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The Great War, 100 years later: COMECE bishops in pilgrimage on the Western front

The Plenary Assembly of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) opened yesterday in Ypres, in the Flanders (ongoing until Friday). The Belgian city where chemical weapons were used for the very first time, were fought two of the bloodiest battles of the First World War (1914-1918), that mark their 100 year anniversary in 2018. The bishops paid tribute to all the victims of the conflict with a pilgrimage to the German and Commonwealth Memorials, and deposed wreaths of flowers at the Menin Gate during the Last Post Ceremony, which takes place every evening since1928 to honour those lost in the war

“One hundred years ago, there was nothing left here. Everything had been destroyed. All was left was rubble and tens of thousands of dead, including many young people…”.

Msgr. Jean Kockerols, auxiliary bishop of Brussels thus described the Great War in his homily at Saint Martin’s gothic Cathedral in Ypres. In a few days recurs the centenary of the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne (1918) that ended the conflict of which Ypres still bears the indelible scars in the stones with which it was later rebuilt. The Belgian city, in the Western Flanders, is linked to two of the cruellest battles of the First World War. Contended by warring armies, it was almost completely destroyed, thousands of corpses covered its lands, thus becoming tragically known as the theatre of one of the first ever chemical attacks. Those days were chronicled in the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, and by its young protagonist, Paul Bäumer:

“These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots …”.

The mustard gas launched by the Germans against the Canadians from this Belgian city later took the name of “yprite”, a tragic record it still holds today.

“Peace is a mission.” Msgr. Kockerols spoke before a group of pupils that filled the cathedral, two of them standing right next two him. Like a grandfather giving advice to his grandchildren, he reminded them:

“Peace is a commitment, a mission and a desire.

Peace means to never be indifferent to the needs of our neighbour. Peace means learning to know, to respect and to love our fellow others. When you love, there is room for forgiveness and reconciliation. Peace is a gift from God. When we strive for peace, when we pray together, then we are stronger.” Standing beside him were all the Bishops members of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, who decided to open their Autumn plenary meeting in Ypres (October 24-26).

On the Western Front. A pilgrimage of memory where once was the Western Front. Today, the landscape is dotted with well-kept agricultural fields and small and large war cemeteries. Trees and shrubs have been planted where the trenches once were. A few steps away from St. Martin’s cathedral stands St. George’s Anglican church, where the bishops were welcomed by the Rev. Paul Vrolijk, archdeacon of the Anglican Church of North-Western Europe. In the church that bears an inscription with the famous war memorial poem “In Flanders Fields”, written by the Canadian military doctor John McCrae, several volunteers were hard at work to knit together over 13 thousand red poppies that will decorate the Church Bell on November 11, “Remembrance Day.” The “poppies” are the only flowers – we were told by the locals – that continued to grow in the lands destroyed by the war, which is probably why they epitomize the fallen soldiers in McCrae’s poem. They are seen throughout the fields, in every corner inside churches, in the shrines, they cover the graves in military cemeteries. They are fastened onto small wooden crosses or shaped into wreaths, an evident symbol of living memory. A short stop is dedicated to an ecumenical prayer for peace. Some bishops contribute to make poppies that will be used by the volunteers.

At the war cemeteries. The bishops gathered at the German Cemetery of Langemark and at Commonwealth Cemetery Tyne Cot, the largest burial ground for the dead of the First World War in Europe. Equally near and far, on opposing sides, as the soldiers who rest here today. They are separated by a road that runs for a few kilometers, a reminder of the front line. A succession of visits, family members, relatives and above all many students from different countries. Germans, English, French, Belgians, including Canadians and Americans. A tribute and a poppy for everyone. There are no more enemies. The bishops stopped to pray before the white gravestones and in front of others made of dark stone, and they deposed a white rose. They read out the names, the military rank, their respective Command, the nationality and the age of the victims. Many gravestones only bear the words: “A soldier of the Great War – known unto God.” Then the bishops gathered for a common prayer and deposed wreaths of flowers. At the German Langemark Cemetery, Mons. Franz-Joseph Overbeck, Bishop of Essen, one of the COMECE vice-Presidents, said:

“Peace is the nourishment of justice and justice is a source of reconciliation.”

“We pray for all the victims of the war and for their families. And we pray for all those who are committed to building peace everywhere.” From the Commonwealth Cemetery Tyne Cot, Mons. Nicholas Hudson, auxiliary Bishop of Westminster (London), whose grandfather fought in this area and returned home alive, declared: “In this place we cannot help thinking of the price of war, of what it has cost in terms of human lives, of the suffering of families and of entire Countries “.

“Man remains at the centre of the European project.”

A similar appeal was shared in the Gothic Hall of the Municipality of Ypres. Msgr. Mariano Crociata, bishop of Latina, COMECE vice-President, reiterated it once again from this centre in the Flanders, that shares with Hiroshima, of which it is a twin city, the sad memory of the “chemical administration of death”: “The Catholic Church supports the European project as an instrument of peace in the Old Continent and across the world.”

“The preservation of Memory is necessary if we want this contribution to remain effective. Historical memories and the processing of past suffering are of fundamental importance if we want to prevent violence and death from returning to Europe. The young generations are an essential element.”

Farewell. The bishops paid a last tribute at Menin Gate, the starting point that led Allied soldiers to the front line and in most cases to death. Its Hall contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers. The bishops deposed a wreath of flowers at the foot of the Memorial to the Fallen, amidst total silence, interrupted only by the “The Last Post” hymn sounded by buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade in a ceremony that has been held uninterruptedly every evening at 8.00 pm since 1928. Uninterruptedly, for, as written in “In Flanders Fields”, “If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”.

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