When he gave his message yesterday after the Angelus, Pope Francis remembered that today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. As he addressed the current conflicts in the world of the 21st century -- especially those in Ukraine, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine -- the Pope pleaded for us to remember the past and learn the lessons of history.
Those lessons pertain primarily to the devastation of war that can arise so quickly when human passions triumph over reason and love. The effort to resolve differences by what he calls "courageous dialogue" is a process that must be taken up again and again, and carried through with perseverance.
"May God give the people and their leaders the wisdom and strength to carry along the path of peace with determination, resolving all disagreements with the tenacity of dialogue.... I hope the mistakes of the past will not be repeated."
"Let us remember that all is lost when there is war but nothing is lost when there is peace. Brothers and sisters: no more war, no more war. I think above all of the children, whose hope of a respectable life and of a future are wrenched away from them; dead children, mutilated children, children who play with remnants of the war instead of toys. Please stop, I ask you this with all my heart, stop, please" (Pope Francis, Angelus, July 27, 2014).
World War I was the beginning of a terrible lesson for humanity regarding the monstrous destructive possibilities of technological power. The ever greater possession of such power today corresponds to an urgent responsibility for us to become peacemakers: as individuals and communities, peoples and political entities. Francis's passionate words -- "No more war! No more war!" -- merely echo the tremendous plea of Paul VI before the United Nations on October 4, 1965: "Jamais plus la guerre!" (War never again!)
The Popes of recent times do not intend to establish pacifism as an absolute moral principle. We know that the Catechism (see, e.g., ##2302-2317) recognizes the justice of legitimate and proportionately restrained defense, and honors those who serve their countries and humanity -- those who stand ready to defend innocent, vulnerable people against violence and aggression. The Popes are not promoting an ideology of "pacifism." They are praying for something very concrete, a real peace based on the common effort for justice, solidarity, mutual understanding, restraint, and love.
In a world of globalized interdependence and unprecedented power, peace is imperative. Human beings must not look to war as a means of resolving conflicts or securing their own selfish interests. Too often, war has been "politics by other means." This has always been wrong, but the 20th century has taught us how horribly wrong it can be. We must be vigilant, because this horror begins within our own hearts, and today more than ever we possess the power to externalize our own violence in a way that brings catastrophe and unimaginable misery to whole peoples, and possibly the whole world. If we are to be peacemakers, we must grow in vigilance and responsibility.
But have we grown? Is the human race more vigilant and more responsible today than the people of a hundred years ago who initiated and cooperated in an explosive nightmare? No one wanted "the Great War" in 1914. It was pride and fear that sparked it, and stubbornness that kept it going after it had spiraled out of control beyond everyone's wildest imagination.
What happened a hundred years ago today? When we look at the events, we recognize a certain familiarity. We have these same kinds of struggles today, in different contexts. We have local tensions between peoples in specific places. We have great powers with complex interests, who want to control spheres of influence. We are afraid of one another. Have we learned anything?
What happened? Tensions in Central Europe between Serbia and the Austro-
Hungarian Empire rapidly escalated to the war declared by Austria at dawn, July 28, 1914.
Europeans still hoped that the conflict might be contained. Perhaps this would be "just another war in the Balkans." But as soon as the shooting began, the gravity of the danger became evident. Standing behind Serbia was the Russian Empire. The Tsar was under pressure from revolutionary movements and divisions within his own government. Russia's strong stand would unite the nation... though it would only be for the short term. Meanwhile the crumbling Hapsburg Empire, seemingly unable to adapt its traditional multinational organism to the exigencies of the 20th century, could not have shaken the rest of Europe on its own. But their neighbor had found success in establishing a powerful and prosperous nation-state. Germany felt strong, but also new, and nervous. They were uncertain about the growing strength of the French on their Western border and the Russians on the Eastern border. The German government and military command would decide that their alliance with Austria and a looming confrontation with Russia represented an ideal pretext for them to establish their own security by a preemptive war against their competitors on both borders. But then there was Belgium, and England's promise to protect Belgian neutrality....
On July 28, however, there was still hope for containing the conflict that had just broken out. There was hope for mediation, for mutual understanding between the parties. It would not have been easy to reach this understanding, and it is foolish to be naive about it. Nothing is more difficult that dialogue and reconciliation, which has to build step by step. It requires tenacity and a kind of inner heroism that perhaps has not yet been seen in the political sphere. It is a heroism we need very much.
Today, a hundred years later, there is still hope. Let us be vigilant. Let us pray for heroes to arise in our midst. Let us pray that we might become heroes, peacemakers, sons and daughters of God.