Memorial Day Mass
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption
To Archbishop Edwin O’Brien I express deep gratitude for the invitation to join you today in remembering those who have died in the service of our beloved United States of America. We do so in the context of the word of God we have heard proclaimed just now and in the context of a world in which there are still threats to peace. It is a world where there is still need for vigilance, still need for the generosity of heart and discipline of spirit that characterize those who serve in our military forces.
For some years, more than twenty years ago, I was privileged to serve as an auxiliary chaplain to an air national guard unit. Their monthly drills, their special drills that took them half way around the world to prove their readiness, taught me how arduous is the role even of those whose commitment to the service is on a part-time basis.
Even more, I hear from those who now are chaplains of the generosity and of the love of country of those who serve in these days. Our first reading speaks of the Apostle Peter and an event set in the Middle East. How touched I was to learn from a Chaplain, Father Richard Spencer, from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, that his unit, some hundred strong like the Centurion’s in the biblical account, was able to join the successor of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II, when he went on pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai. That our country has troops serving in a distant desert setting is one thing; that they are ready to take time to be reminded by a visit from the Holy Father of God’s revealing word on Sinai is another, to which I shall return later on in these reflections.
In the first reading the Apostle Peter opens a new chapter in the life of the infant Church. He visits the household of Cornelius, following a vision granted him by God and an invitation from Cornelius. Cornelius was a military commander in the Roman army occupying ancient Palestine. He was a centurion, a Roman citizen commanding a unit of 100 men, of the cohort Italica. St. Luke describes him as "religious and God-fearing. The same was true of his whole household. He was in the habit of giving generously to the people and he constantly prayed to God." (Acts 10:1-2)
This good officer was directed by a mysterious messenger to send for St. Peter. At the same time the Apostle Peter was in Joppa, and had gone up to a roof terrace to pray. There he was granted a vision repeated three times of a great canvas lowered to the ground. On it were "all the earth’s four-legged creatures and reptiles and birds of the sky." (Acts 10:12) A voice directed Peter to slaughter and to eat what he saw. He responded, "It is unthinkable! I have never eaten anything unclean or impure in my life." (Acts 10:14)
Peter was still pondering the meaning of the vision when the men sent by Cornelius arrived. The Holy Spirit instructed him to go with these men "unhesitatingly, for it is I who sent them." (Acts 10:19) And that is where our reading today begins. Peter preaches about Jesus and the meaning of his life when the Holy Spirit comes upon the household of Cornelius, preparing them for baptism. Uniquely, through the military unit posted in Palestine begins the Church’s mission to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish world.
In the second reading the Evangelist John talks about the surprising feature of God’s love: that "God loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)
The words of Jesus in the gospel touch directly the theme of this Memorial Day weekend: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Nearly 137 years have passed since President Abraham Lincoln evoked at Gettysburg the meaning to be drawn from the ultimate self-giving we remember today, "It is … for us the living to be dedicated … to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
Whether in the War for Independence or in the Gulf War, or in all the struggles in between, or in the peacekeeping missions in Europe, Africa and elsewhere, the noble aim of military service is unchanged. What Lincoln termed "the unfinished work" for which our honored dead have fallen has been and is to preserve the republic and to create and project the strength that will make and keep the peace.
To put this in the context of the example and teaching of Jesus is our special concern this afternoon. He was the one who gave his life for his friends. In his sacrificial death we can see a bit more clearly how some are called to make the supreme sacrifice for their country. In his discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus talks of two elements, one is the love that motivates him and the other, the commandments that constitute the spiritual discipline of his followers. In the military services, discipline surely has its place, and the commandments given through Moses to God’s people long ago, can have a place as well. Many of them are part of the law of our land, and all of them should be sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims as part of a revelation we all should cherish.
For followers of Jesus, the Ten Commandments have their complement in what Jesus taught upon the mountain in his beatitudes. Some time ago, some of us bishops were asked what message from a spiritual leader touched us most. I thought immediately of what Pope John Paul II said to us American bishops in Chicago on his first visit to the United States. I had been ordained a bishop just two weeks earlier.
He gave us for our meditation the beatitudes of Jesus. He reminded us that these beatitudes are basic to the thinking and the praying of any disciple of Jesus. Remember that "blessed" means "happy," and that Jesus is teaching us that we are truly happy when we can identify with what he teaches us.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit" -- in this, the most affluent society in human history, poor in spirit so that our hearts are not pulled or cramped by what may be a passing fancy, a toy or trinket in comparison with what really counts with God. Those who are poor in fact are especially beloved by Jesus. In their faces he has taught us to try to see his own. The heart that is poor in spirit is open to God’s marvelous gift of inner peace."Blessed are they who mourn." Jesus speaks here of those who mourn sin, who can recognize evil and with the help of God’s grace are eager to turn away from it. The devil is the master of camouflage. He tries to mask the ugliness of sin with neutral and attractive language. Long ago, it meant becoming like God, "with the knowledge of good and evil," the turn of phrase linked to the fall of our first parents. Today words based in political correctness, an expanded concept of tolerance, a fudging of reality, can mask the evil. So some speak of "terminating a pregnancy" for the snuffing out of a human life, and of "pro-choice" when the little one not yet born is deprived of any choice. They talk of "death with dignity" for the one in ill health who has no chance to know the loving care of hospice or the modern medical remedies for pain and discomfort.
"Blessed are the meek." Jesus invites us to learn from his example. He was gentle in whatever concerned him personally, but he was strong and courageous in proclaiming his good news, the gospel of divine love and forgiveness, coupled with the call to repentance. Over and over again, he insisted on principles that could only be lived with courage. We heard this in the gospel today: "You will live in my love if you keep my commandments…."
Each of the beatitudes presents a human challenge that seems to run against the grain of our human nature. Yet we have God’s word that the grace is given to live by what Jesus teaches. I see that lived out in the young people who embrace the teaching of Jesus, "Blessed are the pure of heart." In the Archdiocese where I serve more than 10,000 of our youth have made a written commitment, after others of their peers have explained to them what is entailed, promising God that they will be chaste until they marry. They do this in a program called "True Love Waits," which takes its form from the Southern Baptists, its inspiration from the gospel and its continuing power from the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of hope, of the great hope many of our young people now give us.
Happily, some will confirm their pledge and make it permanent when they take the vows of the consecrated life or enter ordained ministry as deacons and priests. I rejoice, incidentally, that so many of our recent clergy saw their vocations mature while they were in military service, often working as chaplains’ aides and seeing the immense spiritual good which can be accomplished.
In this Eucharist we give thanks for the heroes and heroines who have died to preserve our freedoms. We pray that they may rest in God’s everlasting peace. Let us also pray for those in the armed services today that they may find in living out God’s commandments and the Beatitudes of Jesus a path to happiness and peace of heart. Their commitment to principles of justice, decency and goodness will bring blessings to individuals, to families and to our country.
This commitment will also be a way of keeping faith with those honored dead whom we remember today. God grant them peace and God grant us the grace to hallow their memory by our noble purposes and deeds.
Soon, under signs of bread and wine, Jesus our great High Priest will renew his sacrifice to the Father, and draw us into the prayer that is always answered because it is his prayer. May we be fully alive to his presence, his suffering, dying and rising for us. May we welcome him at communion time as one who heals and uplifts and is ready to win again his victory over sin and death in us. Amen.