A troubling, offensive observance of All Souls Day at an American military cemetery.
On Thursday, November 2, Pope Francis traveled about 30 miles south of Rome to the site of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno, administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, where 7,860 American service personnel are buried. Pope Francis celebrated Mass there and walked among the graves, placing flowers on some headstones. The Catholic Church annually commemorates “the faithful departed” on this “All Souls’ Day” and encourages prayers for the dead and visits to cemeteries.
The various press reports describe a talk the Pope gave during the Mass (a “homily” after the readings for the day) as “off-the-cuff,” “unscripted,” and “improvised.” I found the address he gave troubling, offensive, and it prompts this essay.
The address was short. Its text does not appear on the Vatican’s webpage, but the Italian text of a prayer he recited at the Ardeatine Caves on his return to Rome does appear on the webpage. The various press reports use direct and indirect quotes to provide the text, so a complete text from such sources is not possible. One website, however, stated that it had received the full Italian text from the Vatican and provided at least an English translation:
All of us, today, are gathered here in hope. Each one of us, in his own heart, can repeat Job’s words, which we heard in the First Reading: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last He will stand upon the earth.” [Job 19:25] The hope of meeting God again, of meeting all of us as brothers: and this hope doesn’t disappoint. [St.] Paul was strong in that expression of the Second Letter [sic: reading]: “Hope does not disappoint.” [Romans 5:5] However, hope is often born and puts its roots in so many human wounds, in so many human sorrows and that moment of sorrow, of soreness, of suffering makes us look at Heaven and say: “I believe that my Redeemer is alive, but stop, Lord.” And this is, perhaps, the prayer that issues from all of us, when we look at this cemetery. “I’m sure, Lord, that these brothers of ours are with You.”
“I’m sure,” we say this, “but, please, Lord, stop. No more, no more war, no more of this futile slaughter,” as [Pope] Benedict XV said. [Benedict XV was pope, 1914-1922, during World War I.] It’s better to hope without this destruction: youths… thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands, upon thousand[s] of broken hopes. “No more, Lord.” And we must say this today, who pray for all the deceased, but in this place we pray in a special way for these boys — today when the world is again at war and is preparing to go more strongly to war. “No more, Lord, no more.” Everything is lost with war.
There comes to mind that elderly lady that, looking at the ruins of Hiroshima, with wise resignation but much sorrow, with that lamenting resignation that women are able to live, because it’s their charism, said: “Men do everything to declare and make war and, in the end, they destroy themselves.” This is war: the destruction of ourselves. No doubt that woman, that elderly lady, had lost sons and grandsons there. She only had the soreness in her heart and tears. And if today is a day of hope, today is also a day of tears. Tears like those that women felt and had when the news arrived:
“You, Mrs, have the honor that your husband was a hero of the Homeland; that your sons are heroes of the Homeland.” They are tears that today humanity must not forget. This pride of humanity that has not learnt the lesson and seems not to want to learn it!
When so many times in history men think of starting a war, they are convinced they are bringing a new world; they are convinced of bringing a “spring,” and it ends in a bad, cruel winter with the reign of terror and death. Today we pray for all the deceased, all, but in a special way for these youths, at a time in which so many die in battles every day in this piecemeal war. We pray also for today’s dead, the war dead, also innocent children. This is the fruit of war: death. And may the Lord give us the grace to weep.
(Virginia M. Forrester, trans.; brackets mine)
At the Ardeatine Caves, Pope Francis’s prepared-in-advance text, denominated a “prayer,” addressed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Who knows the names of each of the 355 men executed by the Nazis there. After reciting his prayer, he wrote in the Honor Book: “These are the fruits of war: hatred, death, revenge…. Forgive us, Lord.”
Of all the burial places, including cemeteries, churchyards, tombs and catacombs, throughout the area of Rome, why did the Pope visit an American cemetery of World War II dead? The press reports refer to the talk of war with President Trump and North Korea. Maybe they’re right. The Pope didn’t make a specific reference to this, but he used the following two phrases: “preparing to go more strongly to war” and “When so many times in history men think of starting a war, they are convinced they are bringing a new world.” More tellingly, he referred to the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, perhaps as though he let his mind’s dwelling on “America” and “nuclear” and “war” to erupt into a thought on Hiroshima. If he wanted to send a message to President Trump and North Korea, can we safely say that he did not have the option of choosing a cemetery in Italy with Korean war dead? So, he went to soil dedicated to American war dead and expected that those in attendance might well include, as it did, U.S. Ambassador to Italy Lewis Eisenberg and Louis Bono, the acting U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
There is a clue to an alternative reason for his selection of cemeteries to visit on All Souls’ Day. Pope Francis spoke of “a time in which so many die in battles every day in this piecemeal war.” This would seem to refer to acts of terror. The previous day, Wednesday, November 1, the Pope, after his noontime prayer (“the Angelus”), mentioned the attacks of recent days in Afghanistan, Somalia, and New York. The attack in New York, using a rental van to kill eight, including five from the Pope’s native Argentina, had occurred on Tuesday, October 31. Again, can we safely say that there are no Afghan or Somalian cemeteries in Rome, so he chose an American cemetery?
