By Father Richard S. Jones
Chaplain, UPMC Mercy Hospital
Thanks to an unusual chain of connections, I recently had the distinction of offering the funeral Mass for a 95-year-old veteran who had served primarily in the Coast Guard during World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
His grandson – the fourth generation of his family to serve in the military – called me from his Naval post in California on the recommendation of his Catholic chaplain, with whom I had also trained as a military chaplain in 1984. The grandfather had been living in Florida, but wanted the funeral in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where the grandson had no parish ties. And so, he called me.
I didn’t know this man, but I felt a bond and a debt of gratitude to him for his more than 30 years of active service. He had dedicated his life to protecting our nation and all that we hold dear. The military tradition also runs in my family – my parents met when they were both in the Navy.
So it was my privilege, honor and sacred duty to celebrate this veteran’s Christian Funeral Liturgy of Thanksgiving at the Parish of the Assumption of the Beautiful Blessed Virgin Mary along the Ohio River in Bellevue, PA. He was then laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside our nation’s capital, where about 30 veterans and service members are buried each day, ministered over by five chaplains.
I thought of that man as Veterans Day approached. He epitomized much of what is best about this nation.
The observance began in 1919 as Armistice Day, marking the end of what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. Human sin, of course, put the lie to that name for the World War I. In 1954, with World War II behind us and Korea sounding the possibility of World War III, the observance on November 11 was renamed Veterans Day.
Many people observe the day with ceremonies and parades that honor the sacrifice and dedication of those who have served in the armed forces of the United States. We honor our veterans, who gave their best when called upon to serve our country. We are grateful for their unselfish service in the continual struggle to preserve our freedoms, our safety, and our democracy. To them – to those who served at Midway, Normandy, Chosin, Khe Sanh, Falujah, the Aleutians, Kandahar and on so many ships at sea – we owe our gratitude for their willingness to stand for freedom against tyranny.
November 11 is a liturgically significant date for this observance. It marks the memorial of St. Martin of Tours, a 4th century Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult, became a bishop and founded the first monastery in western Europe. Born to a Roman officer and his wife in what is now Hungary, he joined the Roman military as a teen.
For years, he was attracted to the Christian faith and was preparing for baptism. One bitterly cold day, he saw a shivering beggar and used his sword to cut his cloak in two pieces so that he could share it with the ragged man. That night, he dreamed he saw Jesus wearing the part of the cloak that he had given away.
The next morning Martin resolved to be baptized. He withdrew from the Roman army, becoming the first known conscientious objector in history. As a bishop, he later opposed the use of violence against heretics. He focused instead on spiritual warfare against the forces of darkness, including the temptations of worldly wealth that threatened the people he served as monk and bishop.
Martin had answered the call once as a soldier of Caesar and again as a soldier of Christ.
Today, let us salute our veterans, thanking and honoring them for all they have risked and all that they have given. There is no better way to honor a veteran than to pray for them; whether in a religious service, or privately or silently as a parade passes by, by posting someone’s image on social media, placing a wreath at a grave site, or offering a Mass of Thanksgiving in their memory.
We thank them for their warrior’s heart. And we honor the freedoms they have fought for when we use our freedom to engage in spiritual warfare for truth, freedom, holiness, charity, and peace.
Cover photo: AP image