Homily by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna
St John’s CoCathedral, Valletta
11 th November 2018
I would like to greet our English-speaking guests. I have already reminded in our native language that during World War I we were ‘the Nurse of the Mediterranean’ and this is something that we cherish, not only because we truly want to be a presence that brings healing, peace and comfort to those in need but we never subscribed to be a people of aggression or war. We have suffered war but will never engage in aggression even because we are very small in size.
As a student in 1976, I had to study the poems of Wilfred Owen. A couple of years earlier I had the good fortune to study the poems of John Keats, and it was then a step further in my appreciation of the great pleasure of the English literature to come to know a good friend of Keats, Wilfred Owen, as Owen was a great admirer of John Keats. And of course as a young man I was enthused by the romanticism of John Keats and then I found a reality check in the poems of Wilfred Owen. In preparation for this centenary, after 32 years I found the book again and I started reading Owen and I realised that with time, what a poet reads changes in tune and also in depth.
The tragedy to avoid
In the introduction to this wonderful little book, there is a phrase that caught my imagination: the distinction between homo sapiens, to which we hopefully belong as human beings, and homo rapiens. I told myself that this is what makes war; this is the root of all wars and this was at the root of World War I. A homo sapiens who loses his wisdom, his ability to reason, is and becomes a homo rapiens, somebody who is interested in stealing, in capture, in hijacking, in violent take over of other people and other lands. This is a tragedy that we have to avoid at every age and in every time of human history.
Wilfred Owen was one of the great victims of this war but had the genius to bring to us the terrible reality of war through beauty. We are today commemorating the first centenary when his mother, received the telegram of his death. The great irony is that Wilfred Owen died on the 4th November 1918, and his mum received the official notice of her son’s death on the 11th November 1918, as the church bells were ringing for the armistice. And this irony is too deep a cut not to notice.
We may ring our church bells at noon today … but we need to ask forgiveness for such cruelty, for such ill will hate one of the other, for becoming homo rapiens than being homo sapiens.
The unfortunate thing is that one of the first victims of war and in the heart of the soldier is faith. In the face of such brutality we are talking about the war where gas was used as a weapon; where chemical warfare was officially inaugurated; where hundreds of young people from both sides lost their sights and they were maimed because of what? For what reason? And so, we may ring our church bells at noon today, in a sigh of relief for the end of the war but we need to ask forgiveness for such cruelty, for such ill will hate one of the other, for becoming homo rapiens than being homo sapiens.
Questioning faith because of the cruelty of man
On the grave of Wilfred Owen in France, his mum chose a verse from a sonnet he had entitled The End. In this sonnet, Wilfred Owen questions his faith and you realise that one of the victims in the soul of the soldier is faith. People question the existence of God because of the cruelty of man. People question the goodness of God because we are so cruel to one another. And Wilfred Owen puts the fundamental questions of faith. In this poem his answer is a negative answer; he has lost all hope. Hope has been taken away from him by people who are not interested in truth but use lies as their weapons and who are not interested in peace but want an armistice to get indemnification.
People question the goodness of God because we are so cruel to one another.
“Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul, all tears assuage?” Wilfred Owen is asking himself if there is an eternal life. Will God truly take away death? Is there victory over death? He answers in the negative because he has no faith anymore.
The irony here is that his mum, choosing these phrases from his poem, does not include the question mark. On his grave, in France, these are the words you will find: “Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul”. The question becomes an affirmation. And in the response of his mum, there is great faith. And I would like to think that what people had taken away from the soul and the heart of this young man, there is the glory of the true England we admire. His mum, in her maternal care, had given back. It is the faith of Wilfred Owen’s mum that brings him to eternal life.
…we have to embrace the wisdom that brings peace, fraternity and justice…
And so today as we remember the end of World War I and unfortunate it led to the World War II, we pray that we become people of peace, that when we are tempted to be a homo rapiens in all walks of life, in all aspects of our roles in society and our vocation, we stop and say that this is going to cause harm and suffering. We are called to be homo sapiens because we have to embrace the wisdom that brings peace, fraternity and justice because this is what we want to remember when we remember the failure of humanity in war. We pray for our dead. We pray that those who have been deprived of life, of dignity and even of their faith because of the cruelty of their rulers, may find them in the embrace of the mercy of God.
✠ Charles J. Scicluna
Achbishop of Malta6