ROME – Pope Francis on All Souls Day celebrated Mass at a French military cemetery, repeating his frequent appeals for an end to war and the arms trade, and urging attendees to never stop moving forward on the journey of life.
Speaking to faithful attending his Mass at the French military cemetery in Rome, the pope said, “Today, the sermon needs to be looking at the tombs, (people who) died for France.”
Noting that many of the graves belong to unknown soldiers, he said some of the soldiers died “with names, some without, but these tombs are messages of peace: Stop, brothers and sisters, stop weapons manufacturers, stop.”
Pope Francis traditionally celebrates Mass at cemeteries on either Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints, or Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls.
Last year, due to restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, he opted to celebrate the All Souls Day Mass in the Vatican’s Teutonic Cemetery, without members of the faithful present.
His decision this year to celebrate the Mass at the French Military cemetery is not the first time he has chosen a cemetery honoring fallen soldiers. In 2017, he celebrated the Mass at the American cemetery in Nettuno, issuing an impassioned call for an end to war, which he called “useless massacres.”
Around 250 people were present for Pope Francis’s Mass Tuesday.
Before celebrating the liturgy, Pope Francis walked through the cemetery grounds, stopping briefly to bless tombs.
In his brief off-the-cuff homily, he repeated a phrase he saw written on the door of a small cemetery in northern Italy, which translates roughly as, “Those who pass by, think of your steps, and of your steps, think of your last step.”
Life, the pope said, “is a journey, we are all on a journey.”
This is not simply “a nice walk,” but a long journey on which “we pass by many historical facts, many difficult situations, and also in front of cemeteries. The advice of this cemetery is, ‘you who pass by, stop and think, of your steps, to the final step. We will all have a one final step.”
“Someone could say to me, ‘Father, don’t be so mournful, so tragic,’ but this is the truth. What’s important is that in the final step we are on the journey, not going around on a walk, but on the journey of life, not in a labyrinth without an end.”
Pope Francis then pointed to the rows of headstones lining the cemetery grounds, saying, “These people, good people, died in war, died because they were called to defend their homeland, to defend values, to defend ideals, and many other times, to defend sad and lamentable political situations.”
These people, “are the victims, the victims of war, which eats the sons of the homeland,” he said, and pointed to several major battles throughout the Second World War.
Recalling his walk through the cemetery before Mass, Francis said he stopped in front of a headstone that read, “Unknown. Died for France, 1944.”
“Not even their name. God holds all of our names in heaven, but this is the tragedy of war,” he said, adding, “I am certain that all of these people, who went in goodwill, called by their homeland to defend it, are with the Lord.”
“But we, who are on the journey, are we fighting hard enough so that there are no more wars? So that there are no more economies of nations strengthened by the arms industry?” asked.
“These tombs don’t speak, they cry out, they cry out from themselves, and they cry, ‘peace!’” he said.
Rome’s French military cemetery holds nearly 1900 graves, most of which belong to Moroccan and Algerian soldiers who died during the Second World War.
Many of the headstones in the cemetery bear a Muslim crescent, and a few others have crosses, but all of them bear the inscription, Mort pour la France, meaning, “Died for France.”
The Italian government built the cemetery as a tribute to French troops who fought against the Nazis between 1943-1944. Each year on Nov. 11, recognized as a day of remembrance, the cemetery hosts a commemorative ceremony for all past and current victims of war.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen