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BY Raymond J. De Souza
VATICAN CITY — In Rome, the first week of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq started with escalated pleas for peace and ended with prayers for the war's newest victims.
As the first news from the front lines came in, the Holy See repeated its recent condemnations of U.S. action.
After issuing a final, detailed plea for peace on March 16, Pope John Paul II delivered more generic remarks after the fighting began in Iraq on March 19.
Nevertheless, the intensity and emotion of his voice was a marked sign of his deep distress over the war.
In a week of rapid developments, there were daily statements from the Vatican or from the Holy Father himself.
Hours after President Bush delivered his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on March 17, papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls issued a statement widely interpreted to be a direct rebuke of the American president.
“Whoever decides that peaceful means are exhausted,” Navarro-Valls said, “assumes a grave responsibility before God, his conscience and history.”
Perhaps in response, the U.S. State Department revealed that Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, on March 18 and told him, “We understand the Pope's concern.”
He added, “sometimes issues come before us that cannot be avoided ... and we firmly believe this is one such issue.”
“There are many cases in history when people were reluctant to take the necessary military steps — the use of force — it was regretted later,” Powell told reporters according to a transcript on the State Department's Web site.
On March 19, at the general audience hours before the bombing began, the Pope limited himself to speaking about the feast of St. Joseph, saying “as a man of peace, we pray to St. Joseph for those threatened by war and we invoke the precious gift of harmony upon the whole human family.”
After news of the first bombing arrived in Rome, Navarro-Valls released another statement, this one apparently seeking to restore the balance missing from his earlier statement.
“The Holy See has learned with deep pain of the development of the latest events in Iraq,” Navarro-Valls said March 20. “On the one hand, it is to be regretted that the Iraqi government did not accept the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the Pope himself, as both asked that the country disarm. On the other hand, it is to be deplored that the path of negotiations, according to international law, for a peaceful solution of the Iraqi drama has been interrupted.”
Until the last minutes, John Paul had hoped to convince the United States to avoid war. Emerging from his weeklong annual Lenten retreat March 16, an animated Pope John Paul II made an impassioned plea for peace before leading the Angelus from his apartment window.
Appearing more vigorous than he has in months, the Pope gestured emphatically, raised his voice and departed from his prepared text.
“Certainly, the political leaders in Baghdad have an urgent duty to cooperate fully with the international community, to eliminate any motive for armed intervention,” he said, speaking directly to the Iraqi government. “To them I address my pressing appeal: The fate of your citizens should always have priority!”
Departing from his prepared text, the Holy Father invoked his own experience of war, both to warn against its horrors and to acknowledge it is sometimes necessary.
“I belong to that generation that lived and survived the Second World War,” John Paul said. “I have the duty to say to all young people, and to those who are younger than me, who have not had this experience: ‘War never again!’ as Paul VI said on his first visit to the United Nations. We must do all that is possible! We well know that peace is not possible at any cost. But we know equally well that this is a great responsibility. And therefore, prayer and penance!”
The Pope pleaded for increased diplomatic efforts for peace.
“There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace; it is never too late,” the Holy Father added, clearly speaking to Bush and his allies but without naming names. “To reflect on your duties, to devote yourself to intense negotiations, does not mean humiliation but to work responsibly for peace.”
While the Pope did not speak about the war for the first two days, several senior Vatican officials were quick to condemn the resort to war.
Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the United States “has committed a big mistake” in going to war, warning of the risk “of a blaze that could spread across the Middle East, sowing hatred and enmity against Western civilization, perceived as an invading force.”
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, reached a fever pitch during the week, running anti-war headlines two inches high, magnifying the Pope's limited statements as much as possible. It carried reports about the first U.S. strikes on Iraq under the banner headline, “The folly of war.”
Retired Cardinal Roberto Tucci, former head of Vatican Radio, criticized Saddam Hussein for noncompliance but reserved the bulk of his commentary for criticism of the United States for not working through the United Nations.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, the papal envoy to Bush, told Vatican Radio he heard the news of the bombing with “deep sadness, because war is precisely the wrong choice, the worst choice. There are many things wrong, but this is the worst.”
John Paul himself addressed the war for the first time on March 22 when speaking to a group from the Italian television station Telepace.
“When war, as in these days in Iraq, attacks the destiny of humanity, [it] is even more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the way to construct a society of justice and solidarity,” he said. “Violence and weapons can never resolve the problems of men.”
He turned to the victims of war at the conclusion of a beatification Mass on March 23 for four founders of religious communities.
“From Mary we implore, above all in this moment, the gift of peace,” John Paul said at the Angelus, his voice rising. “To her we entrust, in particular, the victims of these hours of war and their relatives who are suffering. I feel spiritually close to them with affection and in prayer.”