Memorial Day Field of Honor
Knights of Columbus
“Putting Memory Back in Memorial Day”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Ijamsville
May 27, 2019
A Word of Thanks
First, let me say how happy I am to join with all of you at this Field of Honor, here at St. Ignatius in Ijamsville, especially my brother Knights of Columbus of the Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno Assembly. We have gathered on this Memorial Day to pay tribute to those who have given their lives in defense of our beloved country. And what an amazing display of American flags, 609 of them, representing U.S. servicemembers and first responders who gave their lives to safeguard our country and to rescue those in dire straits. I’d also like to say a word of warm thanks to you, the Boy Scouts, the American Heritage Girls, and the Columbian Squires for your role in today’s celebration.
Putting the Memory Back in Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen
Memorial Day is a cherished national holiday. For many, it marks the beginning of summer; it is a time for families to be together; a time for backyard barbecues; a good day to go swimming or to visit the beach. All those things are good and the heroes whom we honor today gave their lives so that we might enjoy the blessings that our Country affords us. But just as we need to put Christ back into Christmas, so too we need to put memory back into Memorial Day. This is precisely what we are doing here today, and for that, I thank you! So let us remember, not only the names of our fallen heroes, but also how and where they died, and for what purpose.
What it means to remember our fallen heroes was brought home to me by Michael Beschloss’ book entitled, The Presidents of War. It contains a striking photograph taken in 1952 of Dwight D. Eisenhower giving a speech to veterans, some of whom he had led in June 1944, in the successful D-Day invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower, who was famous for his courage and calmness, and his contagious smile, broke down while giving that speech; he is seen weeping into his handkerchief. What memories must have filled his mind and heart! Before the invasion, Ike walked among his young soldiers, asking them where they were from and offering them a word of encouragement. Now, some eight years later he could still see the faces of those young soldiers, many of whom died on beaches with names like Utah, Omaha, Gold, and Juno, many of whom gave their lives to secure the unconditional surrender of Hitler’s ungodly Nazi regime. For the soon-to-be President Eisenhower war was not an abstraction. He understood in a personal way the enormity of the sacrifice. He knew and therefore he remembered!
My own father, Francis Lori, soon to be 98 years old, is a veteran of World War II. He was in the Navy on an LST, a landing ship, in the Pacific theatre near Okinawa. His ship was a floating magazine, a floating arsenal that more than once was almost hit by Kamikaze pilots. Like many World War II veterans dad didn’t speak often about the war. But one day some years ago he did open up about what he had experienced and what he continued to remember so vividly over many decades. Dad, who is not normally given to tears, wept as he remembered the names of fellow servicemen who died in the heat of battle. For my father, a former petty officer in the U.S. Navy, war is not an abstraction. It is painful to remember . . . but he remembers.
In a society with an attention span that lasts but for a few seconds, how quickly and easily such sacrifices can be forgotten, even when there are reminders all around us, in the surviving veterans who bravely strive to overcome the injuries they sustained in battle, in the veterans who are unemployed or suffering from ongoing trauma. On Memorial Day we need to remember them, respect them, and support them, even as we cherish the memory of those who died in combat and in service. They were our friends and neighbors, our fellow parishioners and Knights of Columbus, and brother priests who served valiantly as chaplains, such as Father Capodanno. All of these put themselves in harm’s way to defend our lives and our freedoms and in the process lost their own lives and freedoms. We remember them not as mere statistics found in a treatise on the cost of warfare but rather as individuals with unique personalities and God-given talents, young people whose lives were filled with promise and hope for the future. To the families – the spouses, parents, and children of our fallen heroes – we sincerely thank you and we honor you today by remembering the sacrifices which your sons and daughters, husbands and wives have made on behalf of us all – we stand in your debt and you have our love and our prayers! We shall never forget!
