Arms of Charity

This week's reflection is written by
Rev. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS.

Earlier this week, the world commemorated the moment when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, as the armistice mercifully put an end to the “war to end all wars.” It had begun with thousands of young men eagerly marching off to the front, assured that victory would be handily won in time for them to be home for Christmas. Thoughts of speedy military triumph soon gave way to the unforeseen horrors of industrialized warfare, decisively shattering any naivete with which human beings had been sent into battle since the beginning of human history. When the United States entered the war three years later, dreams of glory had been replaced with what Woodrow Wilson described as “a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking.”1 The so-called “Great War” was a stark message to humanity that while war may sometimes be a necessary evil, only blindness to its destruction could lead someone to describe it as a positive good.

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As people of our own time throughout the world continue to mourn the dead and sift through the rubble of war, one wonders about the tragedies that could be prevented if the leaders of nations would heed the counsel of the wise Bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, who assumed leadership of his diocese in the wake of decades of violence in Europe following the Reformation. In an era where armed conflict was understood by too many to be simply the modus operandi of civil and ecclesiastical politics, Francis eschewed resort to armed force, instead resolutely calling for a way of douceur – gentleness – as the true way of the Gospel. Whereas many would have been eager to launch a military invasion of Geneva, whose strict Calvinist government had outlawed Catholicism, Francis instead preached from his cathedral in Annecy that Geneva would be converted with charity, not force of arms:

“With charity we need to break down the walls of Geneva; with charity we need to invade
the city, with charity we must conquer it again…I do not propose doing battle with iron
nor with that powder whose stench and flavor remind one of the furnaces of hell.”
2

Perhaps Francis was so adamant in his opposition to armed conflict because he knew too well the psychology of human anger that is so often unleashed by it. While nations and kings declare war, it is still individual human beings who are responsible for its atrocities. As a person who himself struggled with anger, he once recalled that in a situation where he had been “seething with anger,” he had feared that he would lose in 15 minutes the habits of gentleness that he had taken years to acquire.3 Hence, he counseled in the Introduction to the Devout Life to avoid anger wherever possible; quoting St. Augustine, he wrote,

It is better…to deny entrance to just and reasonable anger than to admit it, no matter
how small it is. Once let in, it is driven out again only with difficulty. It comes in as a
little twig and in less than no time grows big and becomes a beam.”
4

In identifying the root of violence in the disordered affections that can be found in each human heart, Francis anticipated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the manner in which we ought to seek peace. In the words of the Council,

“Peace is not merely the absence of war…A firm determination to respect other human
beings and peoples and their dignity, as well as the studied practice of brotherhood are
absolutely necessary for the establishment of peace. Hence peace is likewise the fruit of
love, which goes beyond what justice can provide.”
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As Francis bravely proclaimed from his pulpit in Annecy, peace is only brought about through love. While we strive to direct our leaders to enact policies that will lead to peace, such decisions are sometimes beyond our individual control. What we can control is the degree to which we let either anger or charity reign within our own hearts and in the relationships that are presented to us each day. We do so in prayer that the day may be fulfilled when, as spoken by the prophet Isaiah,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning
hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for
war again.
(Isaiah 2:4)