On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, which had violated the neutrality of Belgium by invading it. Canada, as part of the British Empire, was thereby brought into what would be the first of two world wars. A few weeks later, the Canadian Parliament enacted the War Measures Act, empowering the government to co-ordinate Canada's involvement in this bloody war which would result in the deaths of some nine million military personnel and seven million civilians over the next four years.
How should we today understand this event from the perspective of our faith in the Gospel? How should disciples of the Prince of Peace commemorate this violent upheaval in which the lives of so many were sacrificed?
The horrors of war, the dignity of the soldier
Let us first distinguish between the war and its victims. Barely two months after the fighting started, the Bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces of Québec, Montréal and Ottawa deplored the torments of the war in words that still touch us today: "Machine guns have plunged innumerable families into desolation: thousands of women are lamenting the loss of their husbands, mothers are grieving their sons, orphans are weeping for their parents. Cities are reduced to ashes, monuments overturned, hearths left cold, fields ravaged, factories closed, industry slowed, battalions mowed down like wheat, lives in their prime are scattered to all winds. So many ruins, dear Brothers and Sisters, have accumulated in this short time!" [unofficial translation of Pastoral letter on the duties of Catholics in the present war, September 23, 1914].
These words remind us that the horrors of war should never be praised, celebrated or honoured.
However, we should honour the soldiers who, out of the conviction of fighting evil, accepted to suffer misery, pain, injuries, and even death. Their sacrifices, and those of their families and friends, should not be forgotten. These were the first victims of the war. Let us gather and mourn their deaths. Let us grieve their shortened lives. On their behalf, let us make a commitment to build peace.
Since that time, Canadian armies have often displayed great humanity, even in the midst of horrible conflagrations. Over the decades, their peacekeeping role and rescue missions in disaster areas have benefitted many. This is a role we must maintain and enhance.
Sometimes, war invades the hearts of some of our military and pushes them into violence and despair. That is a call for us to support our soldiers, those on active duty and those who are veterans, as well as their families and loved ones.
I also want to emphasize the invaluable role played by military chaplains – those priests, deacons and lay people who accompany our soldiers and their families, giving them advice and encouragement, watching with them, praying with them, crying with them. They are true beacons of hope, especially in the dark areas of engagement and fighting.
Commemorating a war by being committed to peace
For Christians, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War must be an opportunity to renew our own commitment to peace. Let us ask God to make each and every one of us an instrument of peace. Let us open our hearts to the Spirit of Jesus, whose fruits are "love, joy, peace" (Galatians 5.22).
Let us remember the words of Pope Paul VI: "Development is the new name for peace" (Populorum Progressio, 87). We see this still in our own day. It is often in the poorest countries, in the most deplorable situations, where war breaks out. War is fed by unemployment, hunger, oppression, and despair. We can build peace by building a world with greater justice, where each person can enjoy some of the beauty of life.
In his 2006 message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed: "The foundations of authentic peace rest on the truth about God and man." These words of wisdom remind us of the deep connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and the commitment to peace.
It is therefore providential that in 2014, 100 years after the start of the First World War, Pope Francis invites the whole Catholic Church to "pastoral and missionary" conversion. Announcing the Good News of Jesus the Saviour has never been as urgent as it is in this environment when war can prove so destructive and deadly. All of us are challenged to be not only faithful disciples of the Prince of Peace, but also his ardent missionaries.
Let us therefore mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War of 1914-18 by renewing our commitment, as part of our great country, to be active witnesses for justice and peace.
+ Paul-André Durocher
Archbishop of Gatineau
President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
August 1, 2014