Pope Benedict XV and Solzhenitsyn on the suicide of the west


On this day in 1917 Pope Benedict XV invoked the name of Mary, Queen of Peace, during the dark days of World War I. He had already added this prayer to the Litany of Loreto on December 24, 1915. The press and the punsters believe that the “news” is made in the copy room, or in their heads. So their recent dire warnings about the end of the faith in Europe show they are catching up with the Church – it was clear to many Catholics that the faith began to die in 1915; and in 1917 Benedict XV was already speaking about the “suicide of the west,” if you will. The abuse crisis is not the cause of the loss of faith, but the sign thereof. In a remarkable book by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, entitled The Last Secret of Fatima (New York: Doubleday, 2008) we can see the trajectory of the deepened faith of the Church under the aegis of Mary. Cardinal Bertone traces the spiritual vectors from May 1917, radiating from Rome and Fatima, up through the papacy of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Next week I shall comment on what Cardinal Bertone has to say about the connection between the apparition at Fatima and the near-fatal shooting of John Paul II. Today, I think it helpful to recall the initial words of Pope Benedict XV on May 5, 1917, a week prior to the first apparition at Fatima:

“Our earnestly pleading voice, invoking the end of the vast conflict, the suicide of civilized Europe, was then and has remained ever since unheard. Indeed, it seemed that the dark tide of hatred grew higher and wider among the belligerent nations, and drew other countries into its frightful sweep, multiplying ruin and massacre. Nevertheless Our confidence was not lessened . . . . Since all graces which the Author of all good deigns to grant to the poor children of Adam, by a loving design of His Divine Providence are dispensed through the hands of the most holy Virgin, we wish that the petition of Her most afflicted children, more than ever in this terrible hour, may turn with lively confidence to the august Mother of God. . . . To Mary, then, who is the Mother of Mercy and omnipotent by grace, let loving and devout appeal go up from every corner of the earth – from noble temples and tiniest chapels, from royal palaces and mansions of the rich as from the poorest hut – from blood-drenched battlefields and war swept seas. May this pious and ardent invocation arise to Mary, the Mother of Mercy who is all-powerful in grace!” See Papal Teachings on Our Lady, selected and arranged by the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes (Boston: St Paul Editions, 1961), pp. 191-193.

Leon Bloy was quite distraught over Pope Benedict’s even-handed denunciation of the European nations; Bloy, and Maritain, denounced the Germans as the aggressors. Their friends died on the front — Peguy, Psichari. See Maritain’s collection of Bloy’s writings entitled Pilgrim of the Absolute, pp. 65-66. Bloy was right in one way; but he also knew the larger crisis — it stems from infidelity all around. And indeed, Bloy traced the crisis back to the original apparition in the modern world, La Salette (1846): “The monstrous events we have been witnessing for almost a year I have expected for more than thirty-five, and I see very clearly the inevitable cataclysms that will follow. The threats of la Salette must be fulfilled.” (Bloy writes in 1916)

From an eastern perspective, and an Orthodox one, Alexandsr Solzhenitsyn stands as witness to the cataclysm as well. The theme of the devastation that arises from the absence of faith was developed by Solzhenitsyn particularly in his Templeton Address: “‘Men have forgotten God.’ The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimensions, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.” See The Solzhenitsyn Reader, edited by Edward Erickson and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 577-78.

Solzhenitsyn expressed concern that as World War I fades from memory, we thereby forget the godless embitterment that spewed forth the terror of the twentieth century. The problem is secularism and the solution is the return to God. The apparition at Fatima, and Cardinal Bertone’s book, do not let us forget these deep origins of the on-going crisis of the West.
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