Sept. 13, 2014 Pope Francis walks and pauses alone, head bowed amidst thousands of white tombstones, surrounded the green of the Austro-Hungarian Cemetery in Fogliano di Redipuglia. This, more than any other, will be the lasting image of the Pontiff’s visit to the sites of the Great War, one century after its outbreak in the summer of 1914, which opened eyes wide to an abyss of horrors, the “useless slaughter”, later denounced in vain by Benedict xv.
Likewise to no avail was Pius xii’s ultimate appeal with which in 1939 he sought to discourage the Second World War. Instead came a tragic “hour of darkness”, when — Pacelli wrote in his first Encyclical — “the spirit of violence and of discord brings indescribable suffering on mankind”. And today their 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 is lacking, here echoes the deafness of Cain’s response. “What does it matter to me?” are indeed ever-recurring words, even in the face of the most frightening tragedies, the “scornful motto” of a war which looks directly at no one, a near personification of evil. In this way, in the shadow of Cain, victims have multiplied into the millions in a century soaked by the blood of two world wars, and still today tens of thousands are sacrificed in wars which are forgotten but no less savage.
“How is this possible?”, the Bishop of Rome asks himself, again denouncing the “interests, geopolitical strategies, lust 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 vi stated to the United Nations half a century ago.
In the face of this grim reality the word of the Gospel rises up 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 through his omissions says ‘what does it matter to me?’, remains outside”, the Pope said. Thus, in order to save oneself one needs to have the courage to move out from Cain’s shadow and to invoke “the capacity to cry”. To abandon the bad dreams and return to those of the victims of wars and of today’s elderly to whom Francis alluded.