REDIPUGLIA, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis urged the world Saturday to shed its apathy in the face of what he characterizes as a third world war, intoning "war is madness" at the foot of a grandiose monument to soldiers killed in World War I.
Francis' aim in recalling those who died in the Great War that broke out 100 years ago was to honor the victims of all wars, and it came at a time when his calls for peace have grown ever more urgent amid new threats in the Middle East and Ukraine.
Russia, in green, has been accused of covertly invading its smaller neighbor Ukraine, and fighting in Syria, in orange, helped give rise to the Islamic State now threatening a large swath of the Middle East. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Standing at an altar beneath the towering Redipuglia memorial entombing 100,000 Italian soldiers fallen in World War I, the pope said "even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction."
Pope Francis celebrates an open-air mass in front of the Italy’s largest war memorial, in Fogliano Redipuglia, northern Italy, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Pope Francis has urged the world to shed its apathy in the face of what he sees as a third world war, intoning "war is madness" during a homily at the foot of a Fascist-era World War I monument near the Slovene border. (AP Photo/Paolo Giovannini)
The visit was also infused with intensely personal meaning. The pope's grandfather fought in Italy's 1915-17 offensive against the Austro-Hungarian empire waged in the nearby battlefields, surviving to impress upon the future pope the horror of war.
The Italian word "Presente", refering to a symbolic role call of the fallen soldiers, is engraved on the steps of Italy’s largest war memorial as an Italian Bersagliere trooper stands by a flame during an open-air mass by Pope Francis in front of the monument, in Fogliano Redipuglia, northern Italy, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Pope Francis has urged the world to shed its apathy in the face of what he sees as a third world war, intoning "war is madness" during a homily at the foot of a Fascist-era World War I monument near the Slovene border. (AP Photo/Paolo Giovannini)
An Italian defense ministry official presented the pope with his grandfather's military record during the commemorations, and the parents of an Italian soldier killed in Afghanistan last year presented Francis with the distinctive feathered Bersagliere cap worn by the Piedmontese corps, famed for a rugged endurance epitomized by their tradition of marching at a jog.
Francis' grandfather, who hailed from the Piedmont region, belonged to the corps, said Redipuglia parish priest the Rev. Duilio Nardin.
The military records showed that the pope's grandfather, Giovanni Carlo Bergoglio, was a radio operator during the Isonzo campaign aimed at piercing the Austro-Hungarian defenses. The 12 battles are memorialized at the Redipuglia monument which was dedicated by Italy's Fascist government in 1938 on the eve of World War II.
The elder Bergoglio, who was drafted at age 31 as Italy entered the war, obtained a certificate of good conduct and 200 lire at the war's end, according to documents discovered by the Italian bishops' conference's media outlets. With postwar Italy's economy stalled, he emigrated to Argentina where the future pontiff — Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was born.
The pope in the past has recalled the "many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather."
Before arriving at the monument, the pope prayed privately among the neat rows of gravestones for fallen soldiers from five nations buried in a tidy Austro-Hungarian cemetery just a couple of hundred of meters (yards) away.
In his homily during an open-air Mass at the Italian monument, the pope remembered the victims of every war -- up to today.
"Today, too, the victims are many," fallen to behind-the-scenes "interests, geopolitical strategies, lust for money and power," the pope said.
He lamented that the human toll of "senseless massacres" and "mindless wars" has been met with apathy. Francis urged: "Humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep."
The enduring impact of World War I, 100 years on, is evident in the visitors who continue to make pilgrimages to the monument, although in ever decreasing numbers, said Fogliano di Redipuglia Mayor Antonio Calligaris.
"The Repiduglia sanctuary until 20 years ago was always full of visitors, but it has been forgotten by institutional memory," Calligaris said. "The papal visit is very important because it renews attention on this history."
Days before the papal visit, several dozen mostly elderly visitors scaled the 22 granite levels reaching dramatically upward toward three towering crosses that point skyward. The largest Italian war memorial, Redipuglia entombs 100,000 Italian soldiers killed in battle, 60,000 whose identity remains unknown and 40,000 who were identified.
The nearby Austro-Hungarian cemetery, one of several in the area, contains 14,406 dead from five nations that fought under the Austro-Hungarian empire, only 2,406 identified. Among recent tributes is a Hungarian flag signed in July by relatives of a soldier named Istvan Arnter, who died on Nov. 20, 1917.
Many visitors to the Italian monument search the engraved names for their forbears.
Pope Francis prays at the gravestones of an Austro-Hungarian cemetery in Fogliano di Redipuglia, northern Italy, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Pope Francis will confront a piece of his own family history when he visits a World War I memorial Saturday built amid the battlefields where his grandfather fought in the brutal Italian offensive against the Austro-Hungarian empire, surviving to impress upon the future pope the horrors of war. Francis' aim is by recalling those who died in the first World War that broke out 100 years ago is to honor the victims of all wars, and it comes at a time when his calls for peace have grown ever more urgent amid new threats. The pontiff will pray first among the neat rows of gravestones for fallen soldiers from five nations buried a tidy, enclosed Austro-Hungarian cemetery, then travel by car just a couple of hundred meters to Italy's largest war memorial, a grandiose Fascist-era monument to 100,000 fallen Italian soldiers, for an open-air mass. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
"They are making a lot of saints these days. Even popes," said Margherita Braga, 52, of Brescia, who was visiting the site with her Italian military veteran husband. "But for me, these are the real saints."
Just two levels up from the altar where Francis stood, the name of a fallen soldier named Adolfo Bergoglio is engraved in a wall. Nardin, the local priest, said he is not believed to be related to the pope. But World War I historian, Col. Lorenzo Cadeddu, who has found two Bergoglios listed among the Italian casualties of World War I, said it remained a possibility.
"Bergoglio is not a common name," Cadeddu said. "It is likely that they are related."