Somber. Quiet. Reflective. These are some of the feelings that marked last weekend’s centennial commemoration of the start of World War I. Although the historical causes are complex, this much is true: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, one hundred years ago on June 28th, 1914. From this began a chain of events that roiled much of world and took it to edge of the abyss.
First known as the Great War and shortsightedly dubbed the “War to End all Wars,” it was anything but. An overlapping network of alliances, fervent nationalism, and initial sense of optimism quickened the local Balkan conflict into a continental conflagration. Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire took one side as the “Axis” powers. Russia, France, and the United Kingdom stood on the other as the “Allies.” The United States would join the war later on the side of the latter, partly in retaliation for German U-Boat attacks.
By the time the trenches were emptied and guns silenced after the 1918 November Armistice, millions lay fallen upon the battlefields of Europe. An entire generation of young men was left maimed and crippled. Old empires crumbled into the ground with many new nations rising up in their place as borders were redrawn. An embryonic form of the United Nations was also created in the League of Nations but was doomed to fail from the start without American participation. Europe — indeed, the world — would never be the same again.
Although traditional historical analyses can certainly shed light on the many factors that led up to the war, something that is often missing in them is a recognition of the importance of the religious element. Thus, the 20th century Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, wrote in his epochal book, Progress and Religion, published during the interwar period, and argued that European civilization had forgotten its unifying, vitalizing source in the Christian faith:
The spiritual alienation of its own greatest minds is the price that every civilization has to pay when it loses its religious foundations, and is contented with purely material success. … It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies society and a culture. The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. (180)
Furthermore, he argues:
[Europe] has never possessed the natural unity of the other great cultures. It has owed its unity, its very existence as a distinct civilization, to its membership of a common spiritual society. And perhaps that is the reason why it has never been able to be satisfied with a purely political unification. (191)
Essentially, Dawson argues the spiritual principles that form the conscience of each society, for better or worse, fundamentally affects its understanding of itself and shapes it outlook towards other peoples. Even a formal lack of or denial of religion does not mean that some comprehensive worldview is any less operative.
Additionally, Christians believe that history is not merely the product of purely impersonal, mechanistic forces but rather is imbued with a divine element in the dynamism between God and his bride, the Church. Our understanding of God is incarnational, believing that He truly stepped into time in the person of Jesus Christ.
Dawson traces various causes to the disintegration of Europe and includes, among others, spiritual disunity stemming from the Protestant Reformation, the adoption of a truncated understanding of reason which came out of the Enlightenment, growing secularization and disillusionment with mass-industrial society, and a practical materialism that left little room for man to seek deeper metaphysical and theological realities. What is left to do but to wage war?
Put another way, as stated profoundly in Gaudium et Spes, Europe had forgotten the truth that it is “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. … [That] Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22). St. Paul also echoes this and writes, “for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Nothing else, ultimately, endures.
Another writer who captures this disenchanted period in European history is Georges Bernanos. Like Dawson, Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, was first published during the interwar period in 1937 and movingly depicts the life of a humble unnamed curé in Ambricourt, France. Not far from the still smoldering battlefields of Verdun and Ypres, the novel consists of the priest’s daily reflections on serving his parish.
At one point he poignantly remarks, “the opposite of a Christian people is a people grown sad and old.” Europe had not only forgotten Christ but had become sad and old because of it. In pursuing his work, the priest sees just that, and often faces much ingratitude and indifference. He can’t make sense of his sufferings with a consuming sickness and confrontations with spiritual desolation. To the utter end, he thinks that his life is a failure and wasted. He yearns to give himself to God:
Dear God, I give You all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take…. Yet I would have wished to be, once, just once, magnificently generous to You!
But one of the most beautiful aspects of the work is that even in the priest’s failures, the reader comes to see God’s all-encompassing grace. For it is within the alter Christus, despite his failures and human weaknesses, that we see the fragile, yet ancient faith clinging on in France. This is intimate participation in the seeming failure of Christ on the cross upon which the victory of the world was won. For, like the priest comes to learn, grace is truly everywhere if we but open our eyes to look.
Humanly speaking, this kind of restoration seems impossible on a grand, civilizational scale; but with grace all things are so. Ultimately, as shown throughout Christian history, the world is saved not by the many but by the little ones, the hidden ones, the saints of God. John Beevers, in his introduction to Jean-Pierre Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence says, “[T]his is nothing extraordinary. … They seek reality, we, the ephemeral. They want God as he is; we want God as we imagine him to be.”
We may hope that even out of such a great holocaust of life, the cataclysms and sorrows of the past century for a new rebirth of the Church, not only in that land whose people have gifted the world so much of the Christian faith but for the whole world. Moreso than ever, what the world needs now – has always needed — are saints to be yeast and salt, seed and light in each of our nations. This is how the world shall be saved.
Nothing, not even death, is wasted or lost if entrusted into the hands of our merciful, gracious Lord: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). What a flowering of spring that will be!