Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The war that didn't end all wars

Saturday, August 9, 2014

This month the world remembers the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918). Among the books I explored in the bookcases at home when I was a small boy, a good number were written as contemporary interpretations of the First World War. My father was in high school when the war ended, and perhaps he had a special interest in the events reported in the news when he was a boy.

When my mother commented, rarely, on the First World War, she said with irony that it was supposed to be, according to President Wilson, “the war to end all wars.” In fact, as is widely recognized now, it was the war that dealt such a terrible blow to the European countries that the history of the 20th century can be read as a footnote to World War I, a series of attempts to come to terms with the damage inflicted on the then greatest nation states in the modern world. Beginning with the 15 million soldiers and civilians killed from 1914 to 1918, the 20th century was the bloodiest in the history of mankind. The engine of war was not religion but nationalism, which for many is their only religion.

Pope Pius X was openly concerned about what he saw as the course of nationalist posturing several years before the outbreak of the Great War on Aug. 3, 1914 (see, George J. Marlin, “World War I and the Papacy,” Aug. 2, 2014). On Aug. 2, 1914, the pope issued “A call to the Catholics of the whole world.” Recognizing that Christians would be killing Christians in the name of their nation states, the pope wrote, “Now that almost the whole of Europe is being swept along in the maelstrom of this frightful war whose dangers, destruction and consequences nobody can contemplate without being stricken with grief and horror, We too are full of anxiety and sorrow …” Pope Pius X died on Aug. 20, filled with the sorrow of a father watching his children destroy themselves.

Pope St. Pius X’s successor was Benedict XV, elected on Sept. 3, 1914. In his first statement to the faithful of the world, he called for an end to what he knew would be “horrible butchery.” He declared that the pope is not neutral but impartial. He explained: “We reprove all violations of rights wherever committed, but to involve the papal authority in disputes of belligerents would be neither useful nor appropriate.”

Pope Benedict created a Vatican office to work with the International Red Cross, exchanging wounded prisoners of war and interned civilians, particularly women and children. He contributed 82 million gold liras to support war-related relief programs. The Vatican refugee office continues in operation today, exchanging information about family members who are imprisoned or lost. I worked with it when they were using missionaries to reunite families during the civil wars in Africa in the 1970 and 1980s.

In 1915, Pope Benedict XV also offered a plan for peace through negotiation, which both sides rejected, although President Wilson later incorporated several of the pope’s points in his own Fourteen Points. The Holy See was excluded from the Versailles Peace Conference that brought the war to a formal end without addressing the source of discords among the nations.

The 1918 Treaty of Versailles did restore independence to the Polish nation and created the League of Nations, which was blessed by Pope Benedict when he permitted the Catholic Union of International Studies to establish permanent relations with it. He urged the league to call for an end of slavery in Africa and Muslim countries and to send aid to people in Russia dying from famine because of the civil war there in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. All this helps to explain why, 85 years later, Cardinal Ratzinger took the name of Benedict XVI, calling his predecessor “the courageous prophet of peace.”

Another pope again calls the world to peace. Pope Francis asks us to pray daily for an end to the various armed conflicts and wars in the Middle East and in Africa. The danger is always, as the world should have learned in 1914, that a small dispute can escalate into a general conflict that ignites the world.

Pope Francis called the presidents of Israel and Palestine to the Vatican to pray for peace, but this gesture seems to have been stillborn in the midst of the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza and the rocket attacks on Israel. The self-proclaimed Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria has told all Christians to leave or be killed. The Eucharist that was celebrated for 1,600 years in Mosul is no longer prayed there. The churches are destroyed and Christian families have fled. The persecution of Christians in parts of Africa continues unabated, and their protection is not a high priority for the western powers. As, united with Pope Francis, we remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer each day, we pray for ourselves as well, that we may become peacemakers in our day and in our homes and country. Let the remembrance of the outbreak of the First World War be the occasion for intensified prayer for peace. God bless you.