ROME, Italy – Pope Francis spoke on Saturday at a cemetery only a few miles from where his Italian grandfather fought in the trenches along the Isonzo River near the Slovenian border in World War I. It was on one of his most impassioned speeches yet as he watches the storm clouds of a new global disaster gathering on the horizon. All war, he said, is “madness.”
The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, as Europeans still remember it, at a site dedicated to the Italians who died in the conflict. And the head of the Roman Catholic Church chose not to point his finger at any specific world leader or terrorist group today, but to caution that war extends beyond the bloody battlegrounds.
“Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction,” he said after strolling among the identical grave markers of the 100,000 Italians who perished in World War I. “In today's world, behind the scenes, there are interests, geopolitical strategies, lust for money and power, and there is the manufacture and sale of arms.”
Pope Francis, who has been straddling a razor’s edge between calling for peace and endorsing American-led efforts against Islamic State (also known as the “Caliphate,” ISIS, or ISIL), was delivering his third strongly worded warning to the world about the gathering threat of widening, worsening conflicts. In July, during intense fighting in Gaza, he cried out, “Please stop. … I ask you with all my heart, it's time to stop. Stop, please!” In August, he told reporters, “Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘to stop.’ I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the aggressor is legitimate.” But he warned against using the pretext of defense to launch vast campaigns of destruction.
On Saturday, the pontiff instead touched on the indifference of warmongers. “Whereas God carries forward the work of creation, and we men and women are called to participate in his work, war destroys,” the pontiff said, according to a transcript of his remarks distributed by the Holy See Press Office. “It also ruins the most beautiful work of his hands: human beings. War ruins everything, even the bonds between brothers. War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying.”
The pontiff went on to blame leaders for their lack of a commitment to peace, comparing their indifference to the legend of Cain and Abel, a story represented in both the Bible and the Quran, in which Cain (Cabil in the Quran) first responds to the disappearance of his brother Abel (Habil in the Quran) with the phrase “what does it matter to me? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“Greed, intolerance, the lust for power -- these motives underlie the decision to go to war, and they are too often justified by an ideology; but first there is a distorted passion or impulse,” said the pontiff. “War does not look directly at anyone, be they elderly, children, mothers, fathers. ‘What does it matter to me?’”
Francis reflected on the lives lost in World War I. “Above the entrance to this cemetery, there hangs in the air those ironic words of war, ‘What does it matter to me?’ Each one of the dead buried here had their own plans, their own dreams --but their lives were cut short. Humanity said, ‘What does it matter to me?’ … In all honesty, the front page of newspapers ought to carry the headline, ‘What does it matter to me?’”
The pope alluded to current wars, but without naming any conflict specifically. “These plotters of terrorism, these schemers of conflicts, just like arms dealers, have engraved in their hearts, ‘What does it matter to me?’,” he told the crowd of some 200,000 faithful. “It is the task of the wise to recognize errors, to feel pain, to repent, to beg for pardon and to cry. With this ‘What does it matter to me?’ in their hearts, the merchants of war perhaps have made a great deal of money, but their corrupted hearts have lost the capacity to cry. “
The pontiff ended his homily with an emotional plea for world leaders, warmongers and terrorists alike to stop the bloodshed and take a moment to reflect and mourn the dead their actions have left behind. With “the heart of a son, a brother, a father,” he said, the pope demanded that these people move on from indifference to tears. “For all the victims of the mindless wars, in every age, humanity needs to weep,” he said. “And this is the time to weep.”