On Friday 25 February, Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy in Rome in order to ‘express concern’ over the unfolding situation in Ukraine. The pontiff has not been shy about raising his voice against the Russian invasion, and on Saturday 26 spoke personally on the phone to the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where they spoke of the ‘deep pain’ it causes them both.

Standing against war has been a key theme of Francis’ pontificate, as have the ideas of fraternal love and care for refugees (which war frequently creates). In Fratelli Tutti he wrote:

Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil’ (§261).

Far from being unique to Pope Francis, however, an inherent stance against war is ingredient to the Catholic tradition, and as warfare has become increasingly modernised and capable of indiscriminate destruction, the popes of the last century have been taking a stand. Even though our moral tradition recognises the moral right to self-defense, and in theory acknowledges the possibility of a “just war”, the fundamental predisposition of the Church is against war.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war’ (§2307).

The primary responsibility of Christians is to work for peace, because Christ himself said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matthew 5:9). Any earthly peace we are able to achieve is but ‘the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, the messianic “Prince of Peace”’ (CCC §2305).

War is especially painful for those on the ground who are displaced and left homeless. Again, this is something the popes of the last century have become increasingly aware of, and acted on. Care for refugees, fraternal love and a stance against war are by no means unique to Francis. On the contrary, he stands in a long line of popes repeating the same message.

So, with that in mind, we thought we might take a look at what just a few of the popes from the last century were saying against the conflicts of their times.

1. Pope Pius X

    Pope Pius X was pontiff from 1903-1914. He is known for many things, primarily his uncompromising stance against modernism, but something he is less known for is his life of personal poverty, even as pope, and his welcoming response to refugees after the Messina earthquake of 1908. This earthquake cost some 80,000 lives, and in response (before the government did anything) Pius opened the Apostolic Palace to those fleeing the devastation. For a time, his own home became a refugee camp.

    He also witnessed the beginning of the First World War. On 28 June 1914, the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a South Slav nationalist, beginning Europe’s quick plunge into “the Great War”. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On 2 August, Germany invaded Luxembourg. That same day, Pope Pius released a desperate plea for peace.

    He saw what was happening around him and urged Catholics around the world to work and pray for peace. This is an excerpt: ‘While nearly all Europe is being driven into the tortuous ways of most destructive war—he who has reflected a little upon what dangers, what massacres, what result there would be would assuredly perceive himself overwhelmed with sorrow and trembling . . .

    We therefore exhort that all approach the throne of grace and of mercy, as many Catholics as there are throughout the world, and in the first place men from the clergy; whose duty, moreover, it will be, at the command of bishops, to carry out public supplications in every single parish, that the merciful God, exhausted as it were by the prayers of the pious, may take away the destructive flames of war—the sooner the better—and that, beneficent, He may grant to those who preside over civil affairs to think thoughts of peace and not of affliction.

    2. Pope Benedict XV

      Pope Pius X would fall ill and die only a few weeks later. On 3 September 1914 he was succeeded by Pope Benedict XV, a man who has become very much ‘the unknown pope’, according to one biographer, John Pollard. This is a shame, because throughout the First World War Benedict worked tirelessly to end it. Benedict’s very first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, picked up where Pius’ words had left off weeks earlier.

      There’s a lot of good stuff in this encyclical, and from the outset he states that if there was any hope for peace and harmony, they must bring ‘Christian principles into honour’ once again (§5). In fact, this would be the ‘keynote’ of his pontificate: striving to make ‘the charity of Jesus Christ . . . rule supreme among men’ (§8).

      And with a thought process that echoes much of what Pope Francis talks about today, he wrote:

      Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from Heaven for the very purpose of restoring amongst men the Kingdom of Peace, which the envy of the devil had destroyed, and it was His will that it should rest on no other foundation than that of brotherly love’ (§6).

      Also, on 1 August 1917, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to the heads of the warring parties, laying out a plan for what future peace would look like, including the restitution of territories and the laying down of arms. This act was later overshadowed by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points which incorporated many of Benedict’s ideas, even if he did not like admitting to it. Still, it was one of the first acts of someone laying out a concrete plan for a peaceful future, in the face of nations who were committed to continuing the senseless conflict.

      3. Pope Pius XII

        Bringing up Pope Pius XII is risky business, since his policies throughout the Second World War are a matter of historical debate.

        The more dramatic (and slanderous) perspectives portray him as “Hitler’s Pope”, even though increasingly the evidence points away from that. Even if it is possible to critique his actions, he was a public figure dealing with an incredibly complex situation; critiquing public figures, and outlining what they should have done from a distance, is the easiest thing to do. What’s harder is looking at the whole picture. An important book to pay attention to in this regard (one of several) is The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (2005) by Jewish historian Rabbi David G. Dalin, who argued that Pope Pius XII worked actively to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution and stood against Hitler from the beginning.

        His very first encyclical, published on 20 October 1939, Summi Pontificatus, was widely interpreted as a condemnation of dictators. That was the leading title in The New York Times on 28 October 1939 anyway (‘Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism’), and allied aircrafts dropped 88,000 copies of the encyclical across parts of Germany in an attempt to raise anti-Nazi sentiment amongst the populace. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Pius XII stood by the Jewish people in their plight. Even though some of his words are easily interpreted today as a bit soft or unclear, to read people’s reactions to them back then is to understand that people knew clearly what the Pope meant when he said what he said.

        In 1943, the deportation of Italian Jews in Nazi-occupied Rome began, and it was only due to Pope Pius’s coordinated efforts that up to 80% of the Jewish population was rescued. Particularly interesting in Dalin’s book is the documentation of how much the Jewish community throughout the war praised the courage and works of the pontiff (including Albert Einstein).

        The deeper one goes into the story of Pope Pius XII, the more the evidence becomes clearer that his actions speak far louder than his words.

        Pray for peace

        As the situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, we must continue to pray for peace, as the Ukrainian Bishop Mykola Bychok urged locals on Ash Wednesday. Pray that senseless violence will cease, and that the Church can effectively exercise its prophetic office and become ambassadors of the Prince of Peace. And pray using the intercession of the many heroic and saintly figures who have gone before us, whose lives bear witness to the truth of Christ and the peace of his kingdom.