with devoted affection.”
And so it is that each of us can remain exactly and humbly what he is, doing whatever task God has set before him; this in my case is to continue with love, initiative, tenacity, realism, and patience, to plow my little furrow in the interests of Displaced Persons. We not only can, but should, stay each in his own place, not cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, but working for peace wherever we may be. An architect wrote me: “The struggle goes on, and there are still millions who must be made to realize that all men are brothers, that each one of them is bound to the others by ties of brotherhood.”
III. The Sacred Union
Speaking at Augsburg on May 5, 1957, at the laying of the foundation stone of our third European Village, I said to my listeners:
“Deep-rooted as our differences may be, they nevertheless remain superficial. And that which divides us is of less significance than that which we have in common. The best way to live in peace, with mutual love and respect, is to recognize our common denominator. This common denominator carries a truly splendid name: Man. Let us learn, then, once and for all, to see a human brother in each person, no matter how greatly he differs from us in his ideas, his social position, his mentality, or his beliefs. Let us learn, also, once and for all, to assess a man at his true value, a value which is always infinite.”
He who dedicates himself with all his heart to saving just one of his brothers and who persuades just one other brother to do likewise will become immediately aware of a wonderful phenomenon: “the common denominator”.
A Norwegian whom I met here in Oslo in October wrote to me two days after my departure: “From the very first moment, you appear not as a stranger, but as a brother whom we have known all our lives and in whose veins flows the same blood as our own.” An important official who had grasped my message wrote on November 14: “In giving aid, you begin by treating every man, whoever he is, as a man… The arc of the bow bent by spiritual force takes on greater significance than the trajectory of a lunar rocket. We can and we should differ on points of religion, philosophy, and science, but we should always let man be what he is: a human being, who is neither better nor worse than any other human being and who therefore deserves the same attention as any other.” A lady wrote to me from Berlin: “I enclose an article from a Berlin newspaper which has impressed me very much and made me think. Many people would do well to read this article and take it to heart; the world would be a better place. We should not be satisfied merely with saying that people today are evil. That is easy to say. We should, instead, be doing our utmost to persuade them to embrace good, for dispute and rivalry lead only to war, and today war means the end of the world. Never can we emphasize too often the fact that, in the final reckoning, good always triumphs over evil.”
My friends, at such a point denominational disputes and national vainglory might well seem contemptible. So let me read to you some wonderful messages of fraternity.
The message from the French Rabbi Azra comes in the form of a prayer:
Inspired by the precepts of Your Law, we are gathered here for the building of a new ‘European Village’. We are here to implement a work of fraternity and love, and to ask You to bless the laying of the foundation stone of this village.
Oh Lord, who hast brought us into this world to live in peace and harmony, You who hast endowed us with reason in order that we might tame the forces of nature and not that we might conceive of new means of desecrating the lives we owe to You, hasten the happy age of universal brotherhood. May this ceremony, Lord, which is a symbol of this brotherhood, herald the day, which shall be blessed a thousandfold, when the entire human race shall belong to one and the same family and when its members, Your children, shall at last be delivered from the suffering, the miseries, and the scourges which yet afflict them. Purified and ennobled by their ordeals, they will from then on, live together in peace and harmony. God of mercy, Master of our destinies, bless all those who work for good, all those who inspire; bless that greathearted man Father Dominique Pire and crown with success the work he has undertaken; bless all men, our brothers, inspire them with reason and wisdom and fill them with the spirit of peace, love, and concord.”
Here now, is a message from a German burgomaster : “One is forced, in spite of oneself, to go along with you, to follow your example. This is what has happened to me since our meeting. I write to you thus, in simple terms, about my impressions both of our first meeting and of the later one on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone, and I ask you to take all that I write in the truest sense of the words.”
A message from an American reads: “I am a Jewess, yet feel fellowship for all Catholics… all good people, regardless of their denomination.”
A married couple writes: “The magnificent example of your great work on behalf of humanity revives the eternal hope and belief that we all cherish, that a ‘good life’ can help the world toward recovery. In these days of gloomy cynicism, you symbolize the action and morality that can give new heart and new life to those who have lost faith as a result of man’s inhumanity. One a Catholic, the other a Jew, both of us have experienced a reawakening of our hopes and ideas, our faith, and our love toward our fellow human beings, thanks to the way, worthy of Christ Himself, in which you approach men of any class or creed.”
This message comes from a woman whose husband was lost in the Belgian concentration camp at Breendonck, whose only son died at the age of twenty in an extermination camp, and who herself was near death when she returned from the camp at Ravensbrück. She writes:
“On the social level, I try to give aid – to the best of my ability – to all who seek it from me, regardless of their opinions. I deserve no special credit for this; it is simply my nature. Tolerance, kindness, and charity – that is my code; and God is good to me, for in this way He permits me to alleviate my utter loneliness.”
