Ministers of reconciliation

POST BY DPreston

Statue by Kathe Kollwitz: parents in mourning
Statue by Kathe Kollwitz: parents in mourning

“God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself,
not holding people’s faults against them,
and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.”
2 Corinthians 5:19

A century ago Europe was in the middle of one of the bloodiest wars in its history, with a line of trenches that ran from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland: that line was the ‘Western Front’ that marked out the edges of a conflict that scythed also across the northern, southern and eastern limits of continental Europe. It marked the ugly stalemate as the forces of Britain and France faced the armed troops of Germany for a full four years.

At the heart of the Western front stood the small Flemish town of Ypres which was besieged, bombarded, and battered through three major battles between 1914 and 1917. In the last of these alone it is estimated that there were upwards of half a million casualties. Even now, “Wipers”, as it was known by the English soldiers, stands as a vivid symbol of the suffering of the First World War.

Around 20 Jesuit Provincials, from across the continent, gathered just after Easter in Belgium. It was our annual meeting, but as this year marked 100 years after the Battle of the Somme, where men of all of our countries had slaughtered each other at a scale shocking even in those brutal days (19,000 people died on the first day of the Somme), we decided that we should engage in a three-day retreat on the theme of reconciliation On the middle day of that retreat we went as a group to visit Ypres.

By 1918 the town itself was heaped rubble, but soon after the conflict ended it was entirely re-built in the style of the original. The small and welcoming Anglican chapel in the centre is bejewelled with plaques, embroidered cushions and stained glass poignantly remembering the British battalions and regiments of the conflict, some themselves now long faded into history, In the last hundred years, much of the battlefield outside the town has been reclaimed by nature. Flanders is flat, so the 30 metres of raised land just outside Ypres town became the grim vantage point desired by both sides and part circled the town like a giant horseshoe. Pools and ponds fill the hollows where shells fell and mines exploded. Two lines of trees now gracefully weave through the fields marking the trench systems which at times were closer than 30 yards apart.

Dermot Preston SJ at Vladslo German cemetery near YpresWar cemeteries recall the dead. One German graveyard, stark and simple, no bigger than a square in London, has 25,000 buried within its fences. Down the road, Commonwealth graves are marked more brightly with flowers and sculptured grass, but despite the differences the sadness and poignancy of life cut short is all around. Tragically lessons were unlearnt from the First World War, and Europe haemorrhaged once more in 1939.

In 1539 the first generation of Jesuits were drawn from many of the nations of Europe. Their spiritual journey drew them together despite the fact that their Fatherlands and Motherlands were at each other’s throats. How, they wondered, could French and Germans, Spaniards and Italians, be expected to live and work together peacefully when their countries were so frequently at war with each other? The odds of companionship were slim, but their experience was that as each of them answered God’s call, the national differences became less threatening, and indeed became a grace.

Writing to the church in Corinth, St Paul called upon Christians to be “ministers of reconciliation”. Today we face different challenges, but the torn-ness of Europe remains and on different fronts our fears and hurts fuel more conflicts. The war cemeteries of Ypres are preserved, as one of the key inscriptions to be found there proclaims, “Lest we forget”. Only by remembering the ugliness of division and hate will we really strive to find ways to seek unity and love.