a priest's musings on the journey

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Perspective: Why We Remember: Thought's on Veteran's/Remembrance Day

Today marks the anniversary of the Armistice that was signed on 11 November, 1918, ending WWI, and the holiday that has since evolved throughout the Western world to remember of the sacrifices of soldiers in all wars. I am a pacifist; so, I will leave the patriotic themes of this observance to the State's celebrations. As a priest, and as a Christian; however, I am compelled to pause and reflect upon the sacrifices that thousands of men and women have made for liberty, justice, and for causes that they believed were true and noble.

I can not help, being an ordained person, to immediately remember the story of the Four Chaplains; Father John Washington (Catholic), Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Jewish) and Rev. George Fox (Methodist). The Immortal Chaplains Foundation tells their story like this:

A convoy of three ships and three escorting Coast Guard cutters passed through "torpedo alley" some 100 miles off the coast of Greenland at about 1 a.m. on February 3, 1943. The submarine U-223 fired three torpedoes, one of which hit the midsection of the Dorchester, a U.S. Army troopship with more than 900 men on board. Ammonia and oil were everywhere in the fast-sinking vessel and upon the freezing sea.

The four Chaplains on board, two Protestant pastors, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, were among the first on deck, calming the men and handing out life jackets. When they ran out, they took off their own and placed them on waiting soldiers without regard to faith or race. Approximately 18 minutes from the explosion, the ship went down. They were the last to be seen by witnesses; they were standing arm-in-arm on the hull of the ship, each praying in his own way for the care of the men. Almost 700 died, making it the third largest loss at sea of its kind for the United States during World War II. The Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was able to escort the other freighters to Greenland. Meanwhile the cutters Comanche and Escanaba, disobeying orders to continue the seach for the German U-Boat, stopped to rescue 230 men from the frigid waters that night.

These four Chaplains were later honored by the Congress and Presidents. They were recognized for their selfless acts of courage, compassion and faith. According to the First Sergeant on the ship, "They were always together, they carried their faith together." They demonstrated throughout the voyage and in their last moments, interfaith compassion in their relationship with the men and with each other. In 1960 Congress created a special Congressional Medal of Valor, never to be repeated again, and gave it to the next of kin of the "Immortal Chaplains."

The words of Jesus are familiar to all of us: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) The love, valour, and integrity of these four chaplains- the self-less giving of oneself for the sake of another is what we remember on this day, not only in the lives of these Four Chaplains, but in the lives and sacrifices of every man and woman who has paid the ultimate sacrifice or has made the sacrifices of leaving family and loved ones to go serve one's country on behalf of others: to ensure freedom and peace. As Christians, we remember these virtues, of course, because they are the very same virutes that were in Christ; they are the virtues that best describe God's nature; they are the virutes we are all called to incarnate in our own lives.

Coincidentally, the Church remembers another soldier on this day who also lived out Christ's call to love and self-giving sacrifice. St Martin of Tours, a soldier in the Roman army in the 4th century, was raised by pagan parents, but while serving in the Roman army, he began to study Christianity and converted. One winter day, while Martin was a catechumen, he came across a poor man, shivering in the cold at the gates to the city of Amiens, asking for alms in the Name of Christ. Martin, moved by compassion, drew his sword, divided his military cloak, and clothed the poor man with half of it. That night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half of a cloak, and said, "Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with this garment."

Martin was immediately baptized. A few years later he left the army and was ordained a priest around 350. He retreated to monastic life; and worked to correct the teachings of Arianism which were popular in Gaul. In 371 the Bishop of Tours died and Martin was chosen to succeed him. Martin declined, declaring that he was unworthy. A few months later, Rusticus, a wealthy citizen of Tours, asked Martin to come to Tours to pray for his sick wife. Martin agreed, and when he arrived in Tours on 4 July, 372, he was declared bishop by popular acclamation. He agreed to serve only if he could continue in his accustomed ascetic lifestyle. This made him very popular among the people, but unpopular with other bishops. He was also unpopular because, while he was clearly Orthodox and opposed Arianism, he decried the violent methods that many bishops used to repress heresy in their dioceses. He remained thoroughout his episcopate a missionary and a defender of the poor and helpless.

St Martin of Tours is the patron saint of soldiers; not only because he was one, but also because he was a defender of the poor and helpless. That is what we remember this day: the sacrifices of those who served and died to defend the poor and helpless. We remember them in order to honor them and even to emmulate them; we also remember them so that the strength and compassion of their sacrifices may lead us to the paths of peace. We remember their sacrifices in hopes that future generations will not have to make these sacrficies; in hopes that The Day of Peace will come and God's Kingdom will hold sway.

We also remember the innocent victims of war who have been tortured, killed, or injured and made homeless. We remember innocent civilians throughout Europe and Asia who died in bombings during the great World Wars. We remember the millions of Jews, homosexuals, and mentally ill who were murdered in German Concentration Camps. We remember the people of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki who died and suffered as a result of bombings. We remember the Japanese Americans who were rounded up like criminals and placed in concentration camps in the Western United States. We remember the people of Afghanistan and Iraq and those throghout the world who suffer atthe hands of violence. We remember their pain, their sufferings, and the blood they have spilled. We pray that their blood, and the blood of our fallen soldiers, may be the seeds of peace. God grant it! Lord Have mercy upon us, who put our trust in You.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 8:38 AM


Bless you for your recognition of the Four Chaplains and what their selfless heroism should remind us of on this Veterans' Day. And thank you for telling the story of St. Martin. I did not know it.

That so many wars around the world are started in the name of religion is truly of great sadness to me... if people would just take time to read the teachings of their faiths, they would realize how far from those teachings they had strayed.
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