History » 1914 - 1919 » The Founding Document 1914 » War as Catalyst

1. The War as an Extraordinary Catalyst

I recently read the following in a daily newspaper, “The seriousness of our times is unyielding, as is the sword in the hands of our soldiers.” So we have to make best use of this great hour, for which we have to thank God. …

If we manage to extract the tremendous spiritual gains this time of need could bring, it will become a true time of grace and time of God. However, if we allow this great and absolutely decisive moment to pass by unused, another equally favourable time will not happen in the foreseeable future ...

The seriousness with which people see this truth is shown by the fact that in a number of towns the Bonn Committee for Lectures (and other circles) are beginning to organize open evenings for the inner renewal of our people.

So there must be some truth in my first statement. This becomes even more certain when I provide it with another, more understandable framework. The war is a powerful popular mission, or – to apply this to ourselves – an extremely forceful retreat course. The success of this retreat course will be all the greater because almighty God himself is the retreat master. He knows the human heart best. The way in which he is now speaking to us is not by words, but by a magnificent deed, an extremely gripping drama in which all of us have to play some role or other. (…) Act after act, scene after scene is played out before our trembling eyes on the great European stage. The further the action progresses, the more compellingly the great truths of the retreat break in on us:

People’s fundamental relationship to God, the dissolution of this relationship by sin, and its restoration through close union with Christ.

In their inmost being people are totally dependent on God. However, the more, and the more successfully, the people of today work on erecting the towers of their culture, the more arrogantly they behave. Now the time has come when almighty God is descending from heaven in order to defend his sovereign rights himself. With terrible majesty he shows himself to his trembling people. From the thunder and lighting of the guns, from the shaking of the earth, his voice resounds as it did from the uproar of outraged nature at that time on Sinai: I am the Lord, your God! You shall have no strange gods beside me.

As though it has been struck by lightning, the proud arrogance of modern people collapses. Aware of their own inadequacy, they groan like the gigantic ship, Titanic, to the almighty director of battles: Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee …

Torturing anxiety has been inscribed with an iron stylus onto the features and hearts of Adam’s children. Even life itself has become terribly cheap – as cheap as that of a sparrow. You can buy two for a penny. No, life is no longer our greatest good. Even less can be said of the works of human hands. Here today, gone tomorrow. Vanitas vanitatum! Et omnia vanitas. (Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.)

In a way that has never happened before, the modern era now approaches its unrecognized God on bended knee, and with hands joined in prayer it humbly beats its breast: Father, I call upon you! Into your hands I commend my life! Father, bless me when the thunder of death comes to greet me!

It is a picture worthy of Raphael’s brush, a scene so plastic and drastic, such as we have never yet seen in our lives. Let us allow the whole scene have an effect on our hearts and emotions. Let us include in it all the little experiences we have personally had.

Perhaps even our heart has recoiled with worry about the life of someone we love, our daily bread, or our own future. Perhaps we can look back on unforgettable moments in which those around us touchingly proclaimed their dependence on God.

Mobilization had the effect of a whirlwind on the country. Everyone felt urged to go to Confession and Communion. And if there wasn’t enough time, the parish priest had at least to give them his priestly blessing. The hard and stubborn hearts of men became as soft as wax. Truly, it was easy to hear confessions, much easier than during some parish mission. Men who for years had wanted to have nothing more to do with the Church or God, began to do some soul-searching.

At a high altitude spa on the River Sieg (Eitorf), a distinguished gentleman was conscripted. When his child made his First Holy Communion, he was only prepared to fetch him from the church, he wasn’t prepared to go in. Now he turned to the people around him and said, “Pray for me that a bullet doesn’t touch me.”

An NCO recently to me that when they were under fire, and one comrade after another to left and right fell, and when after the battle they searched for friends and found that any number were not longer alive, then the tears were closer than anything else. At such times you learnt to pray again! And precisely those who in civilian life wanted to have the least to do with almighty God, then clung to him the most.

And those who remained behind – we can all testify that on workdays the men attend church more often than they usually did on Sundays.

Nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee …

The curtain falls. The first scene has ended.

Yet let us turn our eyes to another scene. As in the first, so now in this scene the main person is God.

World history is the judgement of the world. Our almighty and all-holy God has remained silent for a long time in the face of the sins of the peoples and the princes. Now, however, his patience has come to an end. Of the peoples who are now feuding, one will be the hammer, the other the anvil. We will strike, or be struck – but the Master who now occupies Europe’s factory and forges the peoples is God, the Lawgiver and avenger of moral order in the world. There is no war without sin. This is true in general, but it is particularly true of the present slaughter of the peoples. Qualis effectus, talis causa. From the effect you can come to a fully justified conclusion about the cause. That is the reasoning underlying the retreat meditations on the malice and reprehensibility of sin. If we are shown sin in abstract terms as an infinite insult to our infinite God, we would not understand it properly, because our nature is so dependent on our senses. In order to bring it home to us, they show the unspeakable suffering war causes the nations, and then say, “Look at what an despicable evil sin must be to have such a terrible consequence.”

This is precisely how God has to deal with us today – but he does so in his own inimitably effective way.

We aren’t quite so innocent that we think that what we see here in the house is the actual misery of war. (Note: Since the start of the war the College had been converted into a field hospital.) We only have those who are recuperating.

In order to gain a deeper insight, we will have to go closer to the borders or onto the battlefield; we will have to go out into the families and amongst the people, and look more deeply into souls.

Oh, if only I could describe to you properly all the pain of parting suffered by our women and mothers, their despairing suffering when they are informed that someone has been seriously wounded. A mother comes to visit her wounded son. The boy weeps. His mother comforts him by saying, ‘Be satisfied that you got off so lightly’. She had only seen a small wound on his face. The boy wept more violently and removed the blankets. Both legs had been amputated. His mother lost her mind.

If only I could direct the rivers of blood that fertilize the battlefields, and the ocean of tears that have been shed, to this place; if only I could pile up all the murdered heroes, who were cut down in the prime of life, all the shattered bones, the severed bodies and limbs, if only – but no, I cannot fill in the details of the picture. Your imagination is still youthful and vital. Give it scope. Summarize all the most dreadful things you can think of, and write over it: That is sin.

Yes, my dear Sodalists, that is also my sin, which goes through my life like a red thread. Tantillus puer – tantus peccator! (Such a small boy – such a great sinner.) Those are the sins of my parents and ancestors. Lord God! I am sorry that I have sinned. It will never, never happen again.

That is sin, and we priests have declared war on it until death. Our life’s task consists in destroying sin and making reparation for it. O my God, I thank you for this glorious calling. I will do all I can to be a worthy instrument in your hand

Let us pause here for a moment and listen to what God’s voice requires of us.. Hodie si vocem ejus audieritis, nolite obdurare. (O that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your hearts.)

Loquere, Domine, loquere quia audit servus tuus. (Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.) Lord God, teach me to know you, teach me to know myself! Those were the words of a great man who became a saint. Lord God, teach me to know you, teach me to know myself! The same knowledge will also wonderfully enrich our striving for holiness.

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