Pope Francis alone, head bowed, among thousands of white tombstones on the greensward of the Austro-Hungarian Cemetery in Fogliano di Redipuglia: this will be the lasting image of the Pontiff’s visit to the sites of the Great War. His visit took place a century after its outbreak in the summer of 1914, which opened an abyss of “useless slaughter”, denounced in vain by Benedict XV.
Also to no avail was Pius XII’s anguished appeal in 1939 when he sought to discourage the Second World War. Instead what came was a tragic “hour of darkness” — Pacelli wrote in his first Encyclical — when “the spirit of violence and of discord brings indescribable suffering on mankind”. And today his Successor has returned to speak of “a third war, one fought ‘piecemeal’, with crimes, massacres, destruction”, as Pope Francis stated during his return from Korea.
Francis repeated it in his homily at the Mass — a meditation rooted in Genesis, the opening text of the Christian and Jewish Holy Scriptures — on the madness of war: a reality which destroys and ruins everything, driven by greed, intolerance, ambition, often justified by an ideology. When this happens, Cain’s hollow response echoes once again: “What does it matter to me?”. Indeed, these words are ever-recurring, even in the face of the most frightful tragedies, the “scornful motto” of war which looks directly at no one, a near personification of evil.
In this way and in the shadow of Cain, victims have multiplied by the million in a century stained by the blood of two world wars. Still today tens of thousands are sacrificed in wars which are forgotten but no less savage.
In the face of this grim reality the word of the Gospel rings out to encourage and admonish: “He who takes care of his brother enters into the joy of the Lord; however, he who does not do so, who, despite his omissions says ‘what does it matter to me?’, stays outside”, the Pope said. Thus, in order to save oneself one needs to have the courage to move out of Cain’s shadow and to implore “the capacity to cry”. To renounce the bad dreams and return to the dreams of the victims of war and of today’s elderly, to whom Francis alluded.“How is this possible?”, the Bishop of Rome asked himself, again denouncing the “interests, geopolitical strategies, greed for money and power”, forcefully accusing “the profiteers of war”, the outright “plotters of terrorism” and “schemers of conflicts” who, through the arms trade generate “bad dreams, foster bad feelings” and “falsify the very psychology of peoples”, as Pope Paul VIstated to the United Nations half a century ago.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 17, 2019
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