ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

And the Greatest of These Is War

Reflections on the suffering of war and the Christian experience in wartime.

The cry; “War, never again War” uttered by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, on his historic visit to the United Nations in 1965 echoed around the world as a fervent prayer from the lips of all those who had seen the human suffering and devastation that results from war.

Pope Paul lived through two World Wars. During World War II he saw Italy torn apart. As a Vatican official working directly under Pope Pius XII, he saw the haunting fears in the hungry faces of the many refugees, smuggled through the Vatican, out of Nazi control, to safety, in alien lands. He heard of the “extermination” camps, and he saw the potential victims, often separated from their parents, or sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, go to safety, but always to live as “uprooted” people away from the lands of their birth.

Pope Paul also read reports describing approximate numbers of men dead, cities destroyed by saturation-bombing raids which killed and maimed unnumbered innocent lives, especially women and children. And the climax, Hiroshima! No wonder he cried out so convincingly to the powers of this world through their delegates at the United Nations: “War, never again War.” For to him war was the ultimate in human suffering. For his successor, Pope John Paul II war is “an incomparable accumulation of suffering, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity.”

Others too have seen the suffering that results from war. They have seen mangled bodies torn apart by the wanton instruments of war authorized by ambitious and ruthless men always, of course, in the name of some “good and just cause.” They have seen the limbless or paralyzed soldiers taught only to obey, caught in battle, “heroes for a day,” facing a bleak future in a rehabilitation center, wondering why and for what.

During these past nine years of madness in Lebanon, I, too, have seen blinded and maimed children and those, without physical injury, traumatized by the nights spent fearful in basements under constant shelling. I know thousands of war-orphans who will no longer experience the security of a parent’s love. I have met destitute mothers, their bread-winners dead, suffering the indignity of begging, to feed their children. And I have met those made homeless and jobless by war, many of them men, who with tears in their eyes, wonder where tomorrow’s bread for their children will come from. These are the ongoing and clearly experienced sufferings of war.

I have met young men back from their stint of fighting. Men who have been cheered for their courage but now find it difficult or impossible to find employment. Recently, a 23-year-old fighter just released from a hospital, told me that with six years of service behind him, he could not get a job. He had interrupted his education to defend his country’s freedom, and was now without any special skill. His country offered him no opportunity to continue his education or acquire a marketable skill.

Yet, he thought he was well off. He was not maimed. While he grieved the loss of many friends he had seen die, he felt they were far better off than those so maimed that they would be objects of charity the rest of their lives. He questioned, too, whether his years of sacrifice were in vain. He asked what is it to be free in a country that doesn’t provide adequately for the sick, the destitute, the aged and the handicapped? What is it to be free in a country where the “entrepreneurs” and the politicians alone gain by war, as happens so often?

That is the case of many who have fought in what they believed to be their country’s “national interest.” They end up wondering what were the sacrifices all for. Today’s enemies become so easily tomorrow’s allies, in a world where life has become the cheapest and most readily expendable commodity, provided it is not “my life,” and provided I gain in power and prestige. Provided I do not suffer.

We read in history of a “thirty-years’ war” and a “hundred-years’ war” and we wonder who could survive such long wars. But we forget that in the days of those wars, men fought in battlefields, away from towns and cities, and only from sunup to sundown. They did not fight on Fridays, when the death of Christ is commemorated, or on Saturdays and Sundays, in respect for the Sabbaths of the Old and New Testaments. Nor did men battle in Spring, when planting had to be done nor in Autumn when crops were reaped. In those “not-so-enlightened-days,” theologians discussed the nature of a just war and kings and princes listened. Moreover, they led their men into battle, or if too old, sent their sons. Those days, dark as they were, God was feared, and honor was measured by the quarters offered one’s opponents.

The war of 1914-1918 was the first World War, the first “great” war, the first war when millions of men fighting day and night, were slaughtered by shell fire or gassed in the trenches. The enemy was shown no mercy; towns, too, were hit and civilian casualties in great numbers became a new phenomenon of war. Only a mother or a father remembered the son that died, in the prime of life, with, perhaps, the cherished hope, “but not in vain.” But what was the only real result? Out of the crushed pride of a nation, manipulated by men with stifled consciences, and with a desire to dominate the earth, the nations were catapulted into World War II.

With its strategies of deceit, its saturation bombings of cities, this second World War from Dunkirk to its Hiroshimas expressed a new, dehumanized mind. It accepted as a fact, that the end, to conquer, justified the use of any means available. Millions died in gas-chambers, in battle-fields, under the rubble of shelled cities, and in massive fires and explosions. Hundreds of thousands became displaced persons. Thousands of men, women and children maimed forever faced a dreary, lonely life, while the “victors” carved out their new satellite nations as their just spoils of war, with scant thought given to the feelings of the subjugated peoples of those lands.

In between these great wars, there were many struggles for freedom from the grasp of colonial powers. Among the countries fighting were Ireland, India, Libya, Abyssinia and Egypt. Since these wars, nations have fought and gained their freedom while other peoples have been subjugated to alien ideologies. But always, there has been the toll of death and destruction as there is today in Central America, Africa and Lebanon. There is the human pain of the survivor that is not much eased by the posthumous medal to the widow or the mother or father, nor much consoled in the tenuous belief that perhaps my son, my husband or my father is the occupant of the tomb of the “unknown soldier.”

What is the Christian response to this immense suffering? Pope John Paul II in his letter on human suffering has said the parable of the Good Samaritan belongs to the Gospel of suffering. This parable reveals the obligation of the individual to respond to another’s suffering. “The name ‘Good Samaritan’ fits every individual who is sensitive to the sufferings of others, who is moved by the misfortune of another … Therefore one must cultivate this sensitivity of heart, which bears witness to compassion towards a suffering person. Sometimes this compassion remains the only or principle expression of our love for and solidarity with the sufferer.”

For those of us removed from the battlefield, being a Good Samaritan might mean only expressing compassion toward and solidarity with those suffering. However, the Holy Father says, “…the Good Samaritan of Christ’s parable does not stop at sympathy and compassion alone. They become for him an incentive to actions aimed at bringing help to the injured man. In a word, then, a Good Samaritan is one who brings help in suffering, whatever its nature may be.” Thus, we must marshall all our resources – spiritual, moral, intellectual and material – to alleviate not only the sufferings of war but also the causes of war.

The Good Samaritan, the Pope tells us, “puts his whole heart into it … Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” This is the challenge of John Paul II to the Christian in the face of sufferings of war – no less a challenge than that of Paul VI, “War, never again war.”

Msgr. Meaney recently retired after six years as administrator in CNEWA’s Beirut office.

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