Reflection at the Ecumenical Service
remembering the victims of World War I
Thursday 6 November 2014
St George’s Basilica, Victoria, Gozo
H.L. Mgr Mario Grech, Bishop of Gozo
An event that happened a century ago has gathered us this evening, here in the house of the Lord. We convene as children of God. We pray one soul, one heart, as brothers and sisters in Christ. The occasion we are commemorating is not a joyous one: it’s the beginning of the Great War of 1914 that took away the lives of 10 million human beings. As Pope Francis recently said visiting the military memorial in Redipuglia, “war is madness…war destroys…war ruins everything… war is irrational”.
Much has been said whether this Great War could have been avoided or not. While we leave this matter to the historians, we must keep alive the memory of those who lost their lives for what Pope Benedict XV rightly described as “a useless massacre”. This Pope, elected just a month after the beginning of the conflict, highlighted one of the main causes of this war: a false sense of brotherhood. War was creating a strong sense of belonging to one’s own nation, but this “coming together” was in fact an illusion. His words are still relevant for us today: “Never perhaps was there more talking about the brotherhood of men than there is today; in fact, men do not hesitate to proclaim that striving after brotherhood is one of the greatest gifts of modern civilization, ignoring the teaching of the Gospel, and setting aside the work of Christ and of His Church. But in reality never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment. Race hatred has reached its climax; peoples are more divided by jealousies than by frontiers; within one and the same nation, within the same city there rages the burning envy of class against class; and amongst individuals it is self-love which is the supreme law over-ruling everything.”
We all know that Historia magistra vitae – history is life’s teacher: but what history are we narrating? The world learned little from the Great War as another World War ensued. Can we really say that we have learned from life’s teacher? As worrying signs of global violence and terrorism are threating peace, we must admit that humanity has still much to learn.
We Christians are called to be messengers and constructors of peace. Peace is not just a human endeavour, but a gift from the Lord, our Peace. He is the true Teacher of life who helps us to read the pages of history as a story of human persons and not just as a story of ideologies, political and military tactics, and numbers. Sometimes, when we commemorate our “glorious dead” we may think of them as courageous and worthy men who loved their nation – and it is right and our duty to remember them as thus. However, these glorious dead are the victims of a futile war waged by those driven by greed, intolerance and lust for power. Our Lord, who died for all and asked us to be his disciples by loving one another, helps us to honour our glorious dead by combating any form of ideology that attacks the foundations of human coexistence.
We face today the threat of individualism, a symptom of deep-rooted egoism. Moreover, in a culture where everybody is becoming suspicious of his neighbour, a new wave a intolerance towards those who are “different” from us is creating new victims. The new “war trenches” are situated in way we talk about the issue of immigrants and combat – in subtle ways – policies of inclusion.
Faith in Christ guarantees that we live up the true meaning of brotherhood – we are all one in Christ, we are all children of God, we are all responsible for one another. May we keep alive the memory of all the victims of the Great War – we keep alive their pain, their suffering, their tears so that we may keep away from new forms of “exalted speeches” about national identity that tend to portray once again a false concept of brotherhood, a perverted way of coming together as one people.
I want to recall here the words of one of those “glorious dead”, the well-known Great War poet Wilfred Owen. Describing the dead of a comrade poisoned by gas, he invites his reader to reflect on such painful dead before talking about war in idyllic and triumphal terms. The poem concludes:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
As Pope Francis says, on this centenary we need to shed tears for all the victims of this and all “mindless wars, in every age”. “Humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep”, concludes the pontiff.
Truly, my brothers and sisters in Christ, “it is sweet and rightly” – dulce et decorum – to love one’s neighbour. Glory does not rest in bayonets stained with human blood, but in those hearts that conquer all forms of egoism in order to overcome all human strife with the power of Christ’s love.