THERE have been many events to mark the centenary of the First World War – its outbreak, back in 2014, and grim land-marks such as the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme last year. These are important as they enable us to reflect on the horror of the war and the deaths of at least eight million servicemen from the combatant countries. Many of us have family members who were killed in the war and it is a good time to remember them as well.
But one event which I suspect will not be marked very much is the most important initiative which the Roman Catholic Church – in the person of Pope Benedict XV – took to try and bring the war to an end, in the summer of 1917. The picture above is of the monument to the pope in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pope, elected very shortly after the war began, opposed it strongly and challenged the claims of both sides in the war that they were acting morally – for him it was madness, the ‘suicide of Europe’.
By the early months of 1917 there were signs of widespread war-weariness, and some indications of a willingness to compromise and negotiate. It was particularly necessary for Germany to do so, since by this stage only Germany was really occupying other countries’ territory. In the late spring the pope put out feelers to Germany and Austria-Hungary, and there seemed to be some grounds for hope. In mid-August the pope sent to the belligerent countries what became known as the ‘Peace Note’ with definite proposals to bring the fighting to an end – an immediate halt to hostilities, a phased reduction in armaments, an end to the occupying of territory (so Germany would evacuate Belgium) and negotiations about the future of disputed areas such as Alsace-Lorraine. Moreover, everyone would renounce any claim to reparations from others: the pope was interested in reconciliation, not punishment.
Tragically the initiative failed and Europeans continued killing each other in huge numbers until November 1918. The Allies were particularly negative – Britain didn’t even send a reply to the Pope’s Note – and President Woodrow Wilson had no time for it. By the summer the High Command in Germany had reasserted its control and believed it could win the war quickly before the American troops reached Europe. The pope said that the failure of his Note was the worst experience of his life and ministry. What would the history of Europe have been if it had worked and his move ended the war, rather than the Treaty of Versailles?
For Christians and others of good will, reconciliation and peace-making are the right way to live and to settle disputes – not all out war until victory is complete, nor punishment and recrimination. Some of the challenges which the pope faced (and he was undermined by local Catholic leaders, particularly in this country) are still with us now as we try to move away from the madness of war.
Fr Ashley Beck
Editor, ST. ED.