Here also is a message from an important French official: “Our Norwegian friends could not have made a better choice since they once again recognize in this way that love and charity are the real sources of peace.”
A message from a Catholic priest: “Your providential success is good for all since, in applauding you, we proclaim the very evangelic truth and charity which give life and salvation their being.”
A message from a Protestant pastor: “Please accept my warmest congratulations on your being chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, to the great joy of all your friends. Personally, I am more than happy: I am, in fact, delighted.”
And this from the wife of a great industrialist: “It is your Christian faith, animated by true tolerance, which has won you so many followers.”
And a Norwegian woman: “This award is like a star shining in the dark firmament of today’s world. Let me thank you for this ray of light which your work represents.”
The voice of a Protestant: “I am a Protestant, and it was through one of our religious publications that I came to hear of, to admire, and to respect your work, in which I have since taken the greatest interest. I think that you and your colleagues are endeavoring to live the beautiful prayer of St. Francis of Assis and that in effect, wherever there is despair, there also do you appear, with God’s help, to bring hope.”
An item from a Corsican journalist: “Nothing gives me greater joy than this evidence that the spirit of Peace is not yet lost.”
And finally this testimony from a fellow countryman: “It is comforting still to be able to find, in this world ravaged by materialism and by its inevitable companion egotism, minds perspicacious enough and fearless enough to pay a solemn tribute to Charity.”
The sacred union existing between two brother human beings who rediscover themselves as men of true dignity while working together to save a third, rids us of many of the barriers of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and discrimination that poison human love and sap its strength. We must now have faith in the power of love and set it to work. Let me point out right away that a gesture of brotherly love extended jointly requires no compromise of principle, but on the contrary is justified and indeed welcomed by the right-minded. Let us not speak of tolerance. This negative word implies grudging concessions by smug consciences. Rather, let us speak of mutual understanding and mutual respect. Every man is obliged to act in accordance with his conscience. If my neighbor holds an opinion different from mine, do I have any right to consider him dishonest or evil? Should I not rather believe as a matter of course that he is good and expect him to adhere faithfully to the dictates of his conscience? St. Thomas Aquina, the prince of all the theologians, wrote in connection with the differences in religious beliefs: “If a man truly believes it wrong to serve Christ, he commits a sin if he serves Him.”
For ten years now, we have always acted in accordance with these principles, both in our work on behalf of Displaced Persons and for the sake of the Europe of brotherly love which we are endeavoring to create around the refugees. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize has obliged me, contrary to habit and against my better judgment, to look back, in spite of St. Paul’s words: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I received each journalist individually and calmly, as a human being ought to be received. But the paths of introspection and of delving into the past along which each one of them wanted to lead me, have given me a chance to see that, basically, what the last ten years have brought about is simply the forging of individualized human links into a solid chain of love, originating from the small group of friends who met in Brussels on February 27, 1949, spreading to the friends of those friends and again to their friends in turn, and reuniting us here this evening as true brothers, and not as an anonymous mass. Let us hope that this chain of friends and many others like it will soon constitute the Europe of the Heart and perhaps one day, the World of the Heart. Since November 10 I would have found complete joy and hope in the unanimous support of those who adjudge and pronounce the decision of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, were it not for the “curtain” behind which live other brothers like ourselves, with the same right to live but in even greater need of brotherly love than we are. What more appropriate message could we send them all this evening, to their leaders as well as to the humblest of them, than this: Brothers of the East, Brothers of Asia, I love you and I am willing to give my life for each one of you.
The 1958 Nobel Peace Prize is not the end of a career, but a beginning, a fresh start, the continuation with renewed zeal, of all that has been done in the last ten years. The responsibility involved is enormous. A man who once watched me at work wrote to me:
“To the many congratulations showered on you on the occasion of your winning the Nobel Prize, I should like to add my own. I do so, even though I am sure that this distinction holds little significance for you personally and that you attribute the honor involved only to the spiritual principles which you stand for. All the same, you must surely admit, even if only to yourself, the joy it has brought you. The idea and the man go together. You personify your idea to such an extent that you are its chief bearer. You inspire faith, and in describing your principles, you describe yourself.”
And what can one reply to this writer who sums it up in these words: “At present, you are part of everyone’s dream of peace.”
Whether you are believers or not, dear friends, give me your affection, your support, and help me to further the cause of true friendship. In concluding, I leave you with four simple, yet glorious, lines of verse, recently written by an old Russian refugee whom I restored to a decent life. He entitles these lines: “The Work of the Reverend Father Dominique Pire”. Here they are:
“A kiss of Peace, a ray of light on earth…
A Solace to a lonely heart…
A noble Promise…
A Caress like that of God’s own Hand…”