Prayers in wartime

by Joseph Shaw

Through the fog of war in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has clarified a few things. Above all, it has dispelled the idea that war in Europe in unthinkable. War, and all its horrors, is no longer something which, for Europeans, stopped forever in 1945. It is not something the modern world has relegated to central Africa and the Middle East.

It has also forced us to confront the moral paradox of war. On the one hand, it is absolutely hideous, in physical destruction, in crimes, in death, and in the broken lives of the survivors. At the same time, however, it may be permissible, and even morally necessary. Who could say to the Ukrainians that for them to defend their country by force of arms is wrong? They have the right to resist; their leaders, surely, have the duty to do so.

During our long period of European peace there has been much discussion of the injustice of war. This is a luxury we can no longer afford. To say that war is never permissible, that “violence is never the answer”, is, paradoxically, to give up all the moral restraints on war: the distinction between soldier and civilian; between military targets and homes, hospitals and shelters for refugees. If all war is wrong, there is no difference between them. Indeed, if all war is wrong, there is no difference between national defence, and an unprovoked invasion.

We must hold onto the doctrine of the “just war” which, far from giving anyone permission to act in a despicable way, is the first step in holding all sides to account: because naturally all sides claim to have justice on their side.

The control of war, the mitigation of the harm it does, is actually one of the most impressive historical achievements of the Catholic Church. Century after century, popes, theologians, and saints have pleaded, threatened, cajoled and wheedled Europe’s leaders into an attitude which placed limits on war. By overseeing oaths and treaties, the Church made it possible, with a bit of luck, to make peace agreements stick. As time went on, holy places, holy times, and holy people were actually excepted from war. Civilians, particularly women, were made sacrosanct. The treatment of prisoners and the wounded was made more humane. Certain tactics and weapons were made unthinkable. The temptation to break the rules didn’t go away, but being excommunicated took some of the glory out of a victory. Above all, the ideal of Christian knighthood was established: the idea of a soldier with honour, the soldier fit to take his place in society in peace as well as war, as one who honoured God and protected the weak.

In our supposedly enlightened modern times, much of this progress has been lost. The French conscripted monks in the First World War. The allies in the Second World War targeted civilians in their bombing campaigns, and at its conclusion handed prisoners over to hostile powers. Today, women serve on the front line: one wonders what is left, behind the front line, for soldiers to defend, if their wives are with them in the trenches. Few of those fighting modern wars have respect for holy things, or a sense of honour. Those who say they fear the idea of military honour, on the grounds that it glorifies war, should consider what kind of warfare we get in its absence.

All of this has implications for the attitude we should have towards the current war, the people who fight in it, and the contribution other countries are making to it. Soldiers are not cut off from the moral community: they are part of it, and need spiritual as well as material support. War is not some strange thing incapable of moral assessment. One side in a war may be right, or it may be wrong. Other countries whose interests are affected by a war must make a moral judgement, and not just a political one.

We must pray for peace; not peace at any cost, but a just peace. An unjust peace or a massacre is not a quick solution to intractable problems, but the seed of continuing suffering and conflict, perhaps for centuries. International reconciliation can only be achieved on the basis of a peace which is acceptable to both sides: if not to the leaders, at least to the people.

Prayers for particular occasions can be found in many sources, but the best, in terms of their official authorisation and theological content, are those found in the liturgy and in collections of indulgenced prayers. Any missal which contains the Votive Masses “for Peace” and “in time of War” includes several prayers which could be used privately. Here is the Secret of the first of these, from the 1962 Missal.

“O God, who sufferest not the nations who believe in thee to be overwhelmed by any peril; vouchsafe to receive the prayers and offering of thy servants, that, in thy mercy thou may grant peace to Christendom and make it secure against every enemy. Through our Lord.”

The newer handbooks of indulgences no longer contain lots of prayers for different occasions, but the older ones do. My 1957 edition of the Raccolta has many prayers for peace, including this impressive one promulgated by Pope Pius XII in the darkest days of World War II, addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“O Queen of the most holy Rosary, help of Christians, refuge of the human race, victorious in all the battles of God, we prostrate ourselves in supplication before thy throne, in the sure hope of obtaining mercy and of receiving grace and timely aid in our present calamities, not through any merits of our own, on which we do not rely, but only through the immense goodness of thy mother’s Heart. In thee and in thy Immaculate Heart, at this grave hour of human history, do we put our trust; to thee we consecrate ourselves, not only with all of Holy Church, which is the mystical body of thy Son Jesus, and which is suffering in so many of her members, being subjected to manifold tribulations and persecutions, but also with the whole world, torn by discords, agitated with hatred, the victim of its own iniquities.

“Be thou moved by the sight of such material and moral degradation, such sorrows, such anguish, so many tormented souls in danger of eternal loss! Do thou, O Mother of mercy, obtain for us from God a Christ-like reconciliation of the nations, as well as those graces which can convert the souls of men in an instant, those graces which prepare the way and make certain the long desired coming of peace on earth. O Queen of peace, pray for us, and grant peace unto the world in the truth, the justice, and the charity of Christ.

“Above all, give us peace in our hearts, so that the kingdom of God may spread its borders in the tranquillity of order. Accord thy protection to unbelievers and to all those who lie within the shadow of death; cause the Sun of Truth to rise upon them; may they be enabled to join with us in repeating before the Saviour of the world: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.’ Give peace to the nations that are separated from us by error or discord, and in a special manner to those peoples who profess a singular devotion toward thee; bring them back to Christ’s one fold, under the one true Shepherd. Obtain full freedom for the holy Church of God; defend her from her enemies; check the ever-increasing torrent of immorality; arouse in the faithful a love of purity, a practical Christian life, and an apostolic zeal, so that the multitude of those who serve God may increase in merit and in number.

“Finally, even as the Church and all mankind were once consecrated to the Heart of thy Son Jesus, because He was for all those who put their hope in Him an inexhaustible source of victory and salvation, so in like manner do we consecrate ourselves forever to thee also and to thy Immaculate Heart, O Mother of us and Queen of the world; may thy love and patronage hasten the day when the kingdom of God shall be victorious and all the nations, at peace with God and with one another, shall call thee blessed and intone with thee, from the rising of the sun to its going down, the everlasting ‘Magnificat’ of glory, of love, of gratitude to the Heart of Jesus, in which alone we can find truth, life, and peace.”

(Pope Pius XII, 17 Nov 1942)