But let’s go deeper than trying to figure out the Pope’s selection of a cemetery. Look at the message. My late father, a veteran of, and an author about, Iwo Jima, often mimicked FDR, “I hate war and Eleanor hates war.” Yes, war is to be hated; it brings death and destruction, but are the only “fruits of war” death, hatred, revenge?
The American cemetery, however, belies this assertion, this narrow-minded, dark declaration. If Pope Francis knew he planned to make this assertion, then he chose a spectacularly wrong place to make it because we Americans, we Italians, we Europeans, we the free citizens of the world, and we the citizens of this world who long to be free (in China, Cuba, Yemen, the Gaza Strip, Iran, and on and on) honor the American war dead.
I wouldn’t have expected the Pope, on All Souls’ Day, to give an explication of Catholic teaching on Just War Doctrine (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2307-2317, under its treatment of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”), but I would have expected him to give some hint that their lives and their deaths, were praiseworthy — consistent with the language in Catechism paragraph 2310 undoubtedly used by Catholic military chaplains throughout the world, a position occupied by the future Pope St. John XXIII during World War I: “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” His silence on this subject at this particular cemetery was, I believe, a grievous sin of omission.
Pope Francis’s words must be carefully chosen because they become global. Winston Church always gave “set” speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address, Gettysburg Address, and Second Inaugural were each set speeches. If Pope Francis had taken the time to prepare his remarks, he would have considered all the targets of the Holocaust: Jews, priests, Roma, persons with disabilities. He would have considered all the targets of Nazi Germany: Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Low Countries, France, the United Kingdom. Did not all these peoples and nations dream of freedom, of liberation? It is adamantly the case that nothing but war could deliver them. Without war, Israel would have been obliterated, if not in 1948 when it proclaimed its independence, then later in such wars as the Yom Kippur War of 1973, an event which caused tourist Father Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, to shorten his stay in Israel. And there’d be no South Korea, no Kuwait, no British Falklands, no Argentina independent of Spain, no United States free of Great Britain and free of slavery. At this place, Pope Francis owed it to the dead and the world to give well-prepared remarks.
We Americans and we Japanese rightly grieve over those killed and injured at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but neither do we forget all of those Americans and Japanese, and Chinese, and Koreans, and Russians, whose lives were spared.
At an American cemetery in Normandy, President Reagan gave an extended address. We can use this occasion to listen to some of President Reagan’s words in 1984 at the 30th anniversary of the D-Day landing, an event I saw live on TV.
We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
* * *
Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life… and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
Something else helped the men of D-day: their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”
When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here.
They rebuilt a new Europe together.
There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.
In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose — to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.
For remarks that bear some similarity to those Pope Francis made, Pope Paul VI chose the United Nations in October 1965. (English translation from the French). When Paul VI had traveled in January 1964 to the Holy Land, he was the first pope since 1809 to leave Italy. His trip to the UN was his third outside Italy. His remarks were of some length, well-prepared, not narrow or dark, and the fruit of years (1937-1954) in the Vatican office of Secretary of State where he worked on issues of war refugees and POWs. Some excerpts:
Permit us to say that we have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you Our message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty Institution, and it comes from our experience of history. It is as an “expert on humanity” that we bring this Organization the support and approval of our recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and our own, convinced as we are that this Organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace.
In saying this, we are aware that we are speaking for the dead as well as the living: for the dead who have fallen in the terrible wars of the past, dreaming of world peace and harmony; for the living who have survived the wars and who in their hearts condemn in advance those who would try to have them repeated; for other living people too: the younger generation of today who are moving ahead trustfully with every right to expect a better mankind.
* * *
Here our message reaches its culmination and we will speak first of all negatively. These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!
Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago [in his Inaugural]: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war!
* * *
If you want to be brothers, let the arms fall from your hands. A person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands. Arms, and especially the terrible arms that modern science has provided you, engender bad dreams, feed evil sentiments, create nightmares, hostilities, and dark resolutions even before they cause any victims and ruins. They call for enormous expenses. They interrupt projects of solidarity and of useful labor. They warp the outlook of nations. So long as man remains the weak, changeable, and even wicked being that he so often shows himself to be, defensive arms will, alas, be necessary
Again, I would not have expected Pope Francis to give an extensive address praising American war dead, but neither would I expect him to tell the oppressed and the prisoners and the kidnapped and the tortured — that no one will come to their aid, that no one will come to their aid because only death and sorrow will be the fruits of war. At least not to say this at an American cemetery of our war dead.
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery (Stephen Sommerhalter/Creative Commons)