Il nostro soldato (Our Soldier)

This article talks about the role of religions during the First World War in Italy. It devotes specific attention to Catholicism and the attitude to the war of the Catholic Church and the Holy See. Here is an excerpt about the “usefulness” of religion and military chaplains:

Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959)

Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959)

“In 1917, Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959), a Franciscan military chaplain, doctor and psychologist, published a book entitled Il nostro soldato (Our Soldier), in which he demonstrated (on the basis of personal observations and data collected from other military chaplains) that the religion of the soldiers at the front was not the expression of an authentic faith, but the result of psychological mechanisms that could be directed to reinforcing their strength and commitment in battle.”

I have not been able to located this book online, but from what I can glean from online sources, this lack of authentic faith was, to Gemelli, not a bad thing, necessarily! It could be exploited.

“Gemelli also had an apologetic objective: to show the army and the Italian state the importance of religion in the psychology of the soldier, in order to achieve victory, and in the “national education” of the Italian people after the war.

The Italian authorities, for their part, were well aware of the usefulness of religion to maintain soldiers’ morale, and optimize their commitment to the war effort. As early as 12 April 1915, before Italy’s entry into the war, one of Luigi Cadorna’s (1850-1928) circulars reintroduced the role of the military chaplain – gradually suppressed between 1865 and 1878 and partially readmitted to the health services in the war in Libya – by establishing the allocation of Catholic chaplains to each regiment….

According to official estimates, 24,446 clergy were mobilized during the war, of which 15,000 were soldiers and 2,400 military chaplains. The latter carried out many functions, ranging from giving spiritual comfort to education. The most strictly religious tasks were celebrating mass in the field, the functions for the repose of the dead, the administration of the sacraments (including general absolution and communion before the fighting), and preaching. The sermons intertwined explanations of the Gospel with reminders of the values of order, discipline, and patriotism. Except in the case of a minority of nationalist chaplains, the preaching was not usually aligned with war-time propaganda, but tried to mould behaviour in the listeners which would be not only patriotic, but also Christian. Therefore, there was an insistence on the necessity of faith and religious practice, the purity of morals and language, and a sense of duty and obedience. The performance of duties by the soldiers was not presented as a constraint imposed from above, but as a spontaneous adhesion, arising from love of the country, which was presented as a Christian virtue.

…The religion proposed by the Catholic chaplains was different from the religion “experienced” by the soldiers. This was expressed in devotional and superstitious practices whose objective was safety and personal salvation and a peace that did not depend upon victory. It resorted to materials from various sources, linked to the most ancient beliefs (such as stones, nails, human remains) and the landscape of war (copper crowns from grenades, bullets extracted from the wounds of comrades) or the Catholic tradition itself (scapulars, blessed laces, medals, alleged relics, rosaries, crucifixes, vials of holy water, medals, holy cards, prayers and votive offerings).

Hm. This Agonstino Gemelli is an interesting figure. According to this article: “Scholars tend to judge him solely in light of the Fascist regime and mark him as the archetypical clerical fascist.” He was known for his accommodations to the State. It seems Agostino Gemelli was also an outspoken critic of Saint Padre Pio, stating that Padre Pio was “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity” with his stigmata. Yikes! I have not seen any evidence that Gemelli has been considered for sainthood, though I do think the American government might be taking a few pages from his playbook when it comes to how religion can be “useful” to reinforcing commitment to war.

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