My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This coming week we celebrate Veterans’ Day, which originally was named Armistice Day. The armistice, or ceasefire, between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, marked the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I and took place at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. This civil holiday reminds us to honor all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, whereas Memorial Day is a day in which we remember those who have died while serving our Nation.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, celebrated Mass on Sept. 13, commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, at Italy’s largest war memorial in Redipuglia, a town in northeast Italy near the border with Slovenia. Pope Francis said, “Above the entrance to this cemetery hangs in the air those iconic words of war. ‘What does it matter to me.’ Each one of the dead buried here had their own plans, their own dreams … but their lives were cut short. Why? Why did humanity say, ‘What does it matter to me?’ 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…”
By coincidence, Nov. 11 is the Feast of St. Martin of Tours who also was a military man. Before he was named Bishop of Tours, in France, Martin carried on a military career and served in the armies under the Emperors Constantine and Julian. While in service, he was riding his horse and encountered a poor beggar. Through an act of kindness, Martin cut his own tunic in half and gave it to the beggar who was Christ in disguise. This encounter caused his conversion and eventual nomination as Bishop of Tours. Martin is known for being a man of charity. Truly, if we look at those who serve in our military they too give witness of serving our country and serving others. In general, it is important that they sacrifice themselves for others. This occurs especially when they see battle. It is important that we recognize the underlining sacrifice of our military personnel.
It is not only military personnel themselves that sacrifice, it is also their families that are able to join in the sacrifice of their loved ones. Some might think that a military career somehow leads to a prosperous future. For most, however, it is a rather difficult life as we can see in the many returning home from their military service. We see this most recently in those returning from service in Afghanistan and other places of unrest around the world. Their readjustment is not an easy task, most especially if they carry with them the physical and/or psychological wounds of war.
The Church has long understood the necessity of providing spiritual support for our military through the provisions of military chaplains in the various branches of military service. Unfortunately, because of a lack of vocations to the priesthood today, there are fewer priests who can serve as military chaplains. Recently, I was speaking with a military chaplain, and he reminded me that the Army alone needs 400 chaplains and has only 100 Catholic chaplains to fill this great need. What happens is that there may be other denominations that provide basic religious services if there is a chaplain available on base or in the field. Our own diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens has one active military chaplain, one active but not full-time and one serving on inactive duty, as well as a seminarian who is preparing himself for military service after a limited commitment to the Diocese of Brooklyn.
In peace time, many do not see the need for a standing military in the various branches. Preparedness, however, is important. Although we as Christians wish that war never be waged again, we must be prepared to defend our country and others from unjust aggressors. Recently, when Pope Francis was confronted with the situation of the most recent threat of ISIS, he merely said that they should be stopped, never indicating how they should be stopped from menacing and killing any more.
Each time someone joins military service, they do put out into the deep life of service to their country. On this Veterans’ Day, we have an opportunity to pray for those in the past who have given service to our great Nation, as well as those presently serving, that the Lord will guide and protect them.