Putting Memory Back into Memorial Day: How and Where They Died
Putting memory back into Memorial Day also requires us to remember how and where the fallen have given their lives. Not far from here is the Gettysburg National Military Park as well as the Antietam National Battlefield, the latter being the scene of the bloodiest day in American history, September 17th, 1862. We think of the bloody battle fields of Europe during World War II but also the unforgiving battlegrounds of Korea and Vietnam. We remember those who, in these days, must engage in warfare against an elusive but no less deadly enemy, the forces of terrorism that still stalk the world and mean to do us harm. Documentaries that depict modern warfare and news clips that show the ongoing combat in Afghanistan and elsewhere, give us some idea of what war is like but not the full brunt of its reality. As one who never experienced military combat, I remind myself that these images of war do not begin to tell the whole story. In remembering, let us not minimize or sanitize the sacrifices we honor today. To do so is to run the risk of losing the peace for which our heroes fought so bravely.
The same is true for the first responders whom we remember so lovingly today. Whether it is a member of a police force felled at a traffic stop or a firefighter running into a burning building or a medic rushing into a perilous situation to save a life – let us strive to appreciate “the breadth and length, height and depth” of their sacrifice. As people of faith we often speak about “self-sacrifice” and “self-giving love” – and it is well that we should do so. But the men and women we honor today lived that ideal to the hilt. Let us therefore not forget how and where they gave their lives for others.
Putting Memory Back into Memorial Day: Why They Died
Every day the world is beset by senseless violence and death. Almost every night on the news we watch these stories with sadness or else they flash across the small screens we carry with us everywhere. How earnestly we should pray for an end to such meaningless violence in our world. At the same time, we must remember the significance and value of the sacrifices made by those whom we honor today. These men and women gave their lives to protect us from harm and to defend the freedoms that you and I know to be precious but nonetheless often take for granted. In our Catholic Tradition, war is always an utterly last resort and its bloodshed is to be avoided as much as is humanly possible. The Lord’s injunction, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, inspires and guides us as we seek to create a world shaped by the ideal of “liberty and justice for all”. Yet there are times when war and its violence are unavoidable.
In his State of the Union Address in 1942, given just after the United States had entered World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt summoned the Nation to focus on the reasons for the epic struggle about to unfold. Victory in that war, he said, “means victory for freedom…” “victory for the institution of democracy, the ideal of the family, the simple principles of common decency and humanity…victory for religion.” And while those words were spoken by FDR at a moment in history very different than our own, they nonetheless remind us of the high ideals for which our fallen heroes fought and the reason why first responders continually put their lives on the line. This is a day to remember that which is best in the American experiment of freedom, the high ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – the fundamental freedoms for which our brothers and sisters have fought and died.
In remembering their sacrifices, we need to remember and recoup those same ideals, especially in an era when our country is paralyzed by political discord, perhaps more than at any other time since the eve of the Civil War. We need to remember these ideals as we seek to build at home and abroad societies that are more just, peaceful, and welcoming: societies that are more respectful of human dignity at every stage of life; societies that offer opportunities for human flourishing and genuine community, societies that gauge their justice not by the measuring rod of political power but rather by the care that is offered to their most vulnerable members. For, as Pope St. Paul IV memorably said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Or, as Pope Francis recently said, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” Yes, there is much we can do as believers and citizens to ensure that our society does not forfeit either the peace or the ideals for which our young people have fought with such valor.
Putting Memory Back in Memorial Day: In Memory of Him
Finally and most importantly, if we would put memory back into Memorial Day, let us remember the ultimate struggle in the history of humanity – the struggle which our Incarnate Savior undertook to save us from sin and death. It was and is the definitive struggle between good and evil, life and death, human dignity and human degradation – the struggle between the goodness of God and the forces of evil. In words we have often sung at Mass, “Keep in mind that Jesus Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead. He is our saving Lord, he is joy for all ages.”
This day we remember that our struggles and those of our fallen heroes are joined, spiritually and sacramentally, to that “combat stupendous” of our Savior, that epic struggle from which “Life’s Captain”, the Risen Lord, emerged victorious. This is what we celebrate in the Easter season and what we celebrate every Sunday. So let us entrust the immortal souls of our service members and first responders to the loving embrace of the Victor over sin and death, asking that those who gave us their all might reign with him in heaven. Let us ask the Lamb slain for our salvation, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, to inscribe their names indelibly in the Book of Life in heaven where they shall never be forgotten and where their every tear shall be wiped away.
May God bless you! And may God bless our beloved State of Maryland and the United States of America!