“The news of the death of Col. Moammar Gadhafi ends the too long and tragic phase of the bloody struggle to overthrow a harsh and oppressive regime,” the Vatican said in a statement released Oct. 20.

“This dramatic event,” the communiqué continued, “forces us to reflect once again on the price of immense human suffering that accompanies the assertion and collapse of any system that is not based on respect and dignity of the person, but on the principal assertion of power.”

The Holy See announced that it would henceforth recognize the interim government as the legitimate rulers of the Libyan people, in accordance with international law.

The statement made no other specific reference to Gadhafi, but instead focused mainly on the future.

“We must now hope that, sparing the Libyan people from further violence derived from a spirit of revenge or vengeance, the new rulers can undertake, as soon as possible, the necessary work of pacification and reconstruction, with a spirit of inclusion on the basis of justice and law,” the statement read.

The Holy See also expressed hope that the international community would be committed to “generously helping to rebuild the country.”

Since the beginning of the uprising against Gadhafi’s regime earlier this year, the Church’s small community, which runs a number of care centres and hospitals in Libya, has tended to the wounded. The Vatican assured the Libyan people that the Church would “continue to offer its witness and selfless service, in particular in the field of charity and health care.”

The Holy See also pledged to work in support of the Libyan people “with the tools it has at its disposal in the field of international relations, in the spirit of promoting justice and peace.”

In reacting to the news of Gadhafi’s death, Archbishop Tommaso Caputo, the apostolic nuncio to Libya and Malta, said, “More than ever, all sides must, with a sincere will, make headway in assuring these really are new times for the country, under the new banner of a newfound social harmony.”

“Faced with the death of a man,” he added, “the sentiments of Christian piety, beyond the human, must prevail. One cannot, therefore, rejoice in an epilogue, the death of Col. Gadhafi, who remains framed as the sign of a conflict that lasted for a long period and which caused the sacrifice of many lives.” Archbishop Caputo said he was convinced that the hearts of the Libyan people want peace and harmony, and this “augurs well for the future,” according to the Italian newspaper Toscana Oggi.

Though significant social and health needs will continue to draw Church support, some officials expressed a palpable sense of relief.

Father Alan Archebuche of Caritas Libya said: “It’s the end of a nightmare. For more than an hour, the people rejoiced in the streets.” He told the Italian bishops’ news agency SIR there are “many hopes” among Libya’s small Catholic community who have been watching the events on television and “trying to understand the consequences” of what has happened.

Looking ahead, Father Archebuche said he was confident Libya could become a free and democratic country. “I am very happy,” he said. “Now we hope to start a new life.”

Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli, who often spoke out against the NATO operation in Libya, said it “was the end of despotism.”

According to the Vatican’s Oct. 20 statement, since the fall of the regime in August, the Holy See has sought to establish contacts in Libya. The Vatican’s top diplomats have formed close ties with their Libyan counterparts, with Archbishop Caputo traveling to Tripoli in October to attend talks with the prime minister and foreign minister of the National Transitional Council.

During these meetings, the Holy See said, it took the opportunity to renew its support for the Libyan people and the interim government and wished the new authorities every success in the country’s reconstruction. For their part, the new Libyan leaders communicated their “appreciation for the humanitarian appeals of the Holy Father and the Church’s involvement in Libya, especially through the service offered in hospitals or other care centers of the 13 religious communities” in the country.

Throughout the fighting, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for dialogue and diplomacy aimed at restoring peace to the North African country. He expressed particular concern for the civilian population caught up in the conflict, urged that they have access to humanitarian aid, and called on neighboring countries to be generous in welcoming Libyan refugees.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.