From World War I to today

On July 27, Pope Francis said during his remarks after praying the Angelus, “Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which had millions of victims and caused immense devastation. This conflict, which Pope Benedict XVI called a ‘senseless slaughter,’ resolved after four long years into a most fragile peace. Tomorrow will be a day of mourning in memory of this tragedy. While remembering this tragic event, I hope that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, that the lessons of history are acknowledged, and that the causes for peace may always prevail through patient and courageous dialogue.”

One can understand Pope Francis’ implied fear that the “mistakes of the past” might be repeated, as he looks upon the Ukraine-Russia conflict (and other pitched battles in former Soviet republics), the various armed conflicts in the Middle East pitting a variety of configurations of Jews, Christians, Sunni and Shiite Moslems against each other, the threats from China against its neighbors, and the confrontations between radical Islam and members of other religions in Africa, Asia and Oceania. The world in 2014 does not resemble 1914’s bipolar world (with the Triple Entente poised against the Central Powers), which means that we need not fear a “World War” pitting half of the planet’s countries against the other half.  However, the intense human suffering going on around the globe (with persecution of Christians being part and parcel of so many of these conflicts) calls out for renewed efforts for justice and peace (as the victims’ blood cries out to us, as did the blood of Abel and the much more eloquent Blood of Christ).

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia said in 2012, “The atrocities of World War I came to an exhausted end in 1918, and everyone sighed, ‘Never again.’ Yet a little more than 20 years later, World War II broke out as a humiliated Germany sought to reassert its dignity and reclaim what it felt to be its right. Over this second part of the twin apocalypse of the last century there loomed the shadow of demonic ideology — the totalitarian and quintessentially pagan ideology that came to be known as fascism. It proved no less murderous than the communism which had shown its true face in Stalin and which, while claiming to be a polar opposite of fascism, was alarmingly alike in its effect. When the guns and bombs eventually fell silent in 1945, it was clear that Europe and the world had endured a twin apocalypse after which nothing could ever be the same. One of the many troubling aspects of the apocalypse was that the prime mover in each part — World War I and World War II — was one of the unquestionably great Christian nations of Europe, Germany. The World Wars, therefore, represented the collapse of Christian civilization as it had been known, at least in Europe.”

The archbishop was pointing out how Christianity had not really taken root in the hearts of the people of Germany (and of many other countries) and he was criticizing the “supposed liberation brought by the project of modernity, since without the aid of modern science and technology the achievements of, say, Auschwitz and Hiroshima would have been impossible. Both were, it could be argued, technological triumphs but moral catastrophes. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were the great emblems of the twin apocalypse, and the question was, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Is there hope, is there life beyond the ash-heaps? And if there is, where might we find it, where do we make a fresh start?”

His question is a good one for us American Catholics to ponder, as we remember that Hiroshima was blown up 69 years ago this past Wednesday, on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. 

The Australian archbishop looked at the intellectual aftermath of the world wars in Europe. “They left Europe Spiritually eviscerated, with a widespread evaporation of meaning and a loss of confidence in institutions. This is an experience from which Europe has still to recover, and any real recovery is unlikely insofar as Europe takes refuge in a secularist ideology. The Wall may have fallen in 1989, but the great liberation and unification have not yet happened. The European crisis is rendered more grave because the World Wars also cast doubt upon the grand promises of the project of modernity and brought to birth a postmodernity fraught with deep uncertainties and ambiguities.”

What the archbishop said in 2012 can be seen to be bearing fruit in 2014, as members of the European Union dither while so much conflict goes on throughout the world. We at The Anchor would not want the Europeans to go to war, but the hypocrisy of their faint-hearted complaints about Russia and other nations, while selling them more armaments, is not something we can applaud.

Coming back to Catholicism, Archbishop Coleridge pointed out that the aftermath of the world wars also demanded a change in the Church, that “business as usual” could not continue, “as if beyond this unwelcome and unpleasant disruption we could simply carry on as we had for centuries. But, what could the Church say? That was the question at the heart of Vatican II.

“One thing it meant for the council was the rejection of a tendency to yield to a self-protective introversion. Like everyone else, the Church was battered and exhausted at the end of the Second World War; and it may have been understandable that the Church in such a moment would have closed ranks, retiring behind the battlements. The Church did not stand above the maelstrom but had to go to its heart — and that is what she did in Vatican II. This meant the demise — or at least the beginning of the demise — of a Eurocentric Church and the birth — or the beginning of the birth — of a World Church. The implications of this are incalculable. The demography of the Universal Church is confirming the judgment of the council, as day by day the center of gravity in the Catholic Church shifts from the countries of the West, especially Europe, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. We see traces of this world-wide shift in the changing face of our Catholic people and presbyterate in Australia. The color of both is changing, as we find more Asians and Africans among us; but this merely reflects the fact that the color of the Church’s face around the world is changing dramatically. ‘I am black and beautiful,’ says the bride in the ‘Song of Songs.’ The face of the Church, the Bride of Christ, while not yet black, is certainly darkening in color — and nothing can stop that process.

“The Spirit seems to be saying that the Churches of the West — and even the West itself — cannot now renew themselves from within. They need help from outside, help of a kind which perhaps we did not see coming and which we may not immediately welcome. But the Spirit is also saying surely that the whole Church has to become more missionary. This seems to me to be the heart of the teaching of Vatican II. At a time when we may be tempted to introversion, the Church must become more missionary.”

The archbishop’s words seem prescient, coming as they did before the election of Pope Francis in 2013 and the naming of Bishop Edgar da Cunha to the Diocese of Fall River this year. May we accept the Spirit’s invitation to collaborate with them to bring hope to a world at war, a world thirsting for peace.  

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts