‘That for which the whole world has long sighed, which Christianity has implored with such fervent prayer, and for which We too, interpreter of the common sorrow, have never ceased to pray with the heart of the father intent on the good of all – that has come in a moment: at last, the clash of arms has ceased.’
These words were written a hundred years ago in what must be one of the shortest papal encyclical letters ever written, called by its Latin title Quod Iam Diu – a short, passionate exclamation by Pope Benedict XV, shown above, after the armistice of November 1918, the centenary of which is being marked in many ways this weekend. What he makes clear in the letter is that it was God who was to be thanked for the end of the conflict, after so many years of killing. Many of the observances this weekend will be moving and impressive, particularly those in northern France and Belgium, and especially those which emphasise reconciliation. It’s worth remembering, of course, that fighting didn’t really stop in Eastern Europe, and also that for Poland the anniversary is of the regaining of the country’s national independence.
However, from the point of view of Christianity and our teaching about war and peace – which has developed so much in the last century, partly because of the Great War – some of the ways in which Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are celebrated are inadequate and flawed. If we give the impression that the war was justified, or if we proclaim that war is noble and glorious, or if we exalt the power of the nation State and its claimed, then we do not honour those who were killed in their millions and we do not witness to our belief as Christians that war is sinful and evil. For us there is no place for tawdry nationalism.
There won’t be much reference to Pope Benedict this weekend, even perhaps in our churches, so it’s worth remembering what he said and did. Most importantly, he worked tirelessly from the beginning of his pontificate in September 1914 to end the conflict. He condemned it as immoral and unjustified. He poured scorn on the claims of both the Allied and the Central Powers that they were acting justly. He repeatedly called – particularly in the diplomatic initiative he took in the summer of 1917 – for the powers to stop fighting and negotiate a settlement. This consistent teaching, which was imparted in very strong and colourful language, called the leaders of the nations to account and reminded them that they would have to answer to God for their actions: indeed one of the pope’s themes was the war was happening in the first place because of the abandonment of authentic belief in God and the Christian faith. This teaching has to help us now in the ways in which we remember and pray for the souls of those who were killed – one of the ways in which the pope tried to root his teaching about the war in Catholic devotional life was to enact that more Masses for the holy souls in November should be offered for those being killed in the war; he also inserted the invocation ‘Queen of Peace, pray for us’ in the Litany of Our Lady (and he gave a statue of Our Lady under this title to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome). What we say about peace has to be rooted in our worship. Praying for the souls in purgatory of those who were killed in the war should be particularly important, and many of us lost family members in the conflict.
We also as the Catholic community in this country ought to be penitent, for in Britain and virtually all the combatant countries the pope got little or no support from Catholic bishops or most Catholics, who were keen to rally to their national flags (the only exception were the bishops of Ireland). The actions of Cardinal Bourne, of Archbishop Amigo (who laid the foundation stone of our church) and the rest of them were appalling and shameful – the small minority of Catholics in this country who were loyal to the pope (the Guild of the Pope’s Peace) were marginalised and disowned by the bishops. This may shock us, but we also need to be aware that we still have a lot to do to distance ourselves from the glorification of war and witness to Christian teaching. As we pray for the war dead this weekend we should also pray for Benedict XV and give thanks for his ministry and teaching.
The wearing of a white poppy, as an alternative to the British Legion’s red poppy or in addition to it, is one way in which some make a witness for peace this weekend. For the first time we are making available in the porch some of these. There is no charge but you are welcome to put some money in the wall safe to defray costs.