ROME – Speaking at a Sicilian-American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, where nearly 8,000 U.S. war dead are buried, Pope Francis prayed for all the dead on the Feast of All Souls on Thursday, but especially those “lying here … at a time when the world is once again at war.
“We pray for all the dead, and especially these young people, in a moment in which so many young people die in battles every day because of this world war ‘in pieces’,” he said, using his familiar expression to describe a world in which there isn’t a single massive global conflict, but dozens of smaller-scale wars being fought in various parts of the world.
“Even children are dying,” he said. “Death is the fruit of war, and may the Lord give us the grace to cry.”
The pope’s words came during a five-minute extemporaneous homily, during an All Souls’ Day Mass, celebrated for what the Vatican estimated to be 5,000 faithful. On the Christian calendar, Nov. 2 is marked as a day of prayer for all the dead.
“Hope does not disappoint, but hope is often born and takes root in so many human wounds, so much suffering,” he said. “Yet, amidst so much suffering, one looks up and says: ‘I know my savior is alive, but stop, Lord.’
“This is perhaps the prayer that naturally arises, looking at this cemetery, ‘Please Lord, stop, no more, no more war, no more this useless slaughter, as [Pope] Benedict XV said’,” he added.
Pope Benedict XV reigned during World War I, and famously invoked the phrase “useless slaughter” to describe the conflict that left an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilians dead.
Speaking to a crowd that included many military personnel, politicians and diplomats, the pope said the world hasn’t yet learned the lesson given by the tears shed by the countless women who lost a husband or son during WWII, many of whom were laid to rest in the cemetery, some 30-minutes away from Rome.
The women, Francis said, would dread the arrival of the mail, the message that asked her to be proud, for her husband or son had died as a “hero” for the country he served.
“This is a place of hope, but also of tears. Humanity must not forget these tears. Humanity hasn’t learned the lesson of these tears, and seems not to want to learn it,” he said.
Francis also told the story of a “wise” old woman who, when looking at the ruins of Hiroshima, decimated by the United States with an atomic bomb, said: “Men do everything to declare and fight wars, and in the end, what they destroy is themselves.”
“That’s war, the destruction of ourselves … it leaves wounds in the heart, and so many tears.”
Francis, in tandem with his predecessors, frequently has raised his voice against nuclear weapons, and it may be significant that he chose to recount this story against the backdrop of an American WWII military cemetery.
He repeated the phrase “No more, Lord,” along with the significance of praying for those buried in Nettuno, several times throughout his homily: “We have to say it again today, especially for these young people, in a world that’s once again at war … No more, Lord, no more … with war, all is lost.”
The pope also acknowledged that many times, those who start a war do so believing they’re “triggering a springtime.” However, he said, war always ends “in a brutal and cruel winter. It’s death’s reign of terror.”
During the first three years of his pontificate, Francis said the All Souls’ Day Mass at Rome’s Campo Verano cemetery, founded in the 19th century. Last year, Pope Francis did this the first three years of his pontificate, and in 2016 said an All Souls’ Day Mass at Rome’s Prima Porta Cemetery.
When he arrived at the cemetery on Thursday, Francis walked through the tombs for a few minutes. Along the way, he left three white roses at three different tombs: one belonging to an unknown soldier, one to an Italian-American fighter and one to a Jew. The first two tombs were marked with white crosses, while the third was a Star of David.
During the Mass, the prayer of the faithful also focused on war dead, with intentions such as “Father of mercy, give us your children, eyes and a heart able to weep for all the victims of the madness of war.”
The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno was dedicated in 1956, and it’s the burial place for 7,860 members of the forces, 16 of whom were women, including members of the Women’s Army Corps, nurses and personnel of the Red Cross.
Within the grounds, there’s a chapel with the names of 3,095 people who were missing in action. The site falls under the responsibility of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Most of those buried here died in the liberation of Sicily, the landings at Salerno and Anzio, and in air and naval support of those operations in 1943 and 1944.
After the cemetery, Francis visited the Fosse Ardeatine, the site of a 1944 massacre carried out by German troops occupying Rome in retaliation for a partisan attack on an SS battalion in Rome the day before.
Roughly 33 soldiers in the SS died in that attack (the number later rose to 42), and the Germans declared that the Romans would pay by a ratio of 10-to-1. The reprisals were not only personally authorized by Hitler, but he declared that they must be carried out within 24 hours.
Pope Francis was welcomed to the site by several people, including Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, a reflection of the fact that 75 of the victims were Jews already marked for death. Francis remained in silence throughout his visit to the fosse, alternating between moments of prayer and listening to explanations of the massacres by a member of the Italian army and later by De Segni.
After visiting the tunnels in the compound, the pope placed flowers over several of the tombs and spent time looking at their names. There are 336 tombs in all, one for each person killed, and an extra tome to recall all the victims of Nazism and Fascism.
Francis and De Segni led a prayer for those present, with the rabbi doing a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. (Di Segni told Italian television afterwards that, at one point, he explained the mystical interpretation of that prayer within Judaism to the pope, saying Francis showed keen interest.)
Francis then prayed in memory of those who fell defending “freedom and justice,” hoping that the site of the massacre might be a place where others find the resolve to fight “selfishness and indifference.”
“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the pope said, is “merciful and companionate with every people, and every person who’s oppressed.” For God, Francis added, no one remains “unknown,” not even the 12 killed in the March 24 massacre who remain unknown.
Before returning to the Vatican, Francis left behind an inscription in the guestbook at the Fosse Ardeatine: “These are the fruits of war: hatred, death, and vendetta … Forgive us, Lord.”
Upon reentering the Vatican around 6:00 p.m. Rome time, Francis was scheduled to go to the ground’s grotto, to have a moment of private prayer for deceased popes.
This story will be updated throughout